You’ve put a lot of thought into that research project. You know it’s importan. The problem? Nobody else does. And no one is willing to fund it. Yet.
Research proposals are nerve-racking, notoriously difficult to write, and for good reason - they have a major impact on your academic career.
The best institutions and labs have thousands of talented researchers fighting to get in. And their most powerful weapon to get ahead of the pack is their research proposal.
So, how do you write a proposal that helps you outperform other applicants?
This guide will help you write stress-free research proposals that land the funding you deserve and launch your academic career.
A research proposal is a formal academic document that outlines your research project and requests support for that project: either by funding or agreeing to supervise your research.
The main objective of a research proposal is to explain what you’re planning to research and why it’s worth researching.
Research proposals are most commonly used in academia or across non-academic scientific organizations.
Of course, no two research proposals are identical—in fact, those can vary greatly depending on the level of study you’re at, your field, or the exact nature of your project.
Still, there are some general requirements that all great proposals have to meet and must-have sections to include.
This article will focus particularly on writing research proposals for academic grants at postgraduate level or PhD applications. However, even if you’re writing a thesis or a dissertation proposal, most of the same rules apply—it’s just that your proposal might not have to be as detailed and comprehensive.
Speaking of which...
Most research proposals in humanities and social sciences are between 10 and 25 pages long. Technical or scientific proposals might require you to include detailed specifications and more supporting documentation and can therefore be significantly longer.
That said, each institution might have its own guidelines and requirements for research proposals and those often include the word count range. If that’s the case, you obviously have to play by the rules.
If you want to add some flair to your research proposal and immediately stand out from hundreds of other, identically-looking documents, take our interactive proposal maker for a spin and create a visually stunning summary of your proposal. Storydoc is 100% free to use for verified .edu email addresses.
Alright, we covered the theoretical part. Time for some practical knowledge!
“Wow, I can’t wait to see the outcome of this study!”
This is the kind of response you want your research proposal introduction to receive.
How to make that happen? Outline your research proposal intro around these four key issues:
What is the research problem?
Who is this problem relevant to (general society, fellow researchers, specialized professionals, etc.)?
What is currently known about the problem and what key pieces are missing from the current state of knowledge?
Why should anyone care about the potential outcomes?
The easiest way to write a captivating intro to a research proposal is to follow a four-paragraph format, where each paragraph addresses one of these questions.
Let’s see a practical example. (Yes, I made it up, but it works as a convenient point of reference.)
Sample outline for a research proposal introduction
Investigating the impact of remote work on new joiners to previously in-house teams.
Who it’s relevant to
Human resources professionals, workspace psychologists, working population, business management specialists and scholars.
What’s currently known
There is existing research about the impact of remote work on team morale and productivity, but no research has been centered around people joining fully-remote teams that had previously worked in-house and the implications of such a situation for new employees' mental health and sense of belonging.
Why should anyone care?
In the era of COVID, many offices have switched to remote-only work yet they’re still hiring new employees. The findings of this study might suggest a need to change onboarding practices and HR management techniques in order to aid employee satisfaction which, in turn, can help improve work performance, NPS scores and overall business results.
Whether or not you’ll need this section depends on how detailed your proposal is. If a research problem at hand is particularly complicated or advanced, it’s usually best to add this section. It will usually be entitled “Background and Significance,” or “Rationale.”
For shorter proposals, most of the actual background will have been already included in the introduction.
How to write the “Background” section of a research proposal?
Describe the broader area of research that your project fits into.
Focus on the gaps in existing studies and explain the need to fill these gaps. That said…
Show how your research will build upon existing knowledge.
Explain your hypothesis and the rationale behind it.
Establish the limits of your study (in other words, explain what the research is not about).
Finally, reiterate why your research is important and what benefits it can reap. In other words, provide the answer to the dreaded “So what?” question.
If your research project is complex and highly technical, describing the background in a separate section is particularly helpful: this way, you can make your introduction follow a free-flowing, “sexy” narrative, and let the “Background” part do the heavy lifting.
Don’t make this part too detailed either. Assume you’re dealing with a very busy reader who won’t have the time to get into your methodology and timeline but still wants some hard evidence behind the relevance of your project.
Arguably, the most important (and, yes, you guessed it, the most difficult) part of the whole document—
One where you have to prove that you know *all* there is to know about the topic of interest and that your research will help advance the whole field of study.
The Literature Review section is, in essence, a mini-dissertation. It has to follow a logical progression and put forward the argument for your study in relation to existing research: describe and summarize what has already been discussed and demonstrate that your research goes beyond that.
In the digital era of easy access to information, it might be difficult to discuss all of the existing research on your subject in the Literature Review so be critical about what studies or papers you choose to include.
But there’s a handy set of rules to help you pick the right ones—the gold standard for academic Literature Review. It’s called “the five Cs” and refers to the following practices:
Cite directly from the sources to avoid digressions and drifting away from the actual literature.
Compare different theories or arguments (in arts and humanities), methodologies and findings (in sciences and tech).
Contrast the approaches discussed above: highlight the main differences and areas of disagreement among scholars in the field.
Critique the research of the past. Don’t shy away from pointing out inaccuracies, mutually exclusive findings, or controversies. At the same time, give credit where it’s due. Identify the findings you find most convincing, reliable, or accurate.
Connect the whole of the literature reviewed to your own project. Are you basing your assumptions on any previous findings? Is your goal to confront, challenge, or even debunk certain pieces of research? Either way, you need to prove that your study will be intertwined with existing ones, not floating in an academic void.
How to structure your Literature Review?
The easiest and most reader-friendly way to format the Literature Review section is to devote each paragraph to a separate piece of literature.
For scientific projects, it’s best to go from the more general to the more specific studies.
For projects in arts and humanities, a historical (or chronological) progression is the most commonly-used method as it helps develop an easy-to-follow narrative.
The hard part? DONE. (No, it really is). All of what comes next boils down to technicalities and formal requirements. If they’re sold on your vision by now, you just need to show how you’re planning to achieve what you set out to do.
This section can be called “Research Questions,” or just “Aims and Objectives.” Compared to the previous ones, it should be very succinct and to-the-point.
Whether you need to write about your aims and objectives or formulate those as research questions usually depends on the formal requirements of the institution to which you’re applying.
The key aspect of getting this part right is distinguishing between the three: an aim, an objective, and a research question.
Aims describe what you want to achieve. An aim is usually stated in a broad term.
Objectives are the specific, measurable outputs you need to produce in order to achieve your aim. There are usually multiple objectives associated with a single aim.
Questions are a slightly more specific way to formulate your objectives—in essence, very similar in meaning, just slightly different in format.
Again, here’s a practical example. And again, it’s simplified and not based on actual research, just here to let you better understand the disambiguation.
To understand the importance of the quality of food in school canteens on the nutritional health of children aged 6–10.
Investigate the weekly menus across 28 school canteens in New Jersey with a focus on key nutritional ingredients and portion sizes.
Conduct desk-research of state policies regulating nutrition in primary schools.
Interview the parents of children participating in the study about their children’s nutritional habits outside of school.
Evaluate the key health-related metrics in children participating in the study.
As I mentioned, if such are the formal requirements, your objectives can easily be translated into research questions. For instance:
“Conduct desk-research of state policies regulating nutrition in primary schools.”
“What state-wide policies regulating nutrition in primary schools are there in place in the state of New Jersey?”
Remember the five Cs of literature review? When it comes to your research objectives and questions, there’s another handy acronym to serve as a sanity check for you: SMART. It stands for:
Specific: is the objective well-defined and can be achieved with a singular action?
Measurable: will you end up with quantified, verifiable data?
Achievable: considering your resources and capacity, is it realistic for you to reach your objective?
Relevant: does this objective actually contribute to your research aim?
Timebound: do you have enough time to complete this objective, in relation to the overall timeline of your project?
The grant decision makers already know what you’re trying to achieve and have a general idea about how you’re planning to achieve that. This section should prove to them that you’re well equipped (both in terms of your skills and resources) to conduct the research.
The main goal is to convince the reader that your methods are adequate and appropriate for the specific topic.
Any idea why “specific” is in bold? Well, this is one of those parts of a research proposal that differs the most across different documents. There’s an ideal methodology for any particular academic project and no two kinds of research design are the same. Make sure your methodology matches all of your desired outcomes.
Qualitative or quantitative,
Collecting original data or basing your research on primary and secondary sources,
Descriptive, correlational, or experimental.
Population and sample:
The whole population of individuals or entities that meet eligibility criteria to be included in your research,
The subset of the population that is going to be included in the particular study.
What methods (surveys, clinical analysis, biochemical analysis, interviews, experiments) will you use?
Why are those methods optimal for achieving the desired objectives?
How can you ensure that the chosen method eliminates bias?
How will you sort and code the data obtained?
What tools, algorithms, or techniques will you use to analyze the data?
How much time will you need to collect the research material?
How are you planning to gain access to the desired set of data or information?
What obstacles might you encounter and how will you overcome them?
Now, I can’t stress that enough—
This part of a research proposal will vary the most from one proposal to another. The outline above will work good for sciences (both social and exact), perhaps not equally great for arts and humanities.
At the end of the day, you know your project better than anyone else. You’ll need to make the judgement call as to what methods are best.
No, this part isn’t optional because you might just disregard ethics or choose to be the evil scientist. But let’s face it—
There aren’t going to be many ethical issues to consider if you’re investigating the vector shapes of tree leaves’ shadows (I kid you not, it’s a legit research issue, my friend did his PhD in Physics about it and absolutely killed it).
But if your research has to do with humans, especially in fields such as medicine or psychology, it might introduce ethical problems in data collection, not often encountered by other researchers.
You need to take extra care to protect your participants’ rights, get their explicit consent to process the data, as well as consult the research project with the authorities of your academic institution—for that purpose, your proposal needs to contain detailed information regarding these aspects.
This is the last argument-based part of your proposal. After that, everything will be about “boring” technicalities. This also means, it’s your last chance to convince the decision makers to back your project.
Think about it this way—
You already explained what exactly is going to be the scope of your project. You detailed the current state of knowledge and identified the most important gaps. You told them what you’re hoping to find out and how you’re planning to do it.
Now, talk about the actual, feasible difference your finding can make. How your research can influence the future of the field, or even the very narrow niche.
In other words, describe the implications of your research such as:
How can your research challenge the current underlying assumptions on the subject matter?
How can it inform future research and what new areas of research can it propel?
What will the influence of your research be on policy decisions?
What sorts of individuals, organizations, or other entities can your research benefit?
What will be improved and optimized on the basis of your research?
All that while keeping one crucial thing in mind—
Talking about the practical implications of your study shouldn’t sound like daydreaming. However “preliminary” or “desired” the said implications are, you need to base those on very clear evidence.
In short, this section is about:
Reiterating the gaps in the current state of knowledge.
Showing how you’ll contribute to a new understanding of certain problems or even a scientific breakthrough.
Clearly showing how your findings can be acted upon and what feasible change those actions will bring about.
And yes, it does sound lofty, but it’s true. As a researcher, you’re expanding the scope of human comprehension! Don’t shy away from highlighting the actual change you can bring to the world (or even just your narrow field, it’s just as valuable).
If you do have a supervisor already, it’s best to consult this part with them. They’ve most likely submitted similar documents to the institution you’re reaching out to and will be able to provide invaluable insights on how much you can realistically expect to get paid.
If you’re at a different stage of the application process, here are the key elements you should include in the funding requirements section:
Operational costs: materials, equipment, access to labs, any software you might need, etc.
Travel costs: including transportation, accommodation, and living costs.
Staff: if you’ll need human assistants to help you carry out your research, you’ll most likely need to pay them. It might be the case that junior researchers or students will be able to help you to obtain necessary credits for graduation, but it’s still a cost for their institution you’ll need to include in the budget.
Allowance: you’ll most likely have to give up on other duties that help you pay bills (be that teaching, publishing, or administrative work) but you still need those bills paid. Treat your allowance as a regular salary you need to make a living.
Note: if possible, do leave yourself some wiggle room and request for conditional extra allowance for unpredictable disasters, delays, or unexpected cost rises.
Certain grant schemes come with predefined timetables (e.g. placements offered for 3, 6, or 9 months) and in such cases there’s no need for a very detailed timeline—all you need to do is convince them that the period of time for which you’ll be receiving funding is sufficient for you to complete the project.
When you’re writing a proposal for a standalone project, detailing a timeline can help support your budget. The most common format is, you guessed it, a table. Divide your research into stages, list, in bullet points, what actions you’ll need to take at each stage, and list rough deadlines.
I know I don’t have to tell you that but please, keep Murphy's Law in mind. Perhaps not everything that can go wrong will, but, well, expect the unexpected and be conservative with deadlines.
All in all, it's easier to explain why you no longer need 3 months worth of funding than it is to ask for 6 months’ extra allowance.
Don’t let delays derail your project. That’s all I have to say.
This one really is self-explanatory, isn’t it. As a scholar, you need to cite the sources you’re referring to (no matter how harshly critical you are of some of those:)).
Citations in research proposals can either be included in the form of references (so only the pieces of literature you actually cited) or bibliography (everything that informed your proposal).
As is the case with many other elements of the proposal, the correct format depends almost exclusively on the institution you’re applying to, so make sure to check it with them or consult with your supervisor about which one is preferred.
The same goes for the style of referencing. Most US universities use APA or Chicago style but each has its own set of rules and preferences. Double-check with the list of guidelines on their website. When in doubt, reach out to the head of the department you’re wishing to work with.
(No, using the wrong style won’t ruin your chances but I don’t think I need to tell you how particular certain academics are so let’s not step on any toes, shall we?)
To sum up, this is what a typical research proposal should include:
Context and Background
Aims and Objectives or Research Questions
Methods and Design
Contributions to Knowledge or Implications
Writing a research proposal can be hard and feel like a never-ending process. It really isn’t much different from writing an actual thesis or dissertation.
Yup, this is my roundabout way of saying: don’t get disheartened. Allow yourself a few months up to half a year to complete your proposal, follow the steps outlined in this guide and, whenever in doubt, remember to reach out to senior researchers for help.
Keeping my fingers crossed for your proposal!
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