how to write a research proposal

How to Write a Research Proposal (2021 Guide)

Abstract

In this tutorial essay, we are going to tell you everything you need to know about writing research proposals.  This step-by-step tutorial will begin by defining what a research proposal is.  It will describe the format for a research proposal.  We include a template and an outline that students can readily adapt for their own research proposals.  We discuss some topics and titles that would work well for research proposals.  Finally, we provide an example of a research proposal.  By the end of the tutorial, students should feel much more comfortable with the research proposal writing process.

Introduction

If you have been asked to write a research proposal for the first time, you may be feeling a little overwhelmed.  A research proposal is unlike other types of academic writing, so you might not be certain how to proceed.  However, research proposals are actually one of the most straightforward types of academic writing you will ever be asked to tackle.  A research proposal is basically a document where you explain what you want to investigate, how you will approach the investigation, and why the research is necessary.  It may help to think of it as persuasive writing, because you are ultimately trying to convince the reader to approve your research.  In lower-level academic writing, this approval simply means greenlighting your project, but in higher-level academic writing, the purpose of the proposal is often to secure funding for the research. 

What Is a Research Proposal?

A research proposal is a specific type of academic writing.  The goal of the research proposal is to persuade someone to agree to the research, but it is not quite the same as other types of persuasive writing.  Usually, when tackling a persuasive writing project, you use pathos (emotion), ethos (authority), and logos (logic) to try to sway the audience.  In a research proposal, while you may use some pathos and ethos, you will focus on logos because you want to provide the audience with logical reasons to support your research.  To do this, you want to provide the audience with the context for your research, explain why your research is relevant, explain how you will do your research, and show why your approach is possible.  Armed with this information, the decision-maker can then determine whether your research proposal is acceptable. 

One of the important elements of a research proposal is providing context to the audience.  Think about who will be reading your proposal.  If your major professor is the only person who will be reading your proposal, then you probably will not have to provide a significant amount of context for it.  However, if you will need to make the proposal to people outside of your immediate academic circle, to people in different disciplines, or to outside funding agencies, you may need to spend a significant amount of time establishing context.  You want to provide the reader with the background on the issue, where the research on the issue currently stands, why you are qualified to do further research, and how your proposed research would contribute to the field.

Explaining how your research would contribute to the field is part of establishing how your research is relevant.  You want to make sure that the research you are proposing actually relates to the problem that you describe.  You could do a great job describing a particular problem and an equally wonderful job describing your proposed research project, but if you fail to explain how your research relates to the problem that you described, you have not written a good research proposal.   A research proposal needs to explain why the research is important to the problem that you have described and that the research is original and will contribute something new to the field.  The importance of originality is less important at lower academic levels, but becomes very important when competing for research funding.

Once you have established why your research is needed and how your research will contribute to the field, you have to convince the audience that your research is plausible.  How will you go about conducting the research?  Explaining your methodology involves showing the procedures and tools you will use to collect the data you need for your research.  Is your research project well-designed? You also need to examine whether it is feasible.  You can have a great research idea, but if you do not have the tools, the funding, the time, or the people to pull off the research, it will be an unsuccessful research proposal.  Make sure that you are going to be able to complete the research, as described, and that your research proposal explains how you will make that happen.

Research Proposal Format

We could tell you the format you need to write a successful research proposal, but we would almost certainly be wrong.  That is because, unlike providing you with the format for types of academic writing that have almost universal guidelines, the correct format for research proposals really varies with the intended audience.  Before you begin writing the actual research proposal, you need to do some research and discover whether there is a prescribed format for your approach.  Institutions may impose minimum and maximum page limits, ask for specific sections, eliminate other sections, and even ask for specific margins, fonts, text size, and line-spacing.  Even your choice of citation method is going to vary, depending on your discipline or individual specifications. 

One trend that we have noticed is that many universities are having students complete research proposals in a table format.  In this approach, students write each section of the research proposal in a box in a table, and the professor uses a box to make comments and suggestions about the research proposal.  We think of that as the rubric approach, and you can find a good example of that format on the University of Houston’s website at: https://www.uh.edu/~lsong5/documents/A%20sample%20proposal%20with%20comment.pdf

Another popular trend that many universities are using is to provide students with a structured Q&A format for their research proposals.  In the Q&A format, students leave the questions as their headings and answer the questions in the body of the format.  This makes it easy for students to determine whether they are meeting their educational institution’s expectations of what a research proposal should be, because they can easily tell if their answers are non-responsive.

With the above caveats in mind, we can provide you with information about the general format for a research proposal.  You want to have a cover page, an introduction, a literature review, an explanation of how the research would contribute to the field, methodology, and a reference section.  You may also want to include a section about the budget and the research schedule, if relevant to the research you are proposing.

Abstract

Most research proposals do not include an abstract, but if you are required to include one, it should be a short (around 250 words) preview of the information contained within your proposal.  Notice that it is not indented.

Introduction

Your introduction is the way of introducing your targeted audience to the concepts and ideas you will be discussing in your research proposal.  This means introducing the problem, providing some context for the problem, discussing some of the research that has been done on the problem, explaining what methods can be used to study the problem, and explaining why the research you are proposing will contribute to the field.  The introduction is a brief 2-4 paragraph section that previews information that you will discuss in-depth in your proposal.

Literature Review

The goal for a literature review is not just to present prior research in the field, but to present it in a cohesive and easy-to-follow manner.  What does the current research have to say about your topic?  Has any of it previously addressed your topic?  Does any of it naturally lead to research of your topic? Does the prior research suggest certain outcomes for your research?  You want to include plenty of resources in your literature review to show a thorough understanding of the issue, but you also want to have a reason for every source you are including in this section.

Many people refer to the five C’s of writing a literature review: cite, compare, contrast, critique, and connect.  Cite means including relevant literature, properly cited in the correct academic style.  Compare and contrast the various approaches taken in the literature, pointing out the areas of agreement and disagreement.  Critique the literature by looking at what research methodology has been the best and which positions are the most supported.  Finally, connect the information from prior literature to your proposal.

Justification

In this section, you explain why you are writing the research.  While avoiding idle speculation, this is the section where you hypothesize about what type of results you may get from your research.  What do you think the research will contribute to the field?  What results are you anticipating?  How would these results change the knowledge in the field?  Would the results change best practices?  Would the results lead to other research?

Methodology

When including methodology in a research proposal, you not only want to show what methodology you plan to use, but also why that methodology is appropriate for the type of research you are conducting.  You want to outline the methodology with sufficient detail that another researcher using the proposal could structure and carry out the experiment.  This includes how the data will be collected and analyzed.  You want the audience to understand how the research will be conducted, as well as why that is the best way to conduct the research.

Budget

Because research proposals are often written in order to secure financing, you want to include budget details in this section.  This means looking at the total overall costs of the research, but may also include breaking it down into smaller sections like yearly or quarterly anticipated costs.  What sources of funding are already in place for the research?  How much funding do you need?  Are you seeking full funding of the project or partial funding? Will the funding come with any benefits for the organization providing the funding?

Conclusion

A conclusion is meant to recap the information in the paper in a concise way.  However, a conclusion in a research proposal is not simply going to be a restatement of the introduction and thesis, like it would be in a research paper.  Instead, you want your conclusion to be your final sales pitch for your research proposal.  Remind the reader of why your research is needed and what it should be able to do.  Then, explain why your research is the best way to tackle the issues presented.

Research Proposal Outline

I.  Introduction

A.Describe the research problem

B.Background

C.Significance

D.How the proposed research could contribute to the field?

II.  Literature Review

III.  Justification

A.Questions it will answer

B. Solutions it may sugges

IV.  Methodology

A.Subject pool

B.Tools used

C.Timetable

D.Process

E.Anticipated barriers

F.Feasibility

V.  Budget

VI.  Conclusion

VII.References

Research Proposal Template

You want to include the following elements in your research proposal.

  • Title or Cover Page- Your title or cover page should be in the appropriate academic writing style (APA, MLA, Turabian, Blue Book, etc.) and should include information such as your name, your academic institution, your professor’s name, the title of your proposal, the date, etc. 
  • Introduction- Your introduction is the way of introducing your targeted audience to the concepts and ideas you will be discussing in your research proposal.  This means introducing the problem, providing some context for the problem, discussing some of the research that has been done on the problem, explaining what methods can be used to study the problem, and explaining why the research you are proposing will contribute to the field.  The introduction is a brief 2-4 paragraph section that previews information that you will discuss in-depth in your proposal.
  • Literature Review- The goal for a literature review is not just to present prior research in the field, but to present it in a cohesive and easy-to-follow manner.  What does the current research have to say about your topic?  Has any of it previously addressed your topic?  Does any of it naturally lead to research of your topic? Does the prior research suggest certain outcomes for your research?  You want to include plenty of resources in your literature review to show a thorough understanding of the issue, but you also want to have a reason for every source you are including in this section.
  • Justification-  Explanation of how the research will contribute to the field.  While this section is necessarily speculative, because the results of the research are not yet known, the speculation should be supported by facts and the existing research.
  • Methodology- A reader should understand what the entire research project would involve after reading this section.  Who or what is the subject of the study and how will the study pool be selected?  Is there a control group?  What research approach will you take: will it be an experiment, a literature review, a cohort review, or observational research?
  • Budget- What are the realistic costs of the research outlined in the research proposal.  What sources of funding are already in place?  How much funding are you requesting?  Are you searching for multiple funding sources?
  • Conclusion- Your conclusion should be shorter than your introduction and should not recap a substantial amount of information.  Instead, it should focus on why the research should be done and why the study you outlined is the best way to study that information. 
  • References

Research Proposal Topics

Picking the right topic for your research proposal depends on your field of study. Given that COVID-19 has dominated so much of 2020 and has created challenges and changes in so many areas, each of these topics is related to COVID-19, so you can see how the same broad topic can be highlighted for different areas of study.

  • Business- What impact have the different types of pandemic closures had on customer-service oriented non-essential businesses in the United States?
  • Education- Is there a difference in student outcomes when comparing forced distance-learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic to self-selected distance-learning in K-12 students using previously available online learning platforms?
  • Psychology- Has the increase in social isolation due to COVID-10 pandemic restrictions led to an increase in suicides among vulnerable populations?
  • Sociology- Does the percentage of people in a surrounding community that choose to wear masks and engage in other social distancing measures impact the likelihood that an individual will either choose to comply with or disobey mask mandates?
  • Science- What type of sanitizing agents are effective at killing COVID-19 on hard surfaces?
  • Medicine- Is hydroxychloroquine effective in the treatment or prevention of COVID-19?

Research Proposal Titles

You want your research proposal title to explain to the audience what you intend to research, but you also want it to be concise: an ideal proposal title will be 12 words or less.  Here, we are providing suggested titles for each of the research topics we mentioned above.

  • The Economic Impact of Pandemic Closures on Non-Essential Businesses
  • Does the Failure of Distance Learning in the Pandemic Condemn the Distance Learning Model?
  • Exploring the Relationship between Pandemic Restrictions and Suicide
  • Mob Mentality and Masks: The Pros and Cons of Conformity
  • Killing COVID-19: The Household Sanitizers that Really Work
  • Hydroxycholoroquine: Modern Day Snake Oil or Miracle Cure?

Research Proposal Example

Our example is not going to include a fully-fleshed out research proposal, but will include the first paragraph of each section of the proposal.  It builds on one of our research proposal ideas and will be designed to look at whether the increase in social isolation due to COVID-10 pandemic restrictions has led to an increase in suicides among vulnerable populations?

Abstract

In this research proposal, the author outlines research into whether pandemic restrictions have impacted the suicide rate.  The proposal would examine overall rates and rates in vulnerable populations.  The research is important because, if the increase in the suicide rate leads to an increase in deaths equal to or greater than natural deaths from COVID-19, it could have policy implications.  It could also suggest areas for intervention to increase public safety during a pandemic.  

Introduction

The relationship between situational stressors and depression is well-known, if not well understood.  While suicide may be an outcome of long-term depression, researchers have long been aware of the existence of potential triggers that could result in suicide.  Long-term social isolation is believed to be one of those triggers.  Other triggers include substance abuse, economic stressors, and relationship stressors; all factors that are believed to exist during the current COVID-19 pandemic.  There is rampant speculation that the COVID-19 lockdown is having an adverse impact on mental health, but the extent of that impact is not yet fully understood.  This research proposal would examine one hallmark of mental health, suicide rates, by comparing pre-pandemic and during-pandemic suicide rates in areas impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.

Literature Review

In 2019, Calati et al. completed a narrative review of the literature linking social isolation and suicide.  They concluded that several different factors associated with isolation were actually linked to risk of suicide.  These factors included marital status, living alone, loneliness, social isolation, alienation, and belongingness (Calati et al., 2019).  With the exception of marital status, it is possible for the pandemic to directly impact those factors, and the stressors and strains of living in a pandemic could likewise impact people’s marital status. 

Justification

It is important to learn about the impact of pandemic lockdown measures on suicidal behavior and ideology.  At the most extreme, if lockdown behaviors led to an increase in suicides that was so great that it exceeded the increase in deaths due to COVID-19, then the life-saving efficacy of lockdown measures would have to be immediately questioned.  That likelihood seems remote, at best, since healthcare providers, first responders, and coroners have not reported that type of increase in suicides.  However, the information about whether suicide rates have increased is relevant even if the net loss of life is still reduced by pandemic-related isolation.  This information could help people target interventions to the highest-risk populations and could even have policy implications about what type of services are actually deemed essential.  

Methodology

The study will examine pre-COVID-19 suicide rates and pandemic suicide rates in an area that was not only impacted by COVID-19, but also had a lockdown response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  This distinction is important because U.S. responses to COVID-19 death rates varied dramatically.  Specifically, the goal is to examine suicide rates in New York City for the time period from March 2019 to December 2019 and compare then to suicide rates in New York City for March 2020 to December 2020.  This information should be accessible from publicly available databases, and is generally published within three months of the deaths.  The difference, in any, of the suicide rates will be examined for statistical significance to determine whether any correlation can be drawn between the pandemic lockdown and an increase in suicide rates, though it is important to keep in mind that a correlation will not mean causation.  It is possible that some of the same things that led to the decision to lockdown, such as high death rates, could also have led to life changes that predicated suicide. 

Budget

Because the information is available from public sources without fees, there is no budgetary requirement for this research proposal. 

Conclusion

A pandemic has impacts that go well beyond physical health.  An increased suicide rate may be part of that impact.  The proposed study would examine whether pandemic lockdown efforts are correlated with an increase in suicide rates.  Further studies could compare those increases with areas where there was a similar COVID-19 infection rate, but no lockdown effort.  This would help highlight whether it was the pandemic or the lockdown efforts responsible for the increase.  While this information may not be useful in shaping COVID-19 policy, the WHO predicts that we are likely to face an increasing number of global pandemics.  Improving response for the next one is critical.

Conclusion

As you can see, writing a research proposal is different from other types of academic writing.  Instead of supporting a position, you are trying to get permission or support to explore an idea.  However, as long as you follow our tips and keep that overall goal in mind, we think you will find that the process is not as difficult as you feared.

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