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How to Write the Perfect Research Proposal

Dreaded by academicians around the globe, research proposals are the key element to ensure that your application is accepted. Be it for fellowships, funding, or residencies, your research proposal will ultimately decide whether you get it or not. PhD and MPhil scholars everywhere can testify that writing these proposals is just as daunting as doing the actual research itself.

In this article, we will show you how you can write the perfect research proposal. Here’s what we will discuss:

  1. What is Your Research Proposal? Why is it Important?
  2. How to Structure Your Research Proposal
    1. Title
    2. Abstract
    3. Background & Rationale
    4. Research Scope
    5. Methodology
    6. Research Timeline
    7. References & Bibliography
  3. Dos and Don’ts

We will look at the details of each aspect of your research proposal in this article. Let’s dive in!

What is your Research Proposal? Why is it important?

Before you get down to business, you need to understand what you’re about to do and the purpose it’s supposed to serve. Simply put, your research proposal is the summary of the research you want to do. It’s supposed to tell people why they should provide you with the grants or any other resources that you need.

If you have some time on your hands, consider taking up a Udemy course on how to write research proposals.

A good research proposal outlines the central concepts you intend to do your research on. It must establish the following clearly and without ambiguity:

Area of Study

What is the general field that you wish to study? Evaluators will base their judgement on whether they feel that this area of study requires further exploration. If your area of study is not relevant, they may decide that it isn’t worth the time, money or effort.

Research Question

The purpose of every research project can be traced back to the desire to answer a question. That question is what inspired the researchers. This section is dedicated to describing the question that you’re trying to answer.

The acceptance of your proposal depends largely on the validity and relevance of this central question. Proposal evaluators usually decide whether or not to fund your research based on how they feel about this research question.

Proposed Methodology

Once you’ve explained what you want to study, you need to show evaluators how you plan to study it. Research methodology includes all the techniques you plan to use while conducting your research. Be very careful about how you frame this section because it must prove that:

  1. This methodology is sufficient to find a satisfactory result;
  2. You can complete your research within the budget you’re seeking; and
  3. You are using the most cost-efficient method possible to conduct your research.

Your research proposal is very important as it will outline your ability to undertake the proposed research. The evaluating committee will judge your personal merit depending on how well you have drafted the proposal itself. The proposal will give them some hints about your meticulousness, articulation skills, and mental acuity.

How to Structure Your Research Proposal

Now that you know what a research proposal is for, what do you put inside it? The nature of your proposal will vary depending on your discipline, chosen institution and level of study. However, there are certain common elements regardless of that. In this section, we will go through the framework every good research proposal follows.

Title

The first step is obviously a title for your proposed research. Keep in mind that this is only a tentative title, and you will be able to modify and refine it during the course of your research. The title should encompass the entire scope of your research, clearly indicating your key question, approach and intended results. Make sure you exercise brevity, long titles do not speak well of your ability to stick to what is necessary.

The title page introduces evaluators to you and your title in brief. Include short notes on the title page about your research topic and personal qualifications that justify your conducting this research.

Abstract

After the title comes the abstract. The abstract is extremely important for two main reasons –

  • It outlines your entire research proposal. A good abstract summarizes your research questions, methodologies and expected results in one go.
  • It demonstrates your ability to articulate precisely. An abstract is ideally very short, often within 100 words. It must leave out non-essential information while also including everything that is critical.
Research Background and Rationale

This section puts your proposed research into context. Here, you explain the background that you plan to undertake your research against. The research background should include –

  • the status of the area of study that your research is within
  • past and contemporary research that is relevant or related to yours
  • the current knowledge base regarding your research question
  • a literature review outlining recent debates and opinions centred around your research topic
  • a list of books, essays and papers you plan to use to support your research thesis.
Research Scope

The research question that we discussed earlier will typically give rise to a host of other questions you’ll want to explore. This section is to let evaluators know which of those questions you will be looking into and which ones you will leave out. Your scope will tell evaluators how well you can focus on a specific direction of thought.

Research Methodology

In this section, you must summarize and outline:

  • the research techniques you plan to employ
  • your theoretical approach and framework
  • the resources you plan to utilize
  • a rationale justifying your choices for the above, with a discussion about other methodologies you have chosen not to employ
  • the scope and limitations of your chosen methodology

The methodology you choose speaks volumes about your ability to conduct good research. Even the best research topics can get rejected if the methods suggested to explore them are not apt.

Research Timeline and Schedule

Any funding organization will obviously be concerned about how long your research will take to be completed. To that end, this section must provide a quick look at the timeline your research plans to follow. You should break up your research process into stages, and provide timeframes for each stage. Stages could include initial research, data collection, experimentation, etc.

Ensure that the timeline you write here is realistic yet quick. Make sure it is justified by the deliverables you propose to provide.

Proposed Outcomes

The most attractive part of a research proposal is the value it can add. In this section, you can talk about how the research is likely to help the funding organization. You can also describe how it contributes to the furtherance of the field itself. Just make sure you don’t use overly flowery language or sound too dreamy here. Be practical and straightforward. Drive home the point that your research is necessary and worth the time, effort, and money it will require.

Dos and Don’ts

Now that you know how to structure your proposal, let’s look at some accepted practices and common mistakes.

DO: Perfect Your Research Question

If you have a perfectly-framed research question, it will get the evaluators’ attention right at the beginning. A good research question highlights not only what you want to study, but also why it should be studied.

Relevance is key, as many worthy research questions fail to be explored due to incorrect timing and placement. Make sure the answer to your research question promises to fill an important gap in the existing knowledge structures.

Research the departments

Once your question satisfies you, make sure you are pitching it to a department that cares! Always research the staff of the department you plan to apply to, and their areas of interest and expertise. Even a great research question can be ignored if none of the evaluators have any personal interest in the topic. If possible, contact your potential research guides before applying, and verify whether your research is relevant. You can also use online resources like edX to see which institutions concentrate on your field of study.

Be concise, and avoid ambiguity

A common mistake amongst potential research candidates is to rely on ambiguous jargon in their research proposal. Remember that your proposal stands as a sample of your academic rigour, so make sure you write crisply, concisely and correctly. At all costs, avoid posturing and rambling on and on! Once you have completed compiling your proposal, it is always a good idea to consult with as many previous academics that you know.