Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Explaining Research Proposals

I’ll try to write something substantive again later in the week – at the moment, I’m absolutely drowning in marking, which leaves me no time to have interesting thoughts, let alone pull them together into something others might want to read… For my own reference as much as anything else, I’ve tucked below the fold a sort of “Research Proposals for Dummies” piece I wrote this week for my quant methods students. It’s very, very, very simplistic – among other things, because it’s written for second-year undergrads, many of whom have no intention of going on to research careers – but some of my Research Strategies students also found the material helpful as a very basic breakdown and explanation of the strategic intent of the sections of a proposal. The piece might be useful for someone needing similar material for their own students, and not wanting to start utterly from scratch, but wanting to riff off of someone else’s basic structure.

Note that, because this piece was written in relation to a specific assessment, much of the material is obviously not relevant to a standard proposal (and I’m too lazy and too busy – hmm… can one be both? Evidently so… – to rewrite this as a more general piece right now). Note also that I wrote this at 3 a.m. – caveat emptor.

If anyone does convert this into something less assessment-specific – or improve it in all the various other ways it needs to improved – I’d consider it a great kindness if you’d share a copy of your revised version with me.

What Is a Research Proposal?

A research proposal is a fairly common form of academic and professional writing. You write research proposals to do things like:

  • obtain grants;
  • gain approval to start a thesis;
  • gain ethics approval for a research project;
  • tender for certain kinds of contracts; etc.

At the same time, a research proposal differs in important respects from other common kinds of academic writing, such as an essay or a report of research results. Most forms of academic writing are designed to make an argument – to convince your reader, through your use of evidence and analysis, that a particular conclusion is correct.

A research proposal is also a piece of persuasive writing. It is not designed, however, to argue for any specific conclusion. Instead, it is designed to convince your reader that you have:

  • asked an important and interesting question, and
  • proposed a good means to answer that question.

These differences between research proposals and other forms of academic writing can make them feel very peculiar to write at first. Many novice proposal writers complain that the process makes them feel as if they have to write “backwards”: it can be hard to figure out how to write about your research process, when you haven’t yet done any research. Understanding the logic behind proposals – what they are intended to do, and what readers look for in them – should help you master this form of writing more easily.

What should a research proposal do?

Actual research can be expensive, time-consuming, and risky. How can you gain some perspective on your own research, so that you can iron out as many problems as possible before you invest a lot of time and energy in the project?

As well, the people who will be supervising or funding your research often won’t know much about you or your project. How can they decide whether the research is likely to succeed, or whether you are the right person to conduct the research?

A research proposal is designed to answer these sorts of questions. It gives you and others a chance to evaluate whether the research is:

  • well-formed – whether the research looks likely to answer the question it has posed in a robust and reliable way;
  • “do-able”, given whatever time, funding and skill constraints apply to the research;
  • important and interesting – whether the research asks a question other people want answered;
  • capable of offering benefits that offset any risks the research may entail; and
  • ethical.

The various parts of a proposal are designed to enable readers to find the information they need to answer these kinds of questions quickly and easily.

Parts of a Proposal

Research proposals may vary slightly between fields. Certain core elements, however, will almost always be present. Those core elements are the focus of your Stage Two assessment. They include:

  • An Introduction
  • A Literature Review
  • A Methodology Section

We’ll break these parts down in more detail below, to help you understand what each one contributes to the proposal as a whole.

The Introduction

The introduction provides your reader with a quick overview of what you will discuss in the proposal, and introduces them to your research question. For purposes of this assessment, introductions can be brief and pragmatic – one paragraph is fine. That paragraph should:

  • provide a “frame” or “hook” that eases the reader into the proposal, by situating the research in the context of topic or issue with which the reader is likely to be familiar;
  • state your research question clearly and succinctly; and
  • “telegraph” or outline the structure of the proposal, so that your reader knows what to expect in the remainder of the piece.

Good introductions can take many forms. You can probably get some ideas from the academic literature you’ve read to prepare for this assignment. Some possibilities might include:

“The proposal to abolish compulsory non-academic fees led many commentators to predict that students would lose access to important social services (Heffing 2006; Darn 2006). My research is designed to test these predictions, by investigating whether students were less likely to access medical and dental services in the six months following the abolition of compulsory non-academic fees, than in the six months prior. In the proposal below, I first introduce the literature surrounding this policy debate. I focus on two main authors – Heffing and Darn – who both predicted [a] (Heffing 2006; Darn 2006). I also explore Remington’s rebuttal of Heffing and Darn’s work (Remington 2007). I next outline my own research methodology, which will seek to measure changes to student access to medical and dental services in the six months before and after the abolition of compulsory non-academic fees.”

“Janet Jeffreys has asked whether the shift to online interaction comes at a social and psychological cost, as people spend increasing amounts of time interaction in a virtual world, at the possible expense of their face-to-face connections (Jeffreys 2004). This research explores this issue, asking whether there is any correlation between time spent online, and time spent in face-to-face social interaction, in a sample of university students. This research project will first be contextualised against the three main positions in the academic literature: Abbey and Rowe’s controversial contention that online social interaction correlates with higher levels of social interaction in all contexts (Abbey 2003; Rowe 2006); Johannsen’s argument that online social interaction provides a social connection for people who otherwise would not be participating in other forms of social interaction (Johannsen 2005); and Jeffreys and Mitchell’s argument that online social interaction comes at a substantial cost to other forms of social connection (Jeffreys 2004; Mitchell 2006). The student questionnaire to be used in this research will then be explored, to show how this research technique can cast light on correlations between online and face-to-face interactions among an IT-literate student population.”

The Literature Review

The most common trap for novice researchers is to assume the literature review is either: a list of everything they have read; or, a summary of every element of selected pieces they have read. Instead, a literature review is an attempt to persuade the reader that your research will address an important question.

Because the reader is much more likely to be familiar with the literature, than with you as an individual, and because the literature is more likely to have gone through some kind of peer review process, while your work is untested, the literature review provides a means for you to demonstrate how your work connects with other trusted works. The literature review provides your reader with a context for your work, and also provides you with an opportunity to demonstrate that you have:

  • thoughtfully considered whether your specific research will contribute something new to the discussion of your question; and
  • reflected on how other researchers have approached the same question, and learned from the successes and failures of other work in your field.

The focus of your literature review should always be your own research question. You should select literature, and the points you discuss from that literature, based on how it casts light on the question you intend to answer, and the methods you intend to use to answer that question. Ideally, by the end of the literature review, your reader should be asking themselves: “why hasn’t anyone studied question [a], using method [b]?” Your question should be question [a], and your method should be method [b].

Since this is a small research project, and most of you will not yet be familiar with the entire academic literature in relation to your question, you may not be able to write the “ideal” literature review to set up for your research. We understand this, and will mark accordingly. Nevertheless, the closer you can approach the “ideal” literature review, the better you will do on this section of the proposal.

Key strategies for writing an effective literature review include:

  • keep the focus on your own question: engage strategically with your literature, to show how the literature suggests the usefulness of your own research;
  • focus on positions or perspectives in the literature, rather than on lists of individual works: it’s often useful to think about your literature review as an outline of the various stances or arguments available within a field, and then group authors who espouse similar stances or arguments so that you can discuss them more concisely. In some cases, of course, there will be a small number of individual authors who are so important in a field, that it will be fine to discuss their individual works;
  • don’t assume your reader is familiar with the literature you cite: give the reader enough information that they can understand the relevant parts of the literature you use.

At the beginning of your literature review, you should “telegraph” for your reader how the section will be structured. Common structures include things like:

“Five main positions have been expressed in the literature on recycling education, associated with the works of Miller (1996), Jones (1972), Arondsen (2001), Chung (1999) and Flyvbjerg (2006). Miller argues….”

“The central debate in the literature on [f] revolves around the question of [w]. Two main positions can be distinguished in this debate. First, the “progressivist” position, associated most strongly with the works of Hyuggens (1982) and Resaldo (1988), argues [1]. Second, the “preservationist” position, associated primarily with the work of Donaldson (1993), argues [2]. In this review, I wish to explore three main elements of this debate, in order to demonstrate the need for further research into…”

“Very little research has been done directly on the issue of [g]. Some interesting work has been carried out, however, in [related field h]. In this review, I examine three key works in [field h]: first…”

At each stage in the literature review, remind your reader of what the analysis of the literature has contributed to your own work. At the conclusion, summarise what you have learned, and discuss how your analysis of the literature suggests the need for your project. Often, this will take the form of discussing some kind of “gap” in the literature. You may find yourself saying things like:

“This review of the literature suggests that, while this issue has been well-studied in relation to primary and secondary school students, university students have been largely neglected…”

“The literature suggests that price and convenience are not major factors influencing the decision to take public transport. It leaves unexamined, however, whether [factor y] might exert a greater influence. In my research, I therefore examine [factor y]…”

“This unresolved debate in the literature suggests the need for further studies to determine whether [position j] or [position k] provides a better explanation for how people make decisions about where to live. This research project will contribute to this ongoing debate, by exploring…”

There are many other ways of positioning your question in relation to your literature. The key point is to keep your “eyes on the prize”, and organise your literature review to give your reader a clear sense of how your work will contribute something new and useful to the broader conversation.

The Methodology

The most common error novice researchers make on the methodology section is to treat this section as a “to do” list or a recipe that describes what they will do. Methodology sections do need to include a “to do” list – but such lists are not the most important part of the methodology to the reader. Instead, what the reader wants to know is whether the methodology:

  • will answer the research question;
  • is “doable”;
  • is ethical.

These are the issues you should have in mind when writing the methodology section.

Methodology sections can be usefully broken down into three main parts. (Note that there are no hard and fast rules about these sections, and what should go into them. The main point is to discuss all the substantive issues you need to discuss, rather than to worry over whether a specific issue should be discussed under “background” or “rationale”, for example.)


For some research projects, you won’t be able to provide much background, because the proposal will be written before any work has been undertaken. In this case, however, the research has actually already begun: you have designed and conducted a self-administered questionnaire, and raw data from that questionnaire is available. You should therefore include material to bring the reader up to speed on what has already been done.

Remember that, even though we know what has already been done, we will be marking your assessment as though we are unfamiliar with your project. Be sure to provide all the information that would be needed by a reader completely unfamiliar with this course.

Your background section should include details about:

  • the research instrument:
    • how was it designed? (hint: you can reflect on the tutorial sessions dedicated to this process – whether you realised this at the time or not, these sessions were part of your research method)
    • what is it? (hint: it’s a structured, self-administered questionnaire, delivered online – you might also want to talk about how long it is, when it was administered, and other details about its structure)
    • who responded to it? (hint: think about how many people, who those people are and how they were “recruited” for this research – you may even be able to use a bit of the data that has already come in to make a few generalisations about the age and demographic profile of the respondents)
    • what were you specifically seeking to learn from this instrument, and how? (hint: think about your research question, broken down into its component variables, and the survey questions whose answers you will use to obtain those variables)
    • limitations or issues with the instrument (hint: you may have been one of the students whose specific question could not be accommodated by the survey software; there may be other limitations due to the sample selected, the wording of your questions, etc.)
  • any exploratory analysis you may have carried out (hint: have you graphed any of your data yet? Does this preliminary analysis give you any hints about the structure of your data – whether it is normal (parametric), whether it is skewed, etc.?)
  • any other datasets you intend to consult, or additional primary data you intend to collect yourself


After you have described the parts of the method you have already carried out, you next need to discuss the work that remains to be done. Here you will want to explain the connection between your research question and your survey questions, and then explain how and why this will translate into a specific research procedure. This is where you want to spell out things like:

  • the variables captured by your survey questions (hint: what are the variables? What kinds of variables are these? Are any of your variables indicators? Etc.)
  • the specific relationships or correlations you are trying to capture
  • whether your work is purely descriptive (intending only to talk about the nature of the sample only) – note that purely descriptive analysis will probably not be adequate for this assessment, so please check with your tutor before committing to this approach
  • if you are doing inferential statistics, what is the population to which you hope to generalise your results? How can you justify using this (non-random) sample, if you intend to generalise to this specific population?
  • any hypothesis you are trying to prove or disprove (hint: if you are using a hypothesis-testing method, talk about your “null hypothesis” and your “alternative hypothesis” – the “null hypothesis” is what you might expect your data to look like by chance alone; the “alternative hypothesis” is the actual relationship you hope to prove)
  • any exploratory analysis you intend to carry out (hint: all students will do some kind of exploratory analysis, if only to get an intuitive feel for the characteristics of their data; some students may primarily do exploratory analysis – running tests on a wide range of data to see where correlations may arise)
  • the limitations you can foresee for the methods you have chosen.

The bulk of your work for the Stage Two assessment will likely lie in writing the rationale for your methodology.

“To Do” List

The “to do” list is simply the list of what you intend to do, in the order you intend to do it. You may include this information in its own section, or you may integrate it with your discussion of your rationale.

Your “to do” list should include a description of graphical, univariate and bi-variate analyses you intend to carry out. You can talk about the kinds of graphs you intend to create, the way that you intend to look at central tendency and variance for individual variables, and the way you intend to test for correlation and significance for pairs of variables. If you are planning to undertake more complex multi-variate analysis for this assignment, you should also discuss how you will go about this.

You may not quite be ready to list the exact quantitative calculations you intend to use. If you don’t know exactly which test of correlation to use for your data, for example, it’s okay to say: “I will run an appropriate test to determine whether there is a correlation between [variable n] and [variable m].”

If you’re ready to do so, of course, you can be more specific: “I will run a chi square test to determine statistical significance.”

The more specific you can be now, the more specific we can be in providing feedback for your final assessment.

Note that, in formal research, the “to do” list component of your methodology would usually also include a discussion of research ethics, if your research involves human subjects. Since this research proposal is for a project within a classroom context, you can omit an ethics discussion for this assignment – unless you intend to supplement the student questionnaire with some other form of survey or interview data you intend to collect.

Important Issues for All Sections

Research proposals are written for readers who are unfamiliar with your project. You can assume that your reader is generally educated in your field and curious about what you want to do. You cannot assume that they are familiar with your project or sympathetic to how you want to conduct your research. We will mark these assessments as though we are this kind of reader.

Details are important: proper grammar, spelling, and syntax; a structured logic and “flow” of sentences, paragraphs, and sections; and full academic citation are required throughout a proposal.

In real-world writing, these sorts of details are especially important: since you will often use proposals as a kind of CV for your own research, you want your reader focussed entirely on the substance of what you are writing – not distracted by a typo, thrown out of the text by a poor structure, or left wondering how to find the literature that supports your claim.

6 responses to “Explaining Research Proposals

  1. E May 10, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    N Pepperell, I feel the above piece is a really well written and accessible piece for undergraduate students to use as a basis for writing a research proposal. I think that there a limited number of texts that are really accessible for undergraduate students starting out doing social research. Your outline is as good as I have read.

    One I came accross a while ago was “Do It Yourself Social Research” by Yolanda Wadsworth, who is particularly interested in action research.

  2. N Pepperell May 10, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    Many thanks for that – it can be hard to tell, with these bleary-eyed 3 a.m. jobs… 😉 Thanks also for the reference (someone was just asking me for something on this from an action research perspective – and, of course, now that I have a reference handy, I can’t for the life of me remember who…).

    I’d like to have done something more generic with the methodology section – although the problem with methodology is that it’s actually very difficult to discuss generically, since it has to do with the internal logic of an individual argument… So to some degree that problem is intrinsic…

  3. lmagee May 10, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    Ring any bells?

  4. N Pepperell May 10, 2007 at 11:04 pm

    Hmm… no… can’t say it does… ;-P

  5. unique May 24, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    this is an awesome outline and will assist me highly in a major assignment, the structure and purpose that guide the lit review were priceless!

  6. lisa May 26, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    NP… I really like this post. It’s simple. But more, and on following the best guidelines for technical writing, it starts with the important bits *first*!

    For example, first para on the purpose of the Lit Review:
    ‘… an attempt to persuade the reader that your research will address an important question.’

    Thank you!!

    Others may have said this before, but not nearly as clearly. Usually it’s buried well into a lengthy and boring description of critically evaluating literature. I know how to do this… but it does not necessarily make a Literature Review within a Research Proposal. I’m often asleep by that point.

    I promise to test your post out while writing my PhD candidature proposal. At some stage I will let you know the results.

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