Research proposals are crafted for two primary purposes. First, they are the first step for graduate students who are preparing to write their theses and dissertations. Second, they may be written by researchers, as they seek funding for studies they wish to conduct.
The point is this: research proposals are written to get someone’s approval before the writer can move forward with a study they plan to conduct. In the case of grad students, approval must come from an advisor and often an advisor in conjunction with a committee.
And one of the things you should know about proposals is that it is quite common for them to be rejected the first time through. Usually, that rejection comes because a student has not met all of the requirements for that proposal or because a committee member wants more detail in a specific section.
You can avoid rejection if you follow these tips on how to craft a solid and scholarly research proposal that will leave no room for rejection.
Steps to Follow
Refining that Research Question
You already identified a topic area for research, and, after conducting some initial research, you have a study in mind. You will either be adding to existing research or perhaps countering some that you believe is incomplete or not fully valid. Based on the specific study you have in mind, you have probably developed a research question that your advisor has approved. It is now time to make sure that your research question is in perfect format, as your department guidelines specify. Use your advisor as your source, and take his/her advice. This advisor has worked with your committee members before, and knows what they want.
Study Department Guidelines and Review Examples
Each academic department will have guidelines on what must be included in a proposal and the order in which each section is to be composed. This set of guidelines serves as your outline. Don’t veer from it.
Other grad students in your department have had proposals approved. Review several of them, so that you have models of not just structure, but also of tone and style.
While the order may vary, research proposals all have common sections. As you craft these sections, check them against both the guidelines and the models you have.
Research Question Statement and Justification
The beginning of your proposal should include the refined research question you have created. But it is not just the question your advisor/committee want to see. They want to see a justification for why this study is important to your field. Are you going to verify earlier research? Are you going to add to that research with a unique study different from those of others? Or are you going to conduct a study that may counter some earlier research? You want to show how your work will add something important.
Summary of Initial Research
To come up with your question, you conducted some research. You need to summarize that research and show how it directly relates to what you plan to do. This section is not too exciting, but it must be well-organized and show that you have done the background work that you should have.
Explanation of Your Design and Methodology
This is the “meat” of your proposal in which you outline exactly what you plan to do. Is your study qualitative or quantitative? Will you have random samplings or experimental and control groups? What instruments will you use, how will you collect your data, and what is your plan of analysis to show significance? Your advisor/committee will study this section carefully to ensure that you are taking a solid and scholarly approach.
Graduate-level research projects occur over several months, sometimes as many as 18. And you will need to provide a timeline for completion of each section or chapter. This is flexible, of course, but it does provide both you and your committee with a schedule that gives targets for completion. As much as you can stick to this schedule, you should.
Points to Think About
You want to ensure that you have used formal and scholarly writing tone and style. This is a supremely academic project, and it is no time for casual, conversational language.
If you are presenting your proposal to a committee, make certain that you and your advisor site down as you complete each section, so that s/he can provide any suggestions for revisions before you write the final draft.
Mistakes to Avoid
A common mistake that proposal writers make is assuming that the readers will somehow “understand” or grasp what is “between the lines.” Leave nothing to chance. Spell it all out in detail.
It is also a common mistake not to develop a list of questions that committee members may ask and to have prepared responses for them. Again, a good advisor can help with this.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Follow the proposal guidelines you are given, and follow them “to the letter.”
- Have a trusted peer review your proposal for structure, grammar, and spelling/punctuation, etc
- Conduct enough research and state out the most important points of the research
- Scrimp on the literature review portion of your proposal
- Craft a proposal without a lot of discussion with your advisor
- Assume that readers already know something. They may not