How to write a research proposal

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is basically an outline of a research project that you intend to carry out. It is meant to show that you have an interest in a topic and that you have a plan to research something important about it.

Writing a research proposal is an important step in obtaining approval for your research project. Your college won’t expect your proposal to have a high degree of understanding of research methodology, but it should illustrate your thinking about how to go about the project.

Here is a step-by-step guide to help you write a research proposal.


Understand the requirements

First, familiarise yourself with the guidelines your educational institution or department have provided. These guidelines may include specific formatting requirements, word count limits and other instructions.


Title, Introduction and background

Begin your proposal with an Introduction that provides an overview of your research topic. Give a brief description of the area in which you are planning to conduct your research (e.g., education, inclusion, policy analysis, etc,) and, where applicable, your disciplinary/multidisciplinary focus (e.g., history, sociology, psychology etc.).



The research problem

State clearly the research problem or question you aim to address and explain why it merits investigation. Provide background information and context to help the reader understand the relevance of your research. State the question or issues you will explore and why they are relevant and/or significant. Try to be as specific as you can, since questions that are vaguely formulated or phrased too generally do not allow much insight into what you are intending to achieve.


Literature review

This is a thorough review of existing academic literature about your topic. It will include many, or possibly most, of the sources you will use in the thesis. Summarise the key theories, concepts and findings from previous studies that have added to your thinking about this subject. Explain the reason for why you intend to consult these sources and why examining them will contribute to your research. Identify any gaps or areas that have not been properly addressed, and which your research intends to explore.

To explain why your chosen area is worthy of research, there are many phrases that are typically found in this part of a thesis proposal. They include phrases like:

“The literature in the field strongly indicates that further research is necessary [on my chosen topic].”

“Published research highlights that….”

“The research in the field also suggests that…”

“The research in the field strongly supports the proposition that…”



Research objectives and questions

Clearly state the objectives of your research. These objectives should align with the research problem you identified. Formulate research questions or hypotheses that you will address in your study. Ensure that your research objectives are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).



How do you plan to explore your questions and/or issues in the research project? Describe the research methodology you plan to use. Explain the research design, data collection methods, and data analysis techniques you will use. Explain why they are the most appropriate for your research objectives and how they will help to answer your research questions.

This section is not meant to be definitive. However, it will be useful for you if you show that you have an awareness of possible theoretical tradition and/or perspectives you intend to use as a framework for your research, e.g., neo-Marxism, critical theory, feminism, etc.


Research approaches in your Methodology

These include case studies, action research, surveys, life history, etc. Research methods can entail interviews, observation, document analysis, still and/or moving images, etc.

Who will your participants be? What location will be included, i.e., where do you intend to undertake your study? This might be your workplace, several different research sites for comparative purposes, etc.

How do you see the relationship between the ‘researcher’ and the ‘researched’? For example, what might be the ethical implications stemming from the way you undertake your study? If they are relevant, address any ethical considerations and explain how you will obtain informed consent from, and ensure confidentiality on behalf of, the participants.

Proposed timeline: Create a timeline that outlines the different stages of your research project, including data collection, analysis, and writing. This timeline should show that you have a realistic plan and a clear understanding of the time you will need for each task. For a Master’s degree, this could be 1 to 2 years, or for a PhD, 3 to 4 years or longer. You should give a rough estimate of how long you expect to be working on each section of the project. The sections are: reviewing the literature, collecting data, analysing data, and getting your results. Write this in simple sentences, like: “The expected timeline for this study is: literature review, 3 months; data collection, 3 months,” etc. Or, if you want a more visual image of the timeline, put the details in a table or a Gantt chart.


Resources and references

Identify the resources and references you will use in your research. They may include books, academic journals, datasets, equipment or software. Provide a bibliography or reference list using the appropriate citation style specified by your college faculty.


Expected outcomes

Discuss the potential outcomes of your research and their significance. Explain how the expected results (your findings) may contribute to the existing body of knowledge (the research field) and highlight any practical implications.


Limitations and challenges

Acknowledge the limitations and potential challenges of your research. This will show that you have thought about possible obstacles and have chosen strategies to address them.



Summarise the key points of your proposal and emphasise once again its significance. Highlight the possible contributions of your research and why it should be approved.


Proofread and revise

Carefully review your thesis proposal for grammar, spelling, and coherence. Make sure your ideas flow logically and that you have addressed all the necessary aspects. Seek feedback from your advisor or colleagues and make revisions on that basis. Remember to adhere to any specific guidelines provided by your institution or department, and always consult with your advisor for additional guidance as you write the proposal.

Good luck with your thesis proposal!