How to Write a Research Proposal: a Complete Guide

How to Write a Research Proposal: a Complete Guide
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Writing experts from created this guide for graduate students who need to submit a research proposal. A research proposal may be required if students want to participate in a research project, and it may also serve other purposes. In this guide, we will help you approach the writing process in the right way. We will consider the purposes and the main elements of research proposals, as well as the most common requirements.

The Purpose of a Research Proposal

Here are the main purposes of a research proposal:

  • A research proposal may be aimed to propose a research project that can contribute to knowledge about a certain subject;
  • It may also present a detailed plan of the project, including the theoretical basis and methodology;
  • It can also help students make sure that their research is achievable using available sources, within the required time;
  • It can demonstrate that the author has the necessary experience and knowledge to work on the project.

Even if you’re not required to submit a research proposal, writing it is always a good idea. Having a research proposal, you can clearly understand your research goals and ideas. You can plan every stage of the research project and predict possible problems so that you can come up with the solutions and prove that you’re able to work on the project.

What Skills Do You Need?

To write a research proposal, you should possess a number of skills. We decided to group these skills into three main categories:

Research skills

A proposal is your opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge and your ability to use trending research approaches.

Critical thinking

A proper research proposal must demonstrate your analysis, synthesis, and evaluation skills, as well as your ability to use different models of thinking.

Communication skills

A research proposal also requires you to express your thoughts clearly and concisely, using the appropriate language.

Keep this list of skills in mind while writing your proposal so that you can demonstrate them properly. Your readers should have no doubt that you have the necessary expertise and skills to undertake the project.

The Structure and Content

The structure and content of a research proposal may vary depending on your area of study. Therefore, we recommend that you talk to your supervisor and ask him or her about all the requirements. You need to have detailed instructions to make sure that your proposal will be successful. The general structure of a research proposal includes the following elements:

  • the background of the subject, the research problem, and its significance;
  • research objectives and questions;
  • a literature review;
  • project design;
  • the research timeline;
  • expected results and/or the impact of the research.

In this guide, we will consider the most effective approaches that will help you complete each of these components.

Focus on the Target

Writing a research proposal is a great exercise because you can focus on the goals of your research. You can also narrow down a broad subject area to a specific topic that you will address.

1. Identify a specific research area of your discipline and explain its significance. Your audience must understand why this topic is worth researching.

2. Identify the gap in knowledge that you can address with your research. We recommend that you clearly indicate what contribution you’re going to make.

3. You should also come out with a convincing argument about the topic of your research. This is the most interesting part of the proposal because your arguments determine the way you design the research process while also demonstrating your knowledge and critical thinking skills.

4. The proposal should also demonstrate that the goal of your research is achievable within the necessary period of time if you use a certain approach.

Now let’s consider the core elements of a research proposal in more detail.

The Introductory Section


First, you have to introduce your topic and to explain its significance. Think of your audience and introduce the subject of your research taking into account your readers’ knowledge. The topic and objectives of your research must be understandable for the members of your audience who lack expertise in the subject. Therefore, you might need to provide some background information, explaining the history of the topic and relevant trends, as well as the latest discoveries.


Once you’ve introduced to your topic, you need to explain why it’s important and why there is a need for research in this field. Why is this topic important to you? Why should your audience be interested in it? Think of how you decided to research this area. You may also cite other researchers who explained the significance of this topic. Do you agree with them or do you think that the topic is significant for other reasons?

Identify the gap and focus on the problem

Finding gaps in the existing knowledge is very important in the academic world. Not only do you need to identify the gap, but also to explain why it is worth researching. Therefore, you should understand the main problems, questions, and developments in your area of study. We recommend that you talk to your supervisor and identify the main concepts. The key relationships and concepts will give you the basis for your theoretical, analytical, and conceptual framework. It will also be easier for you to explain how you’re going to address the problem.

Planning and writing the introductory section

The main purpose of the introductory section is to zero in on the target. You should start with a broad subject and then narrow it down to your project. Don’t forget that the main purpose of the proposal is to explain the fundamentals of your research, so we recommend that you choose a clear and concise language.

Write a draft of the introduction. Organize the main elements in a logical order, making sure that the content and format of your introduction meet the objectives of your proposal and the needs of your audience.

Research Objectives and Questions

First, let’s figure out what a good research question is. Your research question must be focused and clear so that you can create an understandable and informative proposal, setting a clear direction for the research. The question of your research should explain exactly what you’re going to do so that your readers can understand whether your research is important and viable. A good research question will also help your readers understand what your response might be so that you can get useful feedback on the idea of your research, in general.

Your research question depends on your area of study. We suggest that you talk to your supervisor and take a look at the examples of other theses and publications to familiarize yourself with the common requirements and standards in your field. However, there are some requirements that apply to research questions of all kinds. Your research question must be:

  • It must address an important problem so that you can make your contribution to the knowledge about the subject.
  • Your research question must be directly related to the key problems of your project.
  • You should clearly indicate what exactly you’re going to investigate.
  • You must use concise and clear language.
  • You must have access to the necessary sources of information to answer the question. You should also be able to collect additional data through experiments, surveys, etc.

You may also have more than one research question. In this case, make sure that your research questions are related to each other.

Developing a Research Question

Your word choice is important because it will set the direction for your writing and help your readers give you feedback. Keep in mind that you can change your research question later if you realize that there is a need for better wording, or if your research pushes you to reconsider your approach. Quite often, the question in a research proposal is different from questions that the research actually addresses.

The language of your research proposal to a large extent depends on your area of study so we recommend that you talk to the supervisor so that you can figure out what wording is used in similar papers and proposals. Nevertheless, there are some general guidelines.

  • A research question must enable you to come up with different answers.
  • “Why” and “how” questions are good because they imply looking for analytical answers instead of descriptive ones.
  • Your wording must include the main concepts that you’ve determined at the beginning.
  • Don’t make untested assumptions and don’t be judgemental. Make sure that the tone of your proposal is neutral.

To evaluate your wording properly, you should identify its strengths and weaknesses. To do it, we recommend that you ask yourself several questions:

  • Is the research question interesting to you?
  • Has anyone answered this question before? If so, how will your answer differ?
  • Does this question help in addressing an important problem?
  • Is the question easy to answer?
  • Can you approach the question in different ways?
  • Is the question researchable?
  • Does the question allow you to formulate a strong position? What hypothesis may serve as an answer?
  • Is the question too broad or too narrow?
  • Does the question involve any risks for participants or the researcher? Does it raise any ethical concerns?
  • What kinds of sources do you need to answer the question? Do you need to gather your own data?

Literature Review

The literature review section must include academic works from your area of research,  such as postgraduate theses, journal articles, and books. The review must compare, summarize, categorize, and analyze the most important pieces but it doesn’t need to cover everything that has been written about your subject. The main purpose of the literature review is to show the gap in knowledge and to address both the weaknesses and strengths of the existing works in your area.

When writing a literature review for your research proposal, you should focus on the three following aspects:

Structure. Instead of considering every source separately from others, a literature review must highlight differences and similarities. Your goal is to describe the development of research on your topic. Look for review articles in academic journals and books to get an idea of what sources you can use. We also recommend that you pay attention to the way other authors categorize literature.

Focus. The literature review must provide an accurate picture of the field of study, focusing on the sources that are directly related to your topic. We suggest that you focus on the most recent and well-known sources.

School specifics. These points apply to different kinds of research proposals, but you should also keep in mind the requirements of your school. Different schools and faculties may have different requirements regarding the content and word count of the literature review section. In turn, these requirements affect the way you should select and analyze the literature.

To figure out what your literature review should look like, you can brainstorm on the key sources, arguments, and methods that look relevant in the context of your topic. Ask yourself the following questions and write down your responses. Some responses may be short, while others may be extensive. Long responses are a good way to think about issues that are challenging for you.

  • Did scholars try to address the gap in research that you are going to fill?
    • If they did, how did they approach this problem? Can you categorize their work?
    • If they didn’t, then why?
  • What do different approaches have in common? How do they differ? Address differences and similarities in the context of:
    • the data and sources used;
    • research methods (experimental, quantitative, qualitative, etc.);
    • theoretical frameworks.
  • What are the strengths of the existing research materials?
  • What are their weaknesses and limitations?

Now that you have some ideas about the structure and content of your literature review, you can select the most important points and figure out how to use them in your work.

Project Design

The purpose of this section of your proposal is to provide readers with answers to the following questions:

  • How are you going to collect and process the material?
  • What kinds of sources and data are you going to use?
  • What methodology and theoretical techniques are you going to use to analyze and interpret the data?

You need to explain the design of your project clearly. Your audience must see what you’re going to do and how exactly you want to do it. They should also understand how your methods and services will help you address the research problem.

Project design tips

First of all, the project design section shouldn’t simply list the tasks that you’re going to complete. Your goal is to prove that these tests will help you address the research problem and find answers to the research question.

To compose a well-focused and clear project, you need to consider the key methodological and theoretical approaches used by scholars in this area of study. Therefore, you should:

  • consider methods and theories that have been used by other researchers;
  • consider methods and theories that haven’t been used by other researchers if you think that they can be useful.

When writing the project design section, you must be specific about the methods that you’re going to use, theories that will help you analyze the information, and the way these methods and theories relate to the research problem. Name specific tasks that you’re going to complete and explain how they will contribute to answering the research question. Make sure that your explanation is detailed enough.

You should also think of the potential difficulties that may appear when you work on your research. Some methods are more effective than others, and all of them have certain drawbacks. You must address all these shortcomings of the methods used and explain how you’re planning to overcome these difficulties.


To understand what your project should look like, create a mind map or chart and answer the following questions. Many researchers choose mind mapping because this approach is visual and it allows you to see the connections between your research goals and the data.

  • What is your research problem?
  • What are the specific questions that you need to answer to investigate the main problem of your research?
  • What sources and what kinds of data do you need to achieve your research goals?
  • How are you going to collect the data and how will you access the necessary sources? Will you gather your own data through experiments or surveys?
  • What methods of analysis and interpretation will you use? Are you going to use quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods?
  • What theories serve as the basis for your research? How will they help you achieve your research goals?
  • What are the possible ethical issues?


The timeline section should demonstrate that you’re able to complete the project within a certain period of time. This section must look like a set of goals that you are going to achieve to answer the research question. It must include all the stages of your project from initial research to the interpretation of the data and results. Every step of your project must have an expected date of completion. In this section, you should also describe the progress that you have already made. The timeline will also help you prepare for publications or conferences. Keep in mind that this section of your research proposal isn’t static so you need to update it on a regular basis.

Impact and Expected Outcomes

At the end of your research proposal, describe the expected outcomes. Your readers should know what outcome you’ve expected at the time of writing so that they can compare it to the results of your research when it’s completed. You need to explain what conclusions they may draw. This section will also help your audience evaluate the validity and significance of your research. Besides, it will help your readers assess the potential implications of your project.

You shouldn’t repeat the description of your research objectives from the earlier sections. Instead, consider your research in the context of current trends in your field of study and think of the possible impact of your project and your methods on future research.

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