How to Write a Strong Research Proposal for Projects, Thesis and Dissertation


A proposal is probably one of the most important documents that you will write before actually starting your PhD or your research program. It defines a question and describes the approach that you are going to take to answer that question.

It also places your work within the realm of the research that’s commonly out there and shows what your kind of approaches for I know what works and what doesn’t work. I have gone through hundreds of research proposals that have been sent to me via email and I’ve marked proposals that have passed and gone through to top universities all around the world and those that haven’t.

And I can clearly tell you what needs to be included what should definitely not be included, and sort of what the structure of research proposal should be.

Without a proposal, there is no plan and without a plan, there is no project that is the key thing to take away, you need a proposal, if you’re reading this article, you’re probably stuck, you’re probably thinking, Okay, I have to write a proposal, I don’t know where to begin, I don’t know how to do this.

The structure of a research proposal includes eight different sections and is approximately 2000 to about 2500 words, maximum. Remember that number, it should never be too short. It also shouldn’t be too long. So it includes the following sections;

  1. Title
  2. Abstract
  3. Research Background
  4. Research Questions
  5. Research Methods,
  6. Significance
  7. Timeline of your project.
  8. Bibliography or a Reference List

I’m going to be showing and breaking down each of those sections for you and telling you what should be included in each of those parts.

  1. Title:
    Now when thinking about your title, think about what keywords if find your project, if someone were to search for your work, what keywords would they have to look for in order to identify your particular project?
    How would you describe your research? What are the terms that you need to include to be able to say right, this is the work that I’m doing. Remember that this is the one section I would say that will definitely change.
    The title that you’ve proposed in the beginning will be revised, kind of changed as you go along depending on direction that your project takes in the end.
    So if you don’t feel like it’s the title that you’re going to graduate with, because it definitely isn’t, don’t feel pressurized to develop the best title ever, because like I said, it’s definitely going to change.
    The second section is your abstract, I’ve talked about quite a bit before.
  2. Abstract:
    The abstract is traditionally used to summarize your research, talk about the intent, your research question and the method that you took, and then the results and about the discussion.
    But obviously in this case, you’re discussing a proposed research, so you haven’t actually done it yet. So in this case, the abstract is very short, around 100 words, and it’s a statement that highlights the issue that you are concerned with and that you are going to be discussing in this proposal.
  3. Research background:
    Now this is a bit like a literature review, but a bit more concise than a traditional literature review. This sets the context for the research proposal. What literature are you basing this research on, you should have done a lot of reading to understand where your work is going to fit into the field.
    And this is where you’re going to describe what that field is;
    What information does the reader need to know to understand your field?
    What information does the reader need to know what gap there is in the literature?
    The most important consideration here is trying to think about the current debates that are in the literature.
    What is the current state of knowledge?
    What do people say about your topic?
    Is there sort of one side that says this is happening and the other side saying that’s happening?
    What is the stance that you are taking concern the current debates in literature (that is essentially what you are trying to summarize within the research background). It should be a really concise section where you’re highlighting the top papers that are relevant for your topic.
    Don’t underestimate the importance of this section. You know, you’re submitting this to another expert in the field. So they’ll know what papers and what literature is the most important and they’ll know whether you’ve done the most exhaustive reading or not.
  4. Research Question:
    Now this is essentially defining what it is that you are seeking out with this research. What are the central aims that runs through your study? Like I said, you need to really think about where your research fits into the field.
    Whether your questions are feasible, have they been answered before?
    If yes, that’s not an original study, it needs to provide new information to the field a new sort of insight a new direction, a new consideration.
    You’d really have one or two main questions, and then sort of a couple of sub questions that feed into answering that main overarching question.
    The next section and probably the most bulky and most important section is the research method or the methodology section.
  5. Research Method or Methodology:
    Here you’re actually defining your approach. Now, you’ve said what the issues are, the gap of knowledge, how you’re going to do it?
    Now you need to define the methods?
    How exactly are you planning on determining the answer to the question of your research? You need to justify everything in this section.
    Why have you chosen quantitative over quantitative? or
    Why have you chosen a mixed method?
    Why have you chosen this cell type?
    Why have you chosen any method that you discuss and you need to say why you’ve chosen it and really justify the choices that you made.
    Like I said, I think this is probably the weightiest section and the section you should consider the most, as it can determine the success of your project.
    It’s all well and good to say we don’t understand how this thing happens, if you don’t have a method to back that up, or a method that you know, would actually work and is feasible, then your projects can’t run. So it’s important to have considered methods very, very well.
    You also want to consider any limitations. And I think people tend to miss this bit out. They don’t say what the issues and challenges are that they could be faced. And I think people mess this up, because they think they don’t want to say there could be an issue here.
    But actually, if you’re trying to acquire data from a cell type that’s quite rare, or quite hard, or if you’re trying to get some interviews from people who have in a rural area, for example, you’re going to be faced with challenges, and it’s naïve to assume that you weren’t. So it’s important that you say, right, these are the challenges that I could be faced with. And this is how I’m planning to overcome them.
    This shows that you’ve got the correct sort of research mindset, where you’re considering challenges, you’re considering outcomes and considering alternative options, because let me tell you in research, nothing goes to plan nothing. So it’s important that you know, you’ve got that mindset where you’re thinking about the plan B.
    Lastly, in this part, you also want to think about analysis. So you know, you’re doing a questionnaire, a generic qualitative analysis, how are you going to be analyzing that? Are you analyzing that through a thematic topic? Are you analyzing that through T-tests? How are you planning to analyze your data?
    This is important because it means that you’ve considered the next step, it’s all well and good to have 1000 questionnaires filled out, but how are you then planning to collect that data? How even planning to analyze that data and have those final results and final comments.
    Ultimately, remember that the research proposal is purely just a proposal, you are not meant to be an expert, and you are not meant to know all the answers.
    But you are meant to have considered and looked at the research out there and thought about what ways have people done this before? How could I approach this situation?
    You will then have the option, you know, if you get accepted to discuss this in further detail, and you know, kind of build on that initial plan. But it is important that you brought that independent thought to the table to show that you are a suitable and strong candidate
  6. Significance:
    Why is this work significant? Why is this work a project that the supervisor should take on?
    How is your work original? How does your work stand out from all the works out there before?What new thing are you bringing to the table?
    And also how does the work builds on what we already know? So to be able to say that this work is significant, you need to say right, we know this thing, and I’m going to be building on this thing. And then that’s going to be able to support future work. The “Why” is your work, and why do you think people are going to be interested in. And how is this work significant in the general field that you’re interested in.
  7. TimeLine:Again I find this quite forgotten a bit. So what is that timeline that you are planning to hopefully uphold? The probably could divide this into sections, the first could be;Doing some preliminary studies, it could be recruiting the participants, it could be writing up a questionnaire, doing some reading. The second could be actually you know, running those interviews, Third section could be the analysis or reading interviews or whatever it is that you choose to do. So that’s what you want, you want to think about what that timeline could be. Now again, this is going to change 110% I can guarantee you that right now. But it again, it shows that you’ve thought about kind of timeline. Things might not go to plan, if they don’t, I’ll do this instead. This could happen, If not this is going to happen, this is going to happen first, then that’s going to happen. You want a timeline, it shows you’ve considered your methods considered your approach and considered how long of time it might actually take you.
  8. Bibliography:Here you want to detail the key pieces of work and the key literature that your work is based on. So I would probably limit this to 5-10, 10 maximum. What are the literature that you read, and then base your questions on? Where was the gap in what you’ve read? Let’s say I had to read your review and I knew nothing about your topic, what 5-10 papers what I have to read to understand the field then understand how your work is going to add to that field and build on that field and give that substance. That is what you need to think. Again, remember that the lecturer or the professor, the supervisor that you’re applying to, will be an expert in that field. And so do consider the amount of reading that you’ve done and make sure that you’ve done enough to be able to have picked out what those papers are. So I really hope that you guys found this useful. This is such a frequently asked question, how do you write a proposal but it really is, I would say, this is not a difficult thing to write at all, especially if you know your literature and you know, sort of the question that you’re thinking about writing. It’s a very, very simple, structured, consistently structured piece of documents. So if you do want me to edit it, and you do want someone to take a look at it professionally to make sure that you are on track and you’ve answered all of those questions correctly, then you can leave a comment down in the comment section.