Please note that the nature of a research proposal will vary depending on your specific audience. If, for example, you are addressing only academics in your precise field, you can be quite specific about your area of study and assume a high degree of existing knowledge. But if you are addressing a wider audience, you need to assume that they have less existing knowledge.
In any case, it is important to keep your tone formal and academic, while still being as clear and simple you can in your language. Many people writing research proposals make the mistake of trying to over-complicate their language with the idea that it will make them sound academic / impressive. What is most impressive is having an idea that is worthy of academic research whilst remaining comprehensible.
While this document has the form of a sample, the main body of an academic proposal needs to be based on your research idea: all the rest of the content needs to flow from that if it is to be academically credible.
The notes and guide that form most of the words in this template are more important than the sentences to fill in. Often, the less ‘filler’ in an academic proposal, the better, as this means it is clear to your readers that your work is content-oriented. Often, the title of a subsection will be enough to introduce it. But it is important to get the title right.
The Sections of This Template
From here onwards, this sample is split into 13 sections according to the sections that should be included in an academic research proposal. Each section includes example notes and guidance on the suggested length and content. Some sections also include suggested content templates to be filled in, but given the nature of a research proposal as academic, this can unfortunately only be limited.
Please also note, the abstract, contents page, introduction and references should always appear on new pages on a printed document. Other sections can continue without page breaks
This should be clear and concise, while leaving the reader in no doubt as to your field of study. A good title structure can often be “Short Title: Longer Explanation of Your Field”.
Your academic institution may have a preferred format for the title, or even a title page. Find out before you submit your proposal. If there is no preferred format, keep it simple and clear, and use a ‘serif’ font that is easily legible.
<Main title: what I am trying to find out in this project>
<Supervisor (if you already have one)>
<Name / student number>
100-200 words. Note: this summarises the central theme of your research. For this, try to use concise and clipped language, which is academic without being over-wordy and verbose.
The abstract needs to be entirely your own words, as every abstract will be completely different depending on your topic. Like the rest of the document, apart from block quotations, it should be double-spaced and laid out clearly.
Depending on the length of your research proposal, you may wish to include a contents page for the proposal itself (not for your main research project: suggested contents for this is included in your Proposed Chapter Outline, section 9), as follows (add page numbers / subsections when you know them, depending on your research).
As you introduce sub-sections into your different sections, number them accordingly e.g. subsections of the literature review could be numbered 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, etc.
- Literature Review…………………pn
- Notion of Original Research……pn
- Key Assertions / Objectives…..pn
- Research Methods………………pn
- Proposed Chapter Outline……..pn
- Research Limitations………….pn
- Proposed Timescale…………..pn
- References/ Bibliography…….pn
200-400 words. Note: unlike the abstract, this is not a summary of everything you are about to say: you can afford to grab your readers’ attention.
Make a surprise beginning, perhaps a quote from someone who inspires you on this topic, and show your knowledge of the research area (include if you like your previous research experience in this field: you can afford to be personal in this section) and why it is relevant to today’s world.]
4. Literature Review
Length can vary immensely, but probably 300-1500 words or more, depending on the nature of your research. Note: this is one of the most important sections of your research proposal. It demonstrates that you know your field, who the key research players are in it, what has been said in the past and what is being said at the moment. You will want to mention, and where appropriate quote from, key works in your area.
This is the section that requires the most preliminary research: make sure you spend some time in an academic library and using search engines for relevant academic papers before presenting this. You do not need to discuss every work in your area, but you need to present a competent outline, and, especially if this is a proposal for doctoral research, you need to be sure that no-one else has already done the same project.
A good way of presenting a literature review coherently is in the form of a narrative, which can either be chronological or thematic.
There has been a <small / considerable / state value here> amount of previous academic research in this field.
<for a chronological narrative>
I will outline how the understanding of <this topic> has developed over the last <number of> years.
<insert chronological narrative, remembering to introduce key players, dates, and academic works, and end with the state of the field as it is today.>
<for a thematic narrative>
I will outline the major themes that are of relevance in this field, and go through them each in turn:
<use a bulleted list to outline what themes / topics you are planning on covering>
<After your bulleted list, you can use the themes from your list as subtitles to split up your literature review. Put them in bold, like this. You could also add them as subsections in your contents page.>
<Under each subtitle, describe the state of the field of research in this area, including the most important researchers and works in this area.>
5. Notion of original research
Length varies, but probably similar length to literature review. Note: this is where you sell your research proposal to the reader. You need to explain, clearly and simply, how your research will complement the field you have just described in your literature review: what you will add, how it fills an existing gap, why the academic world would benefit from your research, etc.
It is impossible to have an example here, as every original piece of research will warrant a completely different approach. It is not possible simply to say ‘My piece of work is original because <insert reason here>, and this field needs to answer this question because <insert reason here>.’ Let this section be the central idea of your research that you are passionate about and everything else can build around.
6. Key Assertions / Objectives
One sentence for each question / assertion. Note: this is really part of the ‘notion of original research’ section. A good way of making your research aim clear is to state a clear research question, and back it up with 2-4 specific assertions or objectives.
My central research question is as follows:
<insert research question here, in bold>
In the light of this, I will make the following observations / assertions:
<insert observations / assertions here, in bulleted list>
7. Research Methods
Approx. 50-1000 words depending on the nature of your research. This is where you explain how and where you plan to carry out your research. This will vary hugely depending on your subject.
Will you be researching in libraries and archives? Which ones hold the books and documents you will need? Will you need to travel? If so, where? Will your research involve extensive field-work? How and where? State whether you will plan to use different methods of data collection, and if so what they will be. Do you need to be in a laboratory? Will you be using qualitative or quantitative collection of data?
Do you have the necessary skills and qualifications to undertake your research (for instance foreign languages, statistical analysis, laboratory training, etc)? If not, what are your plans to acquire these skills (note: many postgraduate institutions offer considerable support in the acquisition of new skills necessary to perform research, but this will need discussing at the proposal stage)?
Approx. 50-300 words. Note: once you have collected your data, what do you plan to do with it? Again, depending on the nature of your research, this section could be anywhere from one or two sentences to several paragraphs.
9. Proposed Chapter Outline
Probably less than 200 words, unless you have a very detailed plan already in mind. Note: this is like a preliminary contents page, but it does not need to be very specific, and can suggest sections rather than chapters at this stage, but the academics reading your proposal will be impressed to know that you have some idea how you may wish to present your work, and that you have some way in mind of translating your research to paper.
1. <title of your first chapter>
<explanation of your first chapter contents: one sentence>
1.1 <first subsection of your first chapter>
1.2 <second subsection of your first chapter>
2. <title of your second chapter>
<explanation of your second chapter contents: one sentence>
2.1 <first subsection of your second chapter>
2.2 <second subsection of your second chapter>
2.2.1 <smaller section>
2.2.2 <another small section>
- <title of your third chapter>
<explanation of your third chapter contents: one sentence>
10. Research Limitations
Approx. 50-300 words. Note: this section states everything you won’t be able to do in your research. It is surprisingly important, as it shows that you can recognise the limited scale of your work. Every project needs distinct limiting factors in order to be manageable.]
Naturally, the scope of this project is limited. This section describes specific limitations.
<add limitations here!>
11. Proposed Timescale
Approx 50-300 words. Note: this section is optional, but may be helpful to show your potential supervisors that you are being realistic and recognise that your project has limits. It also will help you to know the scale of your work in the preliminary stages of planning, and help you to have realistic expectations of yourself.
I predict that this research project will take <x> months / years. I propose a rough timescale, as follows:
<here, make a list of tasks that will need completing as part of your research project, and how long you predict each will take in terms of weeks or months. End with a final count of months. If you have a predicted start date, you can begin with this and work towards a proposed end date.>
12. References / Bibliography
Note: the reference list should always begin on a new page. Depending on your subject, there will probably be a specific set referencing pattern for written work (Chicago, Harvard, MLA, Social Sciences?).
Before you start writing, make sure you know what the convention for your subject area is, learn it and stick to it. There are a wide variety of different referencing conventions so it is important to make sure you find the correct one and are consistent.
This will make doing your research proposal and future research a lot easier. Depending on your subject, your referencing may involve in-text citations or footnotes. Either way, your proposal will need a full reference list or bibliography at the end, including all of the secondary works you have mentioned in your literature review and primary sources (if applicable).
You do not, however, need to include work that you have read in preparation but not used or mentioned in your work. Make sure this is correctly formatted: plenty of style guides for each referencing style are available online. Also remember to lay out your reference list in alphabetical order by author’s surname.