- Introduction to Research Proposals
- Your Research Topic
- Writing a Research Proposal
- Common Issues with Proposals
- Worksheet for Proposal Writing – Guiding Questions
Research is a careful and systematic investigation of an area of knowledge and is a structured approach to collect, analyze, and interpret information to create new knowledge.
A research proposal clarifies the researcher’s thoughts into a coherent statement of research intent and answers three questions about the research topic:
- What are you investigating?
- Why are you conducting this research?
- How are you investigating this topic?
An upper-year undergraduate project is usually shorter and less complex than a graduate student’s project, so the length and sophistication of your proposal will vary by level of study. Different disciplines have varying expectations for your proposal. Consult with your supervisor, or an Academic Skills Instructor, to help guide you through the process of writing a research proposal.
The starting point of a research project begins with finding a topic of interest to you, followed by preliminary exploration of the topic through reading the relevant literature. As you become more familiar with the subject area you will gain a sense of the scope and complexity of the topic. At this point, you may want to narrow down the subject area and consider If this project can be achieved in the amount of time that you have available. Like a research paper, or an essay, there are steps to take to narrow your topic. Explore Choosing and Narrowing a Topic
A title is concise, but should be descriptive enough so that your reader can understand what your research is about from the title alone. Consider writing a list of key words to help you develop a strong title.
Introduction, Background Research, and Rationale
The introduction provides context for your research topic, identifies the research problem, and demonstrates how your topic fits in with past research.
Background research is required in the introduction of a proposal and involves searching for, describing, and analyzing scholarly sources that are related to your topic. Your arguments and choices in your proposal must be supported by relevant literature. You should demonstrate how your proposed study is unique and builds on previous research.
The background research in the introduction:
- brings clarity and focus to your research topic,
- provides an overview of key sources,
- provides theoretical background for the research,
- explains what research has been done and what has not,
- demonstrates how your research will contribute to the existing body of knowledge (fill the gap),
- and outlines the anticipated outcomes and significance of the research.
You may find a situation where no research has been conducted on a topic and you need to expand your research parameters by considering a different theoretical stance or a unique methodology. You can contact a Trent Librarian to help you expand your search. Book a Librarian
Once you have done a thorough search of the literature, you will discover what other researchers have found and what aspects of your topic have not been researched thoroughly, known as the research gap. The research gap forms part of your rationale, or justification, for doing the research. As well as the research gap, you should justify how your research will strengthen theoretical knowledge about your topic or provide possible practical applications for stakeholders.
Research Aims/Objectives and Research Questions
A research aim is a statement that succinctly defines the path and destination of the research and is often restates the research topic.
Objectives translate the aim of the research into operational statements and tell the reader how the research will be conducted. Objectives should be specific, unambiguous, and realistic. Some disciplines favour having the objectives reframed as research questions.
In some social science and science research it may be appropriate to include hypotheses and predictions. A hypothesis is an answer to a causal research question, and a prediction is the outcome you would observe if the hypothesis was correct. Further discussion of hypotheses and predictions.
When reviewing the literature for your research, the focus should be on the major published works in your area of interest. You will be identifying and presenting what is already known about the problem and providing a balanced view of the literature. Elements of a literature review may appear in any section of the proposal from the introduction to the methods and conclusion. More information about literature reviews.
Steps in creating a literature review:
- Identify disciplinary conventions in literature reviews by reading other literature reviews in your area of study.
- Locate literature by doing key word searches.
- Evaluate the sources that you find for relevance, accuracy, trustworthiness, and how they will contribute to your study.
- Read the literature and take notes.
- Create an outline based on your research questions and what you have found in your reading of the literature.
- Synthesize, or combine, your sources into clear paragraphs. Integrating evidence into paragraphs
- Format your references using a consistent documentation style. Documentation style by discipline
The methodology should indicate how the study will be conducted, how data will be collected, the analytical methods to be used in the study, and the process of developing findings and conclusions. The choices that you make need to address your research question(s) and be supported by the literature.
Items to consider in the research methodology section in the social sciences:
- Strategies of inquiry – quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods
- Sampling strategies and data collection
- Construction of research instruments (e.g., design of questionnaires or interviews, data collection methods in the field, ethics, pilot studies)
- Data presentation and analysis
Items to consider in the research methodology section in the humanities:
- Theoretical framework for analysis
- Primary source selection and evidence collection
- Contextualize evidence with secondary sources
- Argumentation strategy (e.g., case study, cause and effect, categorization, compare/contrast., chronological narrative)
Items to consider in the research methodology section in the sciences:
- Study design
- Data collection strategies and tools (e.g., field work, laboratory analysis, modelling)
- Data analysis, statistical assumptions, and approaches
- Quality assurance and control
Research Significance and Importance
As a part of your proposal, you may need to state the significance or importance of your research. One common theme is the research gap that you have identified in your literature review phase. You should also explain how the proposed research will contribute to the existing body of knowledge and how the outcome of the research will benefit stakeholders, such as academia, individuals and communities, industry and commerce, or policy makers.
An outline of necessary resources and a timeline of activities may be required for your project. A timeline is useful to monitor your progress through the research project.
Throughout your writing, references need to be cited and included in a reference list. The focus should be on academic sources, as well as grey literature where relevant. Documentation styles used by your discipline.
A proposal should justify the selection of your topic and provide a link between the research problem, aims, and objectives of the study. You should disclose any gaps in the literature, contradictions from previous studies, or concepts that need further exploration. Consider the importance of the study for stakeholders.
Lack of Logical Continuity
All sections of the proposal need to link together and have coherence between the units. Some examples of lack of continuity include: the introduction does not lead to the research objectives, no link between the objectives and the methodology, and information in different sections is repetitive.
Omissions in a proposal may be related to research proposal statements that are unsupported by the literature or that the literature review may be too narrow or inadequate in scope. The design and methods section may not be outlined in enough detail.
Lack of Justification of Choices
The proposal needs to outline your choices regarding how the research will be conducted. These choices need to be supported by literature. For example, the justification of the method design choices (e.g., sampling strategies, choice of instruments, and data analysis tools) need to be supported by academic sources.
Confusion about the Elements of a Research Proposal
Students are often confused about what to include in the different sections of the proposal. Confusion may arise because different disciplines have slightly different terminology for sections of a proposal. Use the above categories as a guide and consult your supervisor for specific disciplinary conventions.
Scope of the Project
The scope (size) of the project should not be so large that you are unable to complete the project in the available time and the design of the study should be achievable. As well, the project should not be too small, or narrow, with insufficient sources/data to support your arguments or be able have your results generalizable.