, Ph.D., C.Psych.
Research Director, Graduate Program in
Trinity Western University
Langley, BC, Canada
Most students and beginning researchers do not
fully understand what a research proposal means, nor do they understand
its importance. To put it bluntly, one's research is only as a good
as one's proposal. An ill-conceived proposal dooms the project even
if it somehow gets through the Thesis Supervisory Committee. A high
quality proposal, on the other hand, not only promises success for
the project, but also impresses your Thesis Committee about your
potential as a researcher.
A research proposal is intended to convince
others that you have a worthwhile research project and that you
have the competence and the work-plan to complete it. Generally,
a research proposal should contain all the key elements involved
in the research process and include sufficient information for the
readers to evaluate the proposed study.
Regardless of your research area and the methodology
you choose, all research proposals must address the following questions:
What you plan to accomplish, why you want to do it and how you are
going to do it.
The proposal should have sufficient information
to convince your readers that you have an important research idea,
that you have a good grasp of the relevant literature and the major
issues, and that your methodology is sound.
The quality of your research proposal depends
not only on the quality of your proposed project, but also on the
quality of your proposal writing. A good research project may run
the risk of rejection simply because the proposal is poorly written.
Therefore, it pays if your writing is coherent, clear and compelling.
This paper focuses on proposal writing rather
than on the development of research ideas.
It should be concise and descriptive. For example,
the phrase, "An investigation of . . ." could be omitted. Often
titles are stated in terms of a functional relationship, because
such titles clearly indicate the independent and dependent variables.
However, if possible, think of an informative but catchy title.
An effective title not only pricks the reader's interest, but also
predisposes him/her favourably towards the proposal.
It is a brief summary of approximately 300 words.
It should include the research question, the rationale for the study,
the hypothesis (if any), the method and the main findings. Descriptions
of the method may include the design, procedures, the sample and
any instruments that will be used.
The main purpose of the introduction is to provide
the necessary background or context for your research problem. How
to frame the research problem is perhaps the biggest problem in
If the research problem is framed in the context
of a general, rambling literature review, then the research question
may appear trivial and uninteresting. However, if the same question
is placed in the context of a very focused and current research
area, its significance will become evident.
Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules
on how to frame your research question just as there is no prescription
on how to write an interesting and informative opening paragraph.
A lot depends on your creativity, your ability to think clearly
and the depth of your understanding of problem areas.
However, try to place your research question
in the context of either a current "hot" area, or an older area
that remains viable. Secondly, you need to provide a brief but appropriate
historical backdrop. Thirdly, provide the contemporary context in
which your proposed research question occupies the central stage.
Finally, identify "key players" and refer to the most relevant and
representative publications. In short, try to paint your research
question in broad brushes and at the same time bring out its significance.
The introduction typically begins with a general
statement of the problem area, with a focus on a specific research
problem, to be followed by the rational or justification for the
proposed study. The introduction generally covers the following
- State the research problem, which is often
referred to as the purpose of the study.
- Provide the context and set the stage for
your research question in such a way as to show its necessity
- Present the rationale of your proposed study
and clearly indicate why it is worth doing.
- Briefly describe the major issues and sub-problems
to be addressed by your research.
- Identify the key independent and dependent
variables of your experiment. Alternatively, specify the phenomenon
you want to study.
- State your hypothesis or theory, if any.
For exploratory or phenomenological research, you may not have
any hypotheses. (Please do not confuse the hypothesis with the
statistical null hypothesis.)
- Set the delimitation or boundaries of your
proposed research in order to provide a clear focus.
- Provide definitions of key concepts. (This
Sometimes the literature review is incorporated
into the introduction section. However, most professors prefer a
separate section, which allows a more thorough review of the literature.
The literature review serves several important
- Ensures that you are not "reinventing the
- Gives credits to those who have laid the
groundwork for your research.
- Demonstrates your knowledge of the research
- Demonstrates your understanding of the theoretical
and research issues related to your research question.
- Shows your ability to critically evaluate
relevant literature information.
- Indicates your ability to integrate and synthesize
the existing literature.
- Provides new theoretical insights or develops
a new model as the conceptual framework for your research.
- Convinces your reader that your proposed
research will make a significant and substantial contribution
to the literature (i.e., resolving an important theoretical issue
or filling a major gap in the literature).
Most students' literature reviews suffer from
the following problems:
- Lacking organization and structure
- Lacking focus, unity and coherence
- Being repetitive and verbose
- Failing to cite influential papers
- Failing to keep up with recent developments
- Failing to critically evaluate cited papers
- Citing irrelevant or trivial references
- Depending too much on secondary sources
Your scholarship and research competence will
be questioned if any of the above applies to your proposal.
There are different ways to organize your literature
review. Make use of subheadings to bring order and coherence to
your review. For example, having established the importance of your
research area and its current state of development, you may devote
several subsections on related issues as: theoretical models,
measuring instruments, cross-cultural and gender differences, etc.
It is also helpful to keep in mind that you
are telling a story to an audience. Try to tell it in a stimulating
and engaging manner. Do not bore them, because it may lead to rejection
of your worthy proposal. (Remember: Professors and scientists are
human beings too.)
The Method section is very important because
it tells your Research Committee how you plan to tackle your research
problem. It will provide your work plan and describe the activities
necessary for the completion of your project.
The guiding principle for writing the Method
section is that it should contain sufficient information for the
reader to determine whether methodology is sound. Some even argue
that a good proposal should contain sufficient details for another
qualified researcher to implement the study.
You need to demonstrate your knowledge of alternative
methods and make the case that your approach is the most appropriate
and most valid way to address your research question.
Please note that your research question may
be best answered by qualitative research. However, since most mainstream
psychologists are still biased against qualitative research, especially
the phenomenological variety, you may need to justify your qualitative
Furthermore, since there are no well-established
and widely accepted canons in qualitative analysis, your method
section needs to be more elaborate than what is required for traditional
quantitative research. More importantly, the data collection process
in qualitative research has a far greater impact on the results
as compared to quantitative research. That is another reason for
greater care in describing how you will collect and analyze your
data. (How to write the Method section for qualitative research
is a topic for another paper.)
For quantitative studies, the method section
typically consists of the following sections:
- Design -Is it a questionnaire study or a
laboratory experiment? What kind of design do you choose?
- Subjects or participants - Who will take
part in your study ? What kind of sampling procedure do you use?
- Instruments - What kind of measuring instruments
or questionnaires do you use? Why do you choose them? Are they
valid and reliable?
- Procedure - How do you plan to carry out
your study? What activities are involved? How long does it take?
Obviously you do not have results at the proposal
stage. However, you need to have some idea about what kind of data
you will be collecting, and what statistical procedures will be
used in order to answer your research question or test you hypothesis.
It is important to convince your reader of the
potential impact of your proposed research. You need to communicate
a sense of enthusiasm and confidence without exaggerating the merits
of your proposal. That is why you also need to mention the limitations
and weaknesses of the proposed research, which may be justified
by time and financial constraints as well as by the early developmental
stage of your research area.
Common Mistakes in Proposal Writing
- Failure to provide the proper context to
frame the research question.
- Failure to delimit the boundary conditions
for your research.
- Failure to cite landmark studies.
- Failure to accurately present the theoretical
and empirical contributions by other researchers.
- Failure to stay focused on the research question.
- Failure to develop a coherent and persuasive
argument for the proposed research.
- Too much detail on minor issues, but not
enough detail on major issues.
- Too much rambling -- going "all over the
map" without a clear sense of direction. (The best proposals move
forward with ease and grace like a seamless river.)
- Too many citation lapses and incorrect references.
- Too long or too short.
- Failing to follow the APA style.
- Slopping writing.