How to write a Research Proposal

A research proposal is required for various purposes. For instance, a student seeking admission in an academic program needs to submit a research proposal along with their application to the admission committee. Similarly, a regular student is required to write a research proposal and get it approved by the supervisor to start the research as a part of an academic program. Moreover, it is sometimes required to submit a research proposal to a financing organization to finance the intended research.

A research proposal is an outline of the proposed research which you are going to undertake. It introduces your research area and reflects what do you intend to explore and how will you explore it. A research proposal is mainly focused on the following:

  1. A brief introduction to the research area – the title.
  2. What do you intend to explore – research questions and objectives.
  3. How will you explore it – research methodology.

The above three areas constitute the crux of a research proposal, and without them, a research proposal is considered incomplete. These three areas are structured by dividing them into various topics which makes the complete format of a research proposal.

A research proposal is assessed on the basis of its format as well as its contents. Hence, we will discuss both of them.


A research proposal has a widely accepted format that is adopted in all disciplines. There may be minor variation depending on discipline, but the overall structure remains the same. The size of a research proposal varies according to the purpose of its use as well nature of the proposed research.

  1. Title Page: It is the first page showing your research title. It should have the following:
    • At top of the page, write ‘Research Proposal’ to name the document.
    • Below that, write your RESEARCH TITLE in comparatively larger font size and capital letters.
    • At mid of the page, write ‘submitted by’ and add your name and details.
    • Below that, write ‘submitted to’ and add the name of the professor, the department and the institution to which the document is submitted.
  2. A brief introduction to the title: Introduce your research area by giving specific introductory information about it. For instance, define the terms included in the title, if any. Also, add some general contextual information to further elaborate the research title. Explain in such a way that brings the problem to the front and highlight it as a researchable topic.
  3. Significance of the study: Describe the importance of your research area. How can it benefit the general public, development community (including government bodies) and researcher community (e.g., future researchers)? How does it add to the existing body of knowledge? How can it contribute to social, economic or technological advancement? Answering these questions justifies the importance of the research topic. The purpose here is to convince the reader that the topic is worth researching.
  4. Review of Literature: This part highlights the relevant research already done on the topic. It has several purposes. It helps in reflecting on the basic aspect of the chosen topic in the light available literature. It points out the knowledge-gaps in available literature which needs to be explored. It provides a theoretical base for conducting the research. For a research proposal, the ‘review of the literature’ should only be of two to three pages. Therefore, give a brief account of a few existing studies which are important and only highlight the most relevant assumptions of these studies.
  5. Research Questions and Objectives: Objectives are the aims to be achieved by the research. Research questions are simply those questions which need to be answered through the research. The wordings of research questions and research objectives may be slightly different but both points to aims you want to achieve through the research. For the proposal, it is better to either write the questions or the objective rather than writing both. Questions are interrogative sentences starting with ‘what, why and how’. For writing objectives, action-oriented words (such as to explore, to examine, to investigate) are used, e.g., to explore the socio-economic impacts of phenomena; to examine the hormonal changes in some medical phenomena.
  6. Methodology: This part reflects on methods and tools which will be used in the research. For instance, whether a quantitative method or a qualitative method will be used. A student can also use a mixed-method approach which is a combination of both the aforementioned methods. Moreover, which techniques will be used for collecting data. This involves explaining sampling procedures, sample size, and tools for data collection such as questionnaire, interviews, observation, technical devices for measures as used in physical sciences. The methodology section can include many other methodological aspects such as coding variable, treatment of missing values, reliability and validity, tests to be used. However, the research proposal is generally seen as a starting plan and thus, only the major methodological aspects should be discussed rather than discussing every aspect which may also not be possible at this point.
  7. Data Analysis: Describe the techniques you will use to analyse the data after collecting it. These techniques for analysis are linked to the nature of the research whether it is quantitative or qualitative research. For instance, quantitative research uses certain statistical techniques for analysis such as analysis based on measurement or statistical comparison of frequencies and mean values. The qualitative research may involve assessing common patterns in the qualitative data and thus, identifying certain themes for analysis. For the research proposal, the student may discuss only the major style intended for analysis such as that how the data will be presented (e.g., graphs, charts, tables and diagram) to be analysed.
  8. Ethical Considerations: Research dealing with human subjects involve some ethical considerations such that the researcher needs to maintain the privacy of the respondent, to collect data from them based on their consent, to give respect to them and not to force or harm them. If your research involves these considerations, you need to outline these considerations briefly and that how you will take care of these considerations, such as by using an informed-consent document, destroying the collected data after completing the research and by not storing or making public the identifiable information (e.g. names and addressed) of respondents.
  9. Bibliography / References: Write references of the sources you have used for writing your research proposal, e.g., books, publications, thesis, journals, etc. Most of these references pertain to the literature review section where facts from previous studies have been discussed. The widely accepted styles for writing reference are APA style and MLA style.Each of these styles has slightly different formats for writing references but each style mainly includes the name of the author of book, date of publication, title of the book, and place of publication. Either of these two styles can be used.
    Use the term ‘Bibliography’ or ‘References’ as a heading for the list of all references. These terms are used interchangeably, though there is a minor difference in both terms. The term ‘Bibliography’ is used to refer to sources utilized only for taking help from them but are not actually included in the proposal. The term ‘reference’ is used to refer to the sources used for taking help and are also actually included in the proposal.


Now that you have learnt the format of a research proposal, consider the following points for writing the content of the research proposal.

  1. Be concise and specific: Try to be very specific in describing each part of the research proposal. It should be a short document and at the same time, it should give all the details of your intended research. Write only the necessary information in a comprehensive manner and avoid writing irrelevant and unnecessary explanations.
  2. Use Future Tense: A research proposal is an outline of your proposed research which you will undertake in future. Hence, use future tense for the actions to be done in the research e.g. A survey method will be employed in the research. A close-ended questionnaire will be used for the collection of the data.
  3. Use a formal style of writing: Avoid informal style of writing e.g. I will use a survey method in the research. Use a formal style of writing e.g. A survey method will be employed in the research.
  4. Use a correct style for in-text citation: You need to cite a research study, book or publication correctly while mentioning it in your proposal, especially in the ‘review of literature’ section. For instance, you are adding a definition of a term in your research proposal, you have to give a proper citation within the text. It is called an in-text citation, e.g. A conflict can be defined as a situation where all the parties with diverging interests or beliefs cannot achieve their interest at a same time (Rubin, 1995). You can see that within the brackets there is the name of the scholar who has given the definition and year of his publication in which this definition was given. It is a short citation. The complete reference is given at the end of the proposal under the heading ‘Bibliography or References’.
  5. Research questions or objectives? – You can use both or either one of them. Both revolve around the statements you want to explore in the research. For a detailed research proposal, you may need to write both – where a research question may reflect a combination of aims (one or two aims) while an objective reflects on a very specific aim. For a short research proposal, (e.g. for initial approval for admission), better use only one of them, not both. The question statement starts with words such as what, why, how etc.  The objective statement starts with action-oriented words, e.g., to examine, to probe into, to investigate.
  6. If you are new to research, discuss your research methodology with a person having research expertise (e.g., your professor) to advise you on adopting the most suitable methodology. The research methodology depends on the nature of the research as well as the objectives of your research. Hence, it is very important to choose the correct methodology for writing it in your research proposal.
  7. References / Bibliography: It is the last page. Write the list of all references in alphabetical order without giving them numbers or bullets. Sometimes, a department or an institution prefer to choose a specific style (either APA or MLA), better adopt that style for writing your references.
  8. Proofreading: After writing your research proposal, read it many times to ensure that there is no writing or typing mistake (typo), spelling errors and grammatical mistake.
  9. Taking print-out: Design it in a computer to take its print-out. Use proper font type e.g. Times New Romans or Arial or any other. Use proper font size, e.g., 12px for Times New Roman for the text of the main body of the proposal. Give numberings to the topics of the proposal e.g. 1. Introduction, 2. Literature Review, 3. Research Objectives, 4. Methodology and so on. For sub-topics use numbers like 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and so on.