In most universities, to be considered for a PhD or Masters by research program, prospective students are required to submit a research (or thesis) proposal for review as part of their application. Apart from being an essential requirement for PhD entry, a research proposal could also aid your potential supervisors to better understand your line of thinking, experience in doing research and how you are planning to go about writing your thesis. In addition to this, a research proposal is a great tool that can help you to structure your thinking and outline the path you would like to follow during your PhD/masters studies.
When contacting potential supervisors or graduate research coordinators they will most often expect that you have already prepared a draft research proposal. The proposal is often utilised as an indicator to assess the quality and originality of your ideas, your skills in critical thinking, the research feasibility, and how it fits within the School or faculty’s current research focus and supervision capacity.
Before you start writing a research proposal, carefully check the website of the university you are applying for. Many universities provide guidelines on writing research proposals that will help you both to structure your thinking and meet the requirements of a specific university. Expectations on the length of the proposal differ from department to department: some departments require only several pages, while others expect a more substantial piece of work (normally could vary from 1 to 15 pages). As a guide you should aim for between 2 and 5 pages. You must check with your Faculty or School to see if they have more specific length requirements for research proposals.
What should you include in your research proposal? There is no fixed formula for writing a research proposal. However, your challenge will be to convince members of the research community or potential supervisor that you
- have identified a researchable problem
- have a theoretical background and a methodical approach to solve the problem within a realistic time frame and at reasonable expenses.
Members of the selection committee or your prospective supervisor may have to read a large number of research proposals, so good construction and legibility of your proposal is to your advantage.
In writing your research proposal you should consider:
- The field of research or topic of investigation
- Your primary research objective or central research question to address
- The value of your research and the contribution it will make to your field
- The context and background of your research
- Your research strategy and methods
Regardless of university specific requirements, the main components of a research proposal are as follows;
- Title:A precise and informative description of the research. Avoid acronyms and phrases such as “A study of …” Strive for the title to be ten words or 60 characters. In case of predefined PhD projects, a title is usually provided by the university. In other cases, an applicant is expected to provide a preliminary title which will be further elaborated in the process of thesis writing. Focus on or incorporate keywords that reference the classification of the research subject.
- Abstract:A summary of the proposed research that includes the key research question or hypothesis, the rationale for the research, the method to be employed in the study, and the expected outcomes or implications of the research.
- Table of contents: the inclusion of a table of contents will depend on the scope of your research proposal.
- Introduction: depending on the scope of your proposal, the introduction will normally contain a number of sub-sections such as;
- Background to the study
- Statement of the problem: highlights the gap in research that your research aims to address. Once the research problem is identified, you will be able to pose the main aim and objectives for your proposed research.
- Aims & significance: A clearly focused statement of the overall purpose of the proposed research. State clearly why your research findings will be important.
- Research questions and/or hypotheses:the questions that the proposed research will address and/or the hypotheses that will be tested
- Scope of your research. The limitation of the research.
- A brief literature review: It should give an overview of the current research on the topic area. A preliminary review of the key research that has already been carried out in the field and identification of the gaps in the literature that the proposed research aims to fill. The literature review demonstrates the student’s knowledge of the main research achievements in the area of study. You should pay attention to providing some of the key references in your area of research which requires doing extensive research on your part. As a result of your literature review, you should identify the main gap in your research area on which you are going to focus in your research.
- Methodology: An explanation of what type of data will be required to answer the research questions or test the hypotheses and how the data will be collected and analysed (quantitative, qualitative, experimental, observation and so on), validity, (logical procedure to answer a question), reliability (Quality of measurement) and unbiased conclusion (accurate measures are taken to make sure that it is free from individual interest).
- Expected outcomes: what you hope to achieve. the proposed outcomes of the research.
- Timetable: An indication of how the research will be carried out over the duration of a full-time study (normally 3 years for PhD, 2 years for Masters by research). Develop a time table (if possible in table form), indicating the sequence of research phases and the time that you will probably need for each phase. Take into account that at this stage, it can only be estimated, but make clear that you have an idea about the time span that will be needed for each step.
- Resources: An indication of the funding that will be required over the course of the candidature (e.g., for fieldwork) as well any special materials or training that may be necessary for the successful completion of the research. List all facilities and equipment required for your project.
- Institutional fit: A statement on why the University/department/faculty is an appropriate destination for the project and an indication of potential supervisors/advisors.
- Bibliography: A full list of all references cited in your proposal.
Important issues worth considering:
- If your research involves human participants you may need to include a section on ethical considerations. You should check some literature on ethics of conducting research in your area and outline some key ethical aspects related to the proposed project.
- An obvious but very important point is the format of your research proposal. Make sure that the formatting of the document is consistent throughout. If possible, it may be a good idea to give the draft proposal to a colleague or expert for revision.
- Make sure your proposal does not contain any grammatical/spelling mistakes or typos; engage a proof reader: Request an experienced academic to proof read your proposal in order to ensure the proposal conforms to institutional and international academic standards.
- The proposal is not a fixed blueprint. It is important to remember that a research proposal is a provisional rather than a definitive document. It will most likely change extensively during the first months of your studies.
- Please note that the initial proposal is for the purposes of providing an understanding of your research interests. Nevertheless, at the stage of application it is an essential document that aids evaluators make their decision in relation to your application. Therefore, it is worth investing time and effort in it!
Characteristics of good research proposals
No matter what length your research proposal is, it should answer the following questions:
- What is the research problem?
- What will your research contribute toward solving the identified problem?
- How will you go about investigating the problem?
- How important will be your research findings?
Please note that the recommendations in this article do not guarantee admission into a PhD/Masters by research program! They are intended to help you conceptualize and prepare a research proposal, giving the process structure.