Research proposals

Research proposals are often completed before research is undertaken. This page considers what a research proposal is, including different types of proposal, and gives details on how to structure one. There is also a checklist so that you can check your own proposal.

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is written before research is conducted in order to gain approval or funding for the research. There are two types of research proposal.

  • Approval proposal. This type of proposal is written before undertaking a final project, dissertation or thesis, and is submitted to your supervisor for approval.<.li>
  • Funding proposal. This type of proposal is submitted to an external organisation in order to seek funding for your research.

For an approval proposal, your supervisor needs to see that your research is worthwhile and has been carefully planned before you begin. This means presenting information such as the purpose of the research, its importance, previous research in the same area, how your research will be conducted, a timeframe, and the resources that will be needed.

For a funding approval, the organisation needs to see that your research represents a worthwhile investment of available funds. This type of proposal is not a mere presentation of information, but rather a form of persuasive writing. You will need to demonstrate the validity of your research design, the significance of the research, how it is relevant to the organisation, your competence as a researcher, the fitness of the research facilities, and the appropriateness of your research budget.

Structure of research proposals

Many research proposals are submitted using an application form, meaning that a formally structured document is not required. If there is no form, the following is a possible structure for a research proposal. This structure is for an approval proposal, as this is the one likely to be encountered for university study.

The proposal should begin with a Title page. This will provide a preliminary (or proposed) title for your research. Other details such as your name, university name, and supervisor’s name may also appear here.

Following this, there should be a Summary of the research proposal. This will give the key areas in the proposal, i.e. the aim, objectives, research questions, method, and timeline.

There should be an Introduction to the proposal. This will give background information and a description of the research area. It may also give the motivation for the research and explain its importance. The overall aim of the research will be given, in other words what your research will achieve. This will be accompanied by more specific research objectives, which outline the issues to be addressed in order to achieve the aim. These will be followed by the research questions which enable the objectives to be achieved (usually Why, How or What questions).

There should be a preliminary Literature review. This section provides a critical summary of previous research in the area, identifying possible gaps and how your research will fill them. This section may help to justify your research and show why it is important. Although at this stage your literature review may not be complete, your supervisor will still need to see the general framework that your research exists within, and examples of previous research in the area, in order to be confident you are approaching the research in the correct way.

Next there will be a Methodology section. This section will give information on how your research will be conducted. This includes the kind of data which will be obtained (e.g. quantitative or qualitative), the source of data, the research methodology and why this approach has been chosen. Ethical and safety issues may also be identified. Required resources may also be listed, e.g. facilities, laboratory equipment and technical help.

The proposal should include a Timeline. This section will show how you plan to finish the research within the allotted time. It should include when important aspects of the research will start and finish, for instance the literature review, stages of experiments, and chapters of the final written work (likely to be a thesis or dissertation). The timeline can be formatted as a table or a list; a GANTT chart, listing tasks (vertical axis) and time (horizontal axis), is also frequently used.

There should be a Reference section. The reference section gives full details of any sources cited in the research proposal.

Finally, there will be Appendices, which give additional information not needed in the main body. This could include interview questions, questionnaires, and pilot study data.

Other sections are also possible. For example, there may be sections on Expected results, Expected chapter outline, Supervision or Dissemination of results.


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Below is a checklist for research proposals. Use it to assess your proposal, or ask a peer.

Section Item Details OK? Comment
Title page Title There is a proposed title for the research.
Details The title page includes details such as name of author, university name, supervisor’s name.
Summary/ There is a summary of key areas of the proposal (aim, research questions, method, timeline).
IntroductionBackgroundThe research area is described.
AimThe overall aim of the research is given.
Research objectivesThere are clear and specific research objectives.
Research questionsThe research questions are stated
Literature reviewCritical summary There is a critical summary of previous research in the area.
Research gapsGaps are identified, as well as how your research will fill them.
MethodologyData type/source There is information on the type and source of data which will be obtained.
MethodologyThere are details of the research methodology and why this approach has been chosen.
Ethics/safetyEthical and safety issues are identified, if necessary.
ResourcesRequired resources are listed.
TimelineStart/end dates A timeline is given, showing start/end dates of key aspects.
FormatThe timeline is suitably formatted, e.g. table, list, GANTT chart.
Reference section/ Full details are given for all sources cited in the research proposal.
Appendices/Appendices give additional details not needed in main text.
Other sections/Other sections included, if appropriate (e.g. Expected results, Expected chapter outline, Supervision, Dissemination of results).

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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 03 March 2020.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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