5 Tips on writing a research proposal

masters phd research May 29, 2023
person holding red pen and writing in a book

Previously I have written about how to propose a research and it deals with the considerations for before the research proposal stage. Off that article, I have had some questions for tips on how one should actually write a research proposal.

A research proposal is an important document for a researcher because it lays the foundation for the research to other people who may be interested in it, ie. supervisors, participants, funders, PhD panel, reviewers etc.

This article is about tips on how to start writing a research. I will NOT write about how to structure one because that is everywhere in books and online. In this article, I discuss how you can write a research proposal from the perspective of the reader (supervisors etc.). This is important because while this proposal is useful for you, the proposal is actually more for your readers. There is no point in writing a research proposal if you are not addressing the questions that the reader may have as they go through the document. I have reviewed a few PhD proposals for some applicants over the past 3 years and have helped a few students construct their PhD proposal so I am sharing the problems they have faced and tips I have shared with them.


Tip 1: Please do not be verbose

Your research proposal should not be too long. For PhD applications, there is typically a 5-page limit, for review purposes, a 2-page limit. The research proposal should not be longer than the limit, if possible, shorter. A research proposal is not a research protocol. Often it is not useful to consider theoretical frameworks, an introduction to common methods used etc.
People who read research proposals such as funders, research officers, application team usually have a huge load to get through. You need to capture their attention and you need to keep them interested throughout the proposal. Get to the point, be clear, use diagrams, use tables, be methodical. Every line in your research proposal should be directly related to your research and your justifications for your plan.


Tip 2: Tell the reader about what is happening in the field and why is your research is important

This would be your literature review/background section. Definitely, be succinct but you also need to address clearly what the problems are why is this problem worth solving. As much as academic rigour is important, you need to realise that these readers have their own interests, be it financial goals, research interests, political aims.

A good way to stand out is to show your readers how your research aligns with the goals of your stakeholders. Show interest and awareness of their corporate goals, read up the university’s 5-year strategy document. Take on a worldly perspective about your research, think about how it can be of benefit to your stakeholders, professional bodies, the government and the world. Think outside the box. You are not expected to change the world with one research but it helps to demonstrate that you are not doing research for research sake.


Tip 3: Tell the reader how you want to go about it

The meatiest part of your proposal should be about how you will go about collecting the data, answer the research question, analyse. Be clear and be structured. For some research, it is appropriate to discuss this chronologically. For some, it makes better sense to write it like a protocol method section, exploring research design first, then sampling strategy then ethics etc. The point here is: pick a way that makes sense for your reader.

There are many guidebooks out there that discuss this specifically so I would not replicate their work. They can guide you on the specifics of individual research designs. For some clients, it takes a few sessions of consultation to even draft a research design that works. Do spend some time in this section because it is the part where it will be questioned heavily.


Tip 4: Tell your reader how you intend to spend your time

Time is always a limiting factor of any research study. Everything proposed should be accomplish-able in the given time frame. It is not sufficient to describe you aim to finish data collection by year 2 of the PhD and writing up by year 3. Think more detailed about your research plan. How much time are you allocating for your literature review? How much time will you spend on each fieldwork site? How long would it take for your ethical application to be approved? When is the first thesis draft expected? A Gantt chart is useful here to show a plan but a table of dates and activities is just as effective.


Tip 5: What do you think can go wrong and what you need

One thing people tend to forget is that a research proposal is just a plan, there will be difficulties or bumps at any point of the research. It is important to consider some potential issues that may arise and potential solutions for these issues. It demonstrates the depth of knowledge that you have in the topic and that you are ready to meet the challenges head-on or know how to avoid pitfalls. In other words, know how to be a researcher.

Especially for a PhD proposal, you are not expected to be all-knowing. It is a learning journey and you are expected to grow and develop as a researcher. Consider your own learning needs in the proposal or if there is no room for that, talk about it in your own interview. It shows growth potential!