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“the proposal should be informative, explanatory, clear and succinct and should not leave any possibility of misinterpretation of what you intend to do and how you intend to do it.”
Whilst writing a research proposal is the first step of undertaking an independent project or dissertation, it is often given as a separate assignment, usually in the second year of undergraduate study or early in masters study, and we have therefore given it its own guide.
Writing a proposal can be tricky. There is usually a tight word count and a lot to say. This guide looks at the process of choosing a topic, reviewing the literature, developing your research questions and showing how your proposed research will answer them.
The main function of a research proposal is to convince the reader that your research is well thought through, has a clear purpose and should be approved. That means it should:
- Clearly articulate your research focus (what it is and what it isn't).
- Justify the need for your research (filling a gap, new approach/angle, usefulness etc).
- Show how it is achievable (in the time/with the resources/ethics considered etc).
- Give all the important details of how the research will be undertaken.
If you can make a convincing, clearly written case for the research then not only should it be approved, but the proposal itself should achieve a high mark (if it is being marked as a separate assignment).
Usually research proposals are the first stage of the process leading to your dissertation or independent project, even if they are being marked as a separate assignment. It is therefore important to spend some time making sure you choose the right piece of research to propose!
You may have been provided with a list of potential topics or even specific questions to choose from. It is more common for you to have to come up with your own ideas and then refine them with the help of your tutor. This is a crucial decision - if the proposal forms the basis of your dissertation or independent project then you will be immersing yourself in it for a long time. You could get ideas by considering the following:
Choose a topic that you find interesting. This may seem obvious but a lot of students go for what they think will be easy over what they think will be interesting - and regret it when they realise nothing is particularly easy and they are bored by the work. Think back over your lectures or talks from visiting speakers - was there anything you really enjoyed? Was there anything that left you with questions?
Choose something distinct. Whilst at undergraduate or masters level you do not have to find something completely unique (unlike at doctoral level), if you find something a bit different you have more opportunity to come to some interesting conclusions. Have you some unique experiences that you can bring: personal biography, placements, study abroad etc?
Don't make your topic too wide. If your topic is too wide, it will be harder to develop research questions that you can actually answer in the context of a small research project.
Don't make your work too narrow. If your topic is too narrow, you will not be able to expand on the ideas sufficiently and make useful conclusions. You will also struggle to find enough literature to support it.
Scope out the field before deciding your topic. This is especially important if you have a few different options and are not sure which to pick. Spend a little time researching each one to get a feel for the amount of literature that exists and any particular avenues that could be worth exploring.
Think about your future. Some topics may fit better than others with your future plans, be they for further study or employment. Becoming more expert in something that you may have to be interviewed about is never a bad thing!
Once you have an idea (or even a few), speak to your tutor. They will advise on whether it is the right sort of topic for a future dissertation. They have a lot of experience and will know if it is too much to take on, has enough material to build on etc.
Titles of projects change as you work on them so don't spend too much time over this. It should, however, be informative and concise. It should include:
- The broad topic
- Your focus
- The context
- An indication of the methodology (optional but useful)
Here is an example:
Transgender support in higher education: An ethnographic comparison of experiences in UK and Finnish universities.
- Broad topic: Transgenderism
- Focus: Experiences of support
- Context: = UK and Finnish universities
- Methodology: Ethnography
This isn't perfect, but it's fine as a working title.
This section will introduce the reader to the research problem and position it within existing literature.
It should provide:
- a broad overview of the topic.
- an explanation of any key terms and jargon.
- a review of the literature (see below). This may be given its own section after the introduction. Check what your tutor prefers.
- if appropriate, an indication of why now (is it topical?).
- a justification for your research and the approach you are using (see box for examples).
- Your research aims.
- Your specific research questions.
- If appropriate, an indication of what you are NOT going to be covering (give your research a boundary).
Examples of ways to justify:
- Your research looks at something in a different context (country, industry, etc) and this may have unique factors that are not taken into account by existing research.
- Recent events have changed things since previous research was undertaken and your research will bring it up to date.
- You are using a different methodology to existing research in order to add richer or more specific data to the overall picture.
Some disciplines may prefer this to be titled 'Materials and Methods' or 'Research Design' - check your instructions or ask your tutor.
- Explain which methods you will be using and most importantly why you have chosen them - how will they enable you to answer your specific research questions? More about this is given in "Selecting your methodology" below.
- Show that you have been informed by the literature - either what methods have worked to study something similar or what methods you may be choosing because they have not been used on your particular topic before. Refer back to your literature review for this.
- For masters or doctoral proposals, especially in social sciences, it may be necessary to discuss your research philosophy briefly as part of your research design, but there is rarely a need for this at undergraduate level - though it may be needed for a masters proposal in some areas. Check with your tutor if you are unsure.
Show how your research will comply with ethical guidelines. If you have people or animals in your research you will almost certainly have to fill in a separate Ethical Approval form. You should show in your proposal that you have considered these issues and give an indication of how you will ensure your research will meet ethical standards.
Some research (usually in the sciences) may have health and safety considerations and need risk assessing. Check with your supervisor if you think this may be the case. You would need to mention that you have completed a risk assessment in your proposal and probably have this attached as an appendix.
Your proposal should be fully referenced.
The main features of a review for a proposal, as compared with a full review for the actual project, are brevity and purpose. You usually have a tight word count and getting your information across succinctly but effectively is essential.
The purpose of the literature review is to answer the 'why?' questions of your proposal. Why is this a piece of research that needs doing? Why do it the way you are suggesting? Existing literature is used to help you answer these questions.
At undergraduate or even masters level you may not be finding a true 'gap' in the literature but you still need to show how your research will add something. The review has to show where that extra something will fit with what has already been done.
The third purpose of the review is to show that you are in a good position to undertake the research, i.e. you know your stuff. You are aware of the field. As this is only the proposal, it does not need to be in great detail at this stage - but if you did not mention some key piece of literature in the field in your proposal, your reviewers may question your suitability to undertake the research.
Finally, remember that you need to very specifically connect the literature to your research questions and overall aims. Show how it links to what you are trying to achieve and where the literature connects.
We have a complete SkillsGuide on Literature Reviews which includes pages on reviewing for research and the process of reviewing. We recommend that you take a look at these for more specific advice.
Although your research questions must be referred to in your literature review, they also come from your literature review. This may seem a paradox but it is simply that the literature review is two things: first, the process of reading the literature and second, the piece of writing about the literature. The process will help you develop questions and then you write about it with your questions in mind. They may change during this process, but then you just have to edit your writing to take this into account. Notice that at this stage your questions are only indicative. It is very common for them to change during the research process.
Aims versus objectives
To develop your research questions you need to be sure of your research objectives. These are not the same as your overall research aim (which may be referred to in your title). Objectives are the smaller parts of your research which, when achieved, will work together to achieve your aim.
For example, the aim of a football team is to win a match. Examples of objectives would be to win more corners and free kicks, defend well, score goals etc. Similarly, your aim may be to get a first in an essay, your objectives would be to research well, create an effective structure, write clear paragraphs etc.
So, if we look at the title from earlier:
Transgender support in higher education: An ethnographic comparison of experiences in UK and Finnish universities
The aim of the research is to compare the experiences of transgender students in the different situations, but to do this you may need to find out more specific things (your objectives).
The objectives may be:
- Find out what support transgender students are offered in a UK university
- Find out what support transgender students are offered in a Finnish university
- Discover if English students used the support
- Discover if Finnish students used the support
- Find out how each group felt about the support they received
Suitable research questions may be:
- What support have UK transgender students experienced whilst at university?
- What support have Finnish transgender students experienced whilst at university?
- How do experiences of support differ between students at UK and Finnish universities?
These are questions that can be used to develop research instruments that can be used to collect suitable data to answer them.
You may begin to get an idea of which methodology you will use to gather and analyse your data during the process of reviewing the literature. There may either be traditional approaches for your topic area or you may purposefully be deciding to choose a different approach to help you consider a different aspect of the topic. Remember at this stage, as with your questions, you are actually providing an indicative methodology. This is not written in stone and your questions or approaches may develop during the research process.
Quantitative or qualitative?
Research methodologies are generally split into quantitative and qualitative designs. These gather, analyse and present data in different ways and allow you to answer different types of research questions:
|Focus||Theory or hypothesis testing||Exploration, theory or hypothesis creation|
|Data collection||Surveys/questionnaires (closed questions), tests/experiments, existing data and documents (public records, company data etc.), some types of observation (counting/recording what happened).||Interviews, focus groups, observations, surveys with open-ended questions, existing documents, images and wider media, literature review, case studies (collection may involve a variety of methods).|
|Data analysis||Mathematical and statistical||Thematic analysis (identifying themes and patterns), content analysis (meanings of words and phrases), discourse analysis (purpose and context of communications); social network analysis (links between people and how it affects behaviours etc), narrative analysis (how stories are told in organisations or society)|
|Data presentation||Numbers, tables and graphs||Words and images|
|Terminology||Measuring, testing, objectivity, replicability||Interpretation, meaning, understanding, context, experiences, subjectivity, reliability|
Some studies use both approaches to enable the researcher to see the wider picture (through numerical measurement) as well as explore certain issues in a deeper way. Generally this takes one of the following forms:
- Your in-depth research (perhaps using interviews) provides some interesting insights and you want to see if these are applicable or repeated on a wider scale (using a survey).
- Your wide-scale research (perhaps using a survey) provides some insights and you want to dig deeper to find out more about some of these (using interviews).
Which is best for you?
Ultimately, this is something that you will need to decide in discussion with your supervisor or tutor and it will very much depend on your research questions. The table above may help you approach the conversation armed with an idea of what type of research feels right for you, and you may want to adapt your research questions to fit with the approach you feel comfortable with. Remember, your proposal must include the reasons why you selected the methodology not just describe it, so you need to be sure that the methods you have chosen will give you the best chance of answering the questions you are proposing.
Your proposal should state what you consider any possible ethical considerations to be and how you propose to manage them. You may be required to complete an ethics approval form for review at a later stage, but your proposal should flag up the sort of things that this will include. Generally, if you have human or animal participants, you will definitely need to gain ethical approval. If your research does not involve human or animal participants, you should still explain this and why there should be no ethical issues.
Research involving human participants
Any research involving human participants, even if they are anonymous, will need ethical approval and a statement including in your proposal. The statement should:
- indicate how you will recruit your participants and ensure that the have all the information they need to be able to give informed consent. Include information about how you will receive and document consent. For research involving minors, you will need to explain how you will receive informed consent from their guardians.
- describe how you will minimise any possible harm: physical, mental or social to your participants and ensure they are treated with respect throughout the course of the research and its dissemination.
- show how you will maintain the anonymity of your participants (if appropriate).
- explain how you will ensure the safety and security of the data you collect, especially anything identifying an individual or group of individuals. Include information about how and when data will be disposed of following the end of the research process.
Research involving animals
All research involving animals (vertebrates and cephalopods) needs stringent ethical review and is carried out under licences regulated by the Home Office. The university is committed to replacing, reducing and refining the use of animals in research as set out in the ARRIVE guidelines so you may wish to refer to those in your proposal in order to justify your use of animals. Your supervisor will guide you with the ethical approval procedures for such research.
If your research has the potential to involve any of the following, you should complete a risk assessment:
- Hazardous locations (laboratories, remote locations, high crime areas, overseas, close to or in water, in extreme weather conditions, in participants' homes, industrial sites, high or confined spaces etc).
- Hazardous activities (physically strenuous activities, mentally distressing activities, night-time or weekend working etc).
- Hazardous machinery (electrical equipment, machinery/instruments with moving parts etc).
- Hazardous substances (flammable, dangerous/explosive substances; asphyxiating gases; allergens; biological agents, blood and blood products).
- Hazardous physical agents (excessive noise, vibration, radiation, lasers etc).
Risk assessment templates and help with filling them in will be available from your faculty.
Be concise and specific
You have a lot to fit into a tight word count so make sure you only include the information needed to enable a reviewer to evaluate your proposal. For example, your literature review should not go into the sort of detail that you will have in the literature review for your project itself. Don't include lengthy explanations of your methods, again, leave these for writing up the project itself.
Try to be specific without giving too much detail. It can be a fine line but keep thinking 'is that enough to judge if I will be able to answer my questions?'
Do not be too tentative in your style. We are used to being cautious in academic writing but in your proposal you should be a bit more definite. So, instead of 'This research might...' or 'This research could...' write 'This research will...'.
Use the future tense
The majority of your proposal should be written in the future tense as you are explaining what you will be doing. The only place where you should use the past or present tenses is in the review of the literature where you are showing what research has gone before and what the situation currently is.
Check the use of first person writing
Some tutors specifically want you to put yourself into your proposal (after all it is you that will be carrying out the research) and so encourage and prefer the use of 'I' and 'my'. Others may be more traditional and require you to write in the third person ('interviews will be manually transcribed' rather than 'I will manually transcribe the interviews'). Check with them directly to find out their preference.