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Other assessments: Research proposals

“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.”

Denis F. Reardon, Doing your undergraduate project

Whilst writing a research proposal is the first step of undertaking a final year project or dissertation, it is often given as a separate assignment, usually in the second year of undergraduate 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.


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The function of research proposal

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.
Diagram: Show the focus + Show the need + Show you can + Show how

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).


Selecting a topic

Usually research proposals are the first stage of the process leading to your final year 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 level you do not have to find something completely unique, 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 or 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.


Essential elements in a research proposal

Working title

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.

Introduction

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.

Methodology

Some disciplines may prefer this to be titled '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. Check with your tutor if you are unsure.

Ethical considerations

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.

References

Your proposal should be fully referenced.


Reviewing the literature

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.


icon of person asking why

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.


arrow and plus sign between two lines

At undergraduate 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.


icon person reading with a big tick

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.


icon of link

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.

Developing your research questions

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 the 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.

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 

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.

Writing style

Future tense - use of first person

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