Writing a Research Proposal

Writing a research proposal requires specialized skills and attention to intricate details. Neglect in these areas can result in the presentation of a paper that lacks quality and technical soundness (from a research viewpoint). One can find many tips to improve proposal writing from research textbooks and myriad of website articles. However, there is one thing that I personally would like to emphasize and encourage researchers to remember:


A researcher should consider the possible questions readers might have (if they had to read and examine the proposal) and answer all these questions, as accurately and comprehensively as possible. Anticipating the doubts others might have about the research framework allows a researcher to touch base with all aspects of an investigation prior to executing the actual plan.

The following is a format for writing a research proposal (explanation for each sub-heading is given for clarity):


You start off by giving readers a general idea about your topic. Be brief. Your introduction should be engaging and stimulating in a way that readers will be interested and attracted to read further. A lengthy introduction might result in unfavorable ‘first impression’. Do not use factual statements (as yet). Avoid references at this juncture. Write the introduction in your own words. Imagine you are starting a conversation with someone and you desire to keep the one listening to you attentive all through.

Background of the StudyPresent the motivation for doing the research. Indicate what made you become interested in the topic in the first place. Is the topic directly related to you? Or is it a phenomenon that you observed to be prevalent in your surrounding? Why are you driven to investigate and study the topic?

Statement of the ProblemThis is where you explain your topic. You will recall that in the title page, your statement of the topic is very brief and non-explanatory. So, this is where you get to expound on your topic. You can narrow the area of investigation by pointing out your concerns and focus in the research. For example, you can write, “For the purpose of this research, the researcher will investigate the effects of extrinsic motivation on math performance of third graders…” Here, the researcher is narrowing down the construct – motivation – to ‘extrinsic motivation’…this means that the researcher is not interested in studying the effects of intrinsic motivation on math performance. You can also state the variables (dependent and independent variables) involved in the study under this section. Many scholars say that ‘Statement of the Problem’ is the HEART of any research proposal. So, make sure that you are specific, concise, and distinctive in elaborating the topic under investigation.

Purpose of the Study (Objectives of the Study)What is to be accomplished by the research? What is your research going to accomplish that other researches didn’t accomplish? These objectives are specific aims of the research, often broken down according to what is to be accomplished into smaller logical components. In other words, specific objectives relate to the specific research question/hypothesis the investigator wants to answer through a proposed study. It is advisable to work on a few specific objectives; an average of three and a maximum of five are appropriate. E.g., The study will ascertain/measure the degree and direction of relationship between variable A and variable B; The study will examine and describe and the type of attitude male prisoners hold toward female counselors; The study will compare the learning styles of individuals from various cultural groups; etc. (the verbs used in the statement of objectives must be specific, measurable, and to a certain extend, observable).

Significance of the StudyDon’t confuse this section with the previous one. Under this section, you are supposed to elaborate on the benefits of your research and indicate to whom the benefits are directed at. For example, an educational research may benefit teachers, parents, school administrators, school counselors, and students. Explain how (exactly) each of these persons would benefit from the findings and results of your study. In other words, you get to defend your research (why is it essential or crucial?). Why will the world be a less better place if your research was not carried out? In other words, you justify the execution of your research under this section. To be convincing, you must write from your heart. Remember, effective persuasion is a matter of the heart as well as the mind. So, it is essential that you sound personal in this section. This is the main thrust of this section.

Statement of Hypotheses or Questions Guiding the StudyHypotheses are meant for a quantitative study, while Questions are meant for a qualitative study. Hypotheses can be stated in null, or directional, or non-directional forms. Questions must be stated as questions (not as statements that may sound like questions!). Remember, questions here are not similar to your interview or survey questions. These are questions that will guide your study until its completion. So, they must be broad questions that would explore different aspects of the problem under investigation. Do not formulate too many or too few hypotheses or questions. This section of your proposal must correspond to whatever you write under the ‘statement of the problem’ and ‘objectives of the study’ sections. These three sections are closely related.

Basic AssumptionsAssumptions are beliefs or feelings that something is true or that something will happen, although you have no direct way of proving that it is/will. In this section, you have to elucidate the assumptions that you hold while conducting the study. One common assumption that every researcher states in his/her research paper is that he/she assumes that the participants of the study responded to the questionnaire administered to them honestly. Here, ‘honesty’ is something we assume to be present. However, we do not have a way of proving if the participants were indeed honest or otherwise. Writing this section may take a while and requires a lot of thinking. But it is important to present your assumptions so that readers will understand the context of the research and will not use the findings and results of the study carelessly.

LimitationsEvery research has its own limitations. Some researches have more limitations than others. It is the duty of the researcher to list down the limitations (of his/her study) to prevent later misuse of research findings and results. Limitations are factors, beyond the control and intent of the researcher, that negatively affect the study. Examples of limitations of a study can be: researcher bias (esp. in a qualitative research), inappropriateness of the interpretive methods utilized, and insufficiency in the selection of sample (small sample size), time constraint, financial constraint, etc.

DelimitationsThese are boundaries or scope of the research. In this section, you will talk about generalizability of your study (to what extent can your research findings and results be applied to other similar settings?). You can also write about the scope of the contributions (usefulness) of your research. By doing so, you are actually guarding yourself from being misquoted (unethically) by other researchers or readers in the future.

Definition of TermsDefining key concepts or terms – clarifying terms that carry specific meaning for the purpose of research – This is where you operationalize your constructs, making them measurable variables (for example, ‘motivation’ is a construct until you define it in measurable terms…so, in your research, you might refer to ‘extrinsic motivation’ as measured by a particular standardized tool when you talk about ‘motivation’). Other terms that need clarification must be defined too. The purpose of defining is to let others know that certain terms mean something very specific in your research. This helps narrow down the breadth of your research.

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A summary of the writings of recognized authorities and of previous research provides evidence that the researcher is familiar with what is already known and what is still unknown and untested. Since effective research is based upon past knowledge, this step helps to eliminate the duplication of what has been done and provides useful hypotheses/questions and helpful suggestions for significant investigation. Citing studies that show substantial agreement and those that seem to present conflicting conclusions helps to sharpen and define understanding of existing knowledge in the problem area, provides a background for the research project, and makes the reader aware of the status of the issue. Parading a long list of annoted studies relating to the problem is ineffective and inappropriate. Only those studies that are plainly relevant, competently executed, and clearly reported should be included under this section (be selective; include supporting and contradictory literature related to your topic; incorporate new and old literature) – always end this section with a short summary (your reflection).



This part of the research proposal usually consists of two parts: Type of Research and Research Design

Type of Research State and explain the type of research you are currently carrying out. Research is broadly categorized as quantitative or qualitative. However, mentioning whether a research is quantitative or qualitative is not sufficient. It is also important that the researcher specifies the specific type of research method that will be utilized to investigate the topic of his/her interest. Examples of methods you might use for a psychological research are: causal-comparative, correlational, survey, descriptive study, experimental or quasi-experimental, historical, ethnography, action research, etc. You might even want to mention why you are choosing to stick to a particular type of research (why is this more appropriate than other types of research?). Brief explanation of the type of research is also essential (in your own words).

Research Design This is said to be the blueprint or foundation of the whole research project. It gives information about the manner in which the study will be conducted in order to successfully collect and analyze the necessary data. Research Design consists of the following sub-sections:

Subjects (Participants of the Study)important things to note here: age, gender, grade level, socioeconomic status, race, IQ, mental age, academic achievement level, and other demographics (depending on the nature of the study). The researcher must indicate why a particular population was selected, and justify his/her choice with sufficient proposition in relation to his/her investigation. In a qualitative study, the researcher writes about The Participants of the Study. However, in a quantitative study, the researcher elaborates this section in terms of two other sub-sections called:

Population (how big? why use this population? what are the characteristics of the population?)

Sample (how big? what sampling technique is to obtain the sample group? why this particular size and group? what are the characteristics of the sample?)

InstrumentationDescribe the tools that will be used for the purpose of data collection. Also, defend why you choose to use a particular type of tool or tools and not others. Examples of data collection tools are as follows: Questionnaires, psychological inventories and scales (self-constructed or standardized), observation, interview, etc.

Procedures for Data CollectionThis section describes in detail what will be done, how it will be done, what data will be needed, and how the researcher will go about obtaining what is needed. It lists down all the procedures (step-by-step) involved in the process of data collection, from securing permission to enter into research site, until the data is finally collated.

Data AnalysisUnder this section, the researcher will write about his/her plan of action to treat the ‘raw’ data collated from research site. In a quantitative study, statistical testing makes up the major part of data analysis. Meanwhile, in a qualitative study, content analysis, meta-analysis, theme-building, pattern-finding, etc. kind of techniques are used to analyze the field notes collated over a period of time.

Time ScheduleThis is an important section to write because it will help the researcher to budget his/her time and energy effectively. Dividing the project into manageable parts and assigning dates for their completion helps to systematize the study and minimize the natural tendency to procrastinate.

Copyright June 2006 by Dr. Edward Roy Krishnan, www.affectiveteaching.com

2 thoughts on “Writing a Research Proposal”

  1. Dear sir,
    Your “wrting a research proposal” is excellent and in perfect order. Made simple it is good and offers an excellent resource to research students.
    All the best.
    May God bless you and help you to bring out good articles like these.
    with Love

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