Structure of research proposal

7 min read

So, you have found a research topic that excites you, you have done your literature review and formulated research questions and are now required to write a research proposal. But, you are not sure what is the structure of a research proposal? This article is meant to explain the basic components of a typical research proposal for a PhD which you can then build on and customize as per the guidelines provided by your program.

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is a document explaining an innovative research idea and how it would be add-on over the existing state-of-the-art. As the name suggests, it is a proposal, meaning that a researcher is proposing the what, why and how of the intended research topic. A research proposal could technically be written by any qualified researcher in order to undertake research on a particular topic, in this article, the focus is mostly on a PhD research proposal.

 

The exact tone and contents of a proposal might vary across disciplines and also depending on the intended reader (could be your supervisor,  funding committee, industrial partner, etc.). An early stage PhD researcher typically would be writing a PhD research proposal targeted at their supervisor and the University Admissions Committee to convince them of the worthiness of the research topic.

What is the structure of research proposal?

So, now that you know what a research proposal is and who is it for, the next obvious question you might be having is what goes in it? Broadly speaking, it should cover the what, why and how of the research but in this section, we will look into these aspects in more detail.

Let us look into the outline of a good research proposal for PhD:

  • Topic (What?): While your research proposal is a multi-page document, it is the research topic (or your working title) that will briefly summarize what the research is all about. A good research topic is:

    • free from any jargon
    • concise and memorable
    • easy for readers to interpret
    • free of abbreviations

  • Introduction (Why?): One thing to keep in mind while writing out the proposal, especially the introduction is to not assume that the reader knows your topic. This will help you explain the crucial concepts as opposed to assuming prior readers knowledge. Introduction could be broadly broken down into following subsections:

    • Motivation:
      • Why is the topic relevant?
      • Who is it for?

    • Background:
    • Relevance:
      • Why is now the best time to look into this research topic
      • Why are you the ideal candidate to do so?

  • Methodology (How?): Once you establish the relevance and importance of your research topic, the next step in your research proposal is to explain how will go about it- the methodology. This could include things like:

    • Procedure:
      • What technique will be used to identify, select, process, and analyze information about the research topic?
      • Will there be external/internal stimuli?
      • Will there be benchmark datasets you can use to evaluate your approach?

    • Timeline:
      • How long will the project take?
      • What are the key milestones for monitoring progress?
      • Are there any checkpoints?
      • What are the risks involved?
      • What are the contingencies to mitigate the risk?
      • When are the contingencies triggered?

  • Benefits (Who?): Now that you have explained the what, why and the how of your research, another crucial component remains to be discussed- the benefits. Aside from enhancements over the state-of-the-art, this is your chance to discuss any benefits to the society and industry, i.e., benefits of your research to stakeholders outside academia.

  • Collaborators: If there are some prominent authors that are highly cited in your field, you could try to see if there is a possibility to invite them as collaborators for your project. When doing so, do not go after their titles as a measure of their authority. Instead, you would want to invite people who bring in complementary expertise to that of yours thereby increasing the chances of success of the project while giving you exposure. Intent to collaborate from strong peers could also serve as a good sign of trust on the research topic you are proposing.

  • Budget (optional): While most universities have pre-allocated budgets for PhD candidates, in some cases, you might be required to provide a budget allocation for the project. In such cases, you would need to consider:

    • Personnel Cost:
      • Aside from you, perhaps there might be some juniors working under you that need to draw their salary from the project?
    • Material Cost:
      • Would you need some equipment- hardware or software to accomplish your research goals?
      • Would you need any specialized training or certifications to undertake the proposed research?
    • Travel Cost:
      • Would you need to visit some outstation partners of the project?
      • Would you need to travel to collect participant data and administer trials?

  • Bibliography: It is imperative that you maintain a full list of references that are cited within the main body of your research proposal. This way, the reader/reviewer can easily gauge if you are up to speed with the recent advances and if your claims are based on latest works. Be mindful when consider works as state of the art- There is an unsaid rule to consider the works in the past 5-7 years when evaluating state of art though the exact number might vary depending on the rate of progress in research in your specific field.
 
 


As a side note, if you have the allowance for it, you can consider adding basic images as a part of your proposal. Often times, such multimedia enhances the readability of the document, all the more so, for someone looking to get a grasp with a quick glance.

Key takeaways

The aim of this article was to describe how to write research proposal step by step especially geared towards early-stage PhD scholars. Writing a research proposal is something most PhD researchers have to do for their dissertation but something often most struggle with. Also, bear in mind that the reviewer of your proposal will likely be reviewing multiple such proposals so the easier you make it for them to grasp the contents, the better.

You could go after something that sounds cool versus something that has potential for some real world impact. Often, impactful research is highly sought after but make sure you are not going after an extremely overarching topic making it near impossible to finish your thesis in time. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, do not try to plagiarize using one of the templates off the internet of that of one of your friends. The more thoroughly you know your niche, the better your research proposal will turn out to be.

 
 The research proposal outline discussed in this article was intentionally kept generic to make it adaptable to various disciplines. Aside from the aspects discussed in the outline above, your own degree program might require some specialized inputs for the research proposal such as an Ethics Board Approval and so on. So, be sure to carefully read the guidelines while preparing the research proposal. While people understand that the proposal is not set in stone and is likely going to evolve over time, the more time and effort you invest in carefully curating it and minimizing the number of revisions needed to get it accepted, the more time and effort you can save down the line.