Guidelines on writing a research proposal

Guidelines on writing a research proposal

by Matthew McGranaghan

This is a work in progress, intended to organize my thoughts on the process of formulating a proposal. If you have any thoughts on the contents, or on the notion of making this available to students, please share them with me. Thanks.


This is a guide to writing M.A. research proposals. The same principles apply to dissertation proposals and to proposals to most funding agencies. It includes a model outline, but advisor, committee and funding agency expectations vary and your proposal will be a variation on this basic theme. Use these guidelines as a point of departure for discussions with your advisor. They may serve as a straw-man against which to build your understanding both of your project and of proposal writing.

Proposal Writing

Proposal writing is significant to your pursuit of a graduate degree. The proposal is, in effect, an intellectual scholastic (not legal) contract inbetween you and your committee. It specifies what you will do, how you will do it, and how you will interpret the results. In specifying what will be done it also gives criteria for determining whether it is done. In approving the proposal, your committee gives their best judgment that the treatment to the research is reasonable and likely to yield the anticipated results. They are implicitly agreeing that they will accept the result as adequate for the purpose of granting a degree. (Of course you will have to write the thesis in acceptable form, and you most likely will detect things in the course of your research that were not anticipated but which should be addressed in your thesis, but the minimum core intellectual contribution of your thesis will be set by the proposal.) Both parties benefit from an agreed upon plan.

The objective in writing a proposal is to describe what you will do, why it should be done, how you will do it and what you expect will result. Being clear about these things from the beginning will help you accomplish your thesis in a timely style. A vague, feeble or fuzzy proposal can lead to a long, painful, and often unsuccessful thesis writing exercise. A clean, well thought-out, proposal forms the backbone for the thesis itself. The structures are identical and through the miracle of word-processing, your proposal will most likely become your thesis.

A good thesis proposal hinges on a good idea. Once you have a good idea, you can draft the proposal in an evening. Getting a good idea hinges on familiarity with the topic. This assumes a longer preparatory period of reading, observation, discussion, and incubation. Read everything that you can in your area of interest. Figure out what are the significant and missing parts of our understanding. Figure out how to build/detect those lumps. Live and breathe the topic. Talk about it with anyone who is interested. Then just write the significant parts as the proposal. Packing in the things that we do not know and that will help us know more: that is what research is all about.

Proposals help you estimate the size of a project. Don’t make the project too big. Our MA program statement used to say that a thesis is equivalent to a published paper in scope. These days, sixty dual spaced pages, with figures, tables and bibliography, would be a long paper. Your proposal will be shorter, perhaps five pages and certainly no more than fifteen pages. (For perspective, the NSF thresholds the length of proposal narratives to 15 pages, even when the request might be for numerous hundreds of thousands of dollars.) The merit of the proposal counts, not the weight. Shoot for five pithy pages that indicate to a relatively well-informed audience that you know the topic and how its logic drapes together, rather than fifteen or twenty pages that indicate that you have read a lot of things but not yet boiled it down to a set of prioritized linked questions.

Different Theses, Similar Proposals

This guide includes an outline that looks like a “fill-in the blanks model” and, while in the abstract all proposals are similar, each proposal will have its own particular variation on the basic theme. Each research project is different and each needs a specifically tailored proposal to bring it into concentrate. Different advisors, committees and agencies have different expectations and you should find out what these are as early as possible; ask your advisor for advice on this. Further, different types of thesis require slightly different proposals. What style of work is published in your sub-discipline?

Characterizing theses is difficult. Some theses are “straight science”. Some are essentially opinion chunks. Some are policy oriented. In the end, they may well all be interpretations of observations, and differentiated by the rules that constrain the interpretation. (Different advisors will have different preferences about the rules, the meta-discourse, in which we all work.)

In the abstract all proposals are very similar. They need to display a reasonably informed reader why a particular topic is significant to address and how you will do it. To that end, a proposal needs to display how your work fits into what is already known about the topic and what fresh contribution your work will make. Specify the question that your research will reaction, establish why it is a significant question, showcase how you are going to response the question, and indicate what you expect we will learn. The proposal should situate the work in the literature, it should display why this is an (if not the most) significant question to reaction in the field, and woo your committee (the skeptical readers that they are) that your treatment will in fact result in an response to the question.

Theses which address research questions that can be answered by making plan-able observations (and applying hypothesis testing or model selection technics) are preferred and perhaps the easiest to write. Because they address well-bounded topics, they can be very taut, but they do require more planning on the front end. Theses which are largely based on synthesis of observations, rumination, speculation, and opinion formation are firmer to write, and usually not as wooing, often because they address questions which are not well-bounded and essentially unanswerable. (One ‘old witnessed’ about research in the social sciences is that the finding is always: “some do and some don’t”. Attempt to avoid such insight-less findings; finding “who do and who don’t” is better.) One problem with this type of project is that it is often unlikely to tell when you are “done”. Another problem is that the nature of argument for a position rather than the reasoned rejection of alternatives to it encourages shepherding a favored notion rather than converging more directly toward a truth. (See Chamberlain’s and Platt’s articles). A good proposal helps one see and avoid these problems.

Literature review-based theses involve collection of information from the literature, distillation of it, and coming up with fresh insight on an issue. One problem with this type of research is that you might find the flawless succinct reaction to your question on the night before (or after) you turn in the final draft — in someone else’s work. This certainly can knock the wind out of your sails. (But note that even a straight-ahead science thesis can have the problem of discovering, late in the game, that the work you have done or are doing has already been done; this is where familiarity with the relevant literature by both yourself and your committee members is significant.)

A Duo of Models for Proposals

A Two Page (Preliminary Proposal) Model

Here is a model for a very brief (maybe five paragraph) proposal that you might use to interest faculty in sitting on your committee. People who are not yet hooked may especially appreciate its brevity.

In the very first paragraph, the very first sentence identifies the general topic area. The 2nd sentence gives the research question, and the third sentence establishes its significance.

The next duo of paragraphs gives the larger historical perspective on the topic. Essentially list the major schools of thought on the topic and very shortly review the literature in the area with its major findings. Who has written on the topic and what have they found? Allocate about a sentence per significant person or finding. Include any preliminary findings you have, and indicate what open questions are left. Restate your question in this context, showcasing how it fits into this larger picture.

The next paragraph describes your methodology. It tells how will you treatment the question, what you will need to do it.

The final paragraph outlines your expected results, how you will interpret them, and how they will fit into the our larger understanding i.e. ‘the literature’.

The (Longer) Standard Model

The two outlines below are intended to demonstrate both what are the standard parts of a proposal and of a science paper. Notice that the only real difference is that you switch “expected results” to “results” in the paper, and usually leave the budget out, of the paper.

Another outline (maybe from Gary Fuller?).

Each of these outlines is very similar. You most likely see already that the proposal’s organization lends itself to word-processing right into the final thesis. It also makes it effortless for readers to find relevant parts more lightly. The section below goes into slightly more detail on what each of the points in the outline is and does.

The Sections of the Proposal

The Introduction

A good title will clue the reader into the topic but it can not tell the entire story. Go after the title with a strong introduction. The introduction provides a brief overview that tells a fairly well informed (but perhaps non-specialist) reader what the proposal is about. It might be as brief as a single page, but it should be very clearly written, and it should let one assess whether the research is relevant to their own. With luck it will hook the reader’s interest.

What is your proposal about? Setting the topical area is a commence but you need more, and quickly. Get specific about what your research will address.

Once the topic is established, come right to the point. What are you doing? What specific issue or question will your work address? Very shortly (this is still the introduction) say how you will treatment the work. What will we learn from your work?

Why is this work significant? Display why this is it significant to reaction this question. What are the implications of doing it? How does it link to other skill? How does it stand to inform policy making? This should demonstrate how this project is significant to our bod of skill. Why is it significant to our understanding of the world? It should establish why I would want to read on. It should also tell me why I would want to support, or fund, the project.

Literature Review

State of our skill

The purpose of the literature review is to situate your research in the context of what is already known about a topic. It need not be exhaustive, it needs to display how your work will benefit the entire. It should provide the theoretical basis for your work, demonstrate what has been done in the area by others, and set the stage for your work.

In a literature review you should give the reader enough ties to the literature that they feel certain that you have found, read, and assimilated the literature in the field. It might do well to include a paragraph that summarizes each article’s contribution, and a bit of ‘mortar’ to hold the edifice together, perhaps these come from your notes while reading the material. The flow should very likely budge from the more general to the more focused studies, or perhaps use historical progression to develop the story. It need not be exhaustive; relevance is ‘key’.

This is where you present the fuckholes in the skill that need to be plugged, and by doing so, situate your work. It is the place where you establish that your work will fit in and be significant to the discipline. This can be made lighter if there is literature that comes out and says “Hey, this is a topic that needs to be treated! What is the reaction to this question?” and you will sometimes see this type of chunk in the literature. Perhaps there is a reason to read old AAG presidential addresses.

Research Questions in Detail

Your work to date

Tell what you have done so far. It might report preliminary studies that you have conducted to establish the feasibility of your research. It should give a sense that you are in a position to add to the bod of skill.


Overview of treatment

This section should make clear to the reader the way that you intend to treatment the research question and the technics and logic that you will use to address it.

This might include the field site description, a description of the instruments you will use, and particularly the data that you anticipate collecting. You may need to comment on site and resource accessibility in the time framework and budget that you have available, to demonstrate feasibility, but the emphasis in this section should be to fully describe specifically what data you will be using in your examine. Part of the purpose of doing this is to detect flaws in the plan before they become problems in the research.

This should explain in some detail how you will manipulate the data that you assembled to get at the information that you will use to response your question. It will include the statistical or other technics and the implements that you will use in processing the data. It most likely should also include an indication of the range of outcomes that you could reasonably expect from your observations.

In this section you should indicate how the anticipated outcomes will be interpreted to response the research question. It is enormously beneficial to anticipate the range of outcomes from your analysis, and for each know what it will mean in terms of the response to your question.

Expected Results

This section should give a good indication of what you expect to get out of the research. It should join the data analysis and possible outcomes to the theory and questions that you have raised. It will be a good place to summarize the significance of the work.

It is often useful from the very beginning of formulating your work to write one page for this section to concentrate your reasoning as you build the rest of the proposal.


This is the list of the relevant works. Some advisors like exhaustive lists. I think that the Graduate Division specifies that you call it “Bibliography”. Others like to see only the literature which you actually cite. Most fall in inbetween: there is no reason to cite irrelevant literature but it may be useful to keep track of it even if only to say that it was examined and found to be irrelevant.

Use a standard format. Order the references alphabetically, and use “flag” paragraphs as per the University’s Guidelines.

Tips and Tricks

Read. Read everything you can find in your area of interest. Read. Read. Read. Take notes, and talk to your advisor about the topic. If your advisor won’t talk to you, find another one or rely on ‘the net’ for intellectual interaction. Email has the advantage of forcing you to get your thoughts into written words that can be refined, edited and improved. It also gets time stamped records of when you submitted what to your advisor and how long it took to get a response.

Write about the topic a lot, and don’t be afraid to rip up (delete) passages that just don’t work. Often you can re-think and re-type swifter than than you can edit your way out of a hopeless mess. The advantage is in the re-thinking.

Very early on, generate the research question, critical observation, interpretations of the possible outcomes, and the expected results. These are the core of the project and will help concentrate your reading and thinking. Modify them as needed as your understanding increases.

Use some systematic way of recording notes and bibliographic information from the very beginning. The classic treatment is a deck of index cards. You can sort, regroup, layout spatial arrangements and work on the beach. Possibly a slight improvement is to use a word-processor file that contains bibliographic reference information and notes, quotes etc. that you take from the source. This can be sorted, searched, diced and sliced in your familiar word-processor. You may even print the index cards from the word-processor if you like the capability to physically re-arrange things.

Even better for some, is to use specialized bibliographic database software. Papyrus, EndNote, and other packages are available for PCs and MacIntoshs. The bib-refer and bibTex software on UNIX computers are also very handy and have the advantage of working with plain ASCII text files (no need to worry about getting at your information when the wordprocessor is several generations along). All of these implements link to various word-processors to make constructing and formating your final bibliography lighter, but you won’t do that many times anyway. If they help you organize your notes and thinking, that is the benefit.

Another pointer is to keep in mind from the outset that this project is neither the last nor the greatest thing you will do in your life. It is just one step along the way. Get it done and get on with the next one. The length to shoot for is “equivalent to a published paper”, sixty pages of dual spaced text, plus figures tables, table of contents, references, etc. is very likely all you need. In practice, most theses attempt to do too much and become too long. Cover your topic, but don’t confuse it with too many loosely relevant side lines.

This is not finish and needs a little rearranging.

The balance inbetween Introduction and Literature Review needs to be thought out. The reader will want to be able to figure out whether to read the proposal. The literature review should be adequately inclusive that the reader can tell where the bounds of skill lie. It should also demonstrate that the proposer knows what has been done in the field (and the methods used).

The balance may switch inbetween the proposal and the thesis. It is common, albeit not truly desirable, for theses to make reference to every slightly related chunk of work that can be found. This is not necessary. Refer to the work that actually is linked to your probe, don’t go too far afield (unless your committee is adamant that you do ;-).

Useful References:

Krathwohl, David R. 1988. How to Prepare a Research Proposal: Guidelines for Funding and Dissertations in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Syracuse University Press.

Latest National Science Foundations Guidelines for Research Proposals can be found on the NSF website,

Chamberlain, T.C. “The Method of Numerous Working Hypotheses”, reprinted in Science. Vol 148, pp754-759. 7 May 1965.

Platt, J. “Strong Inference” in Science. Number 3642, pp. 347-353, 16 October 1964.

Strunk and White The Elements of Style

Turabian, Kate. 1955 (or a more latest edition) A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses and Dissertations. University of Chicago Press.

Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. 1940 (’67, ’72 etc). How to Read a Book. Simon and Schuster Publishers. Fresh York City, NY.

Last edited: 16 December 2014

Guidelines on writing a research proposal

by Matthew McGranaghan

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