How to Write a Research Proposal—Part One

Understanding what a research proposal is…and what it isn't

A man is staring intently at his computer screen; he is writing a research proposal.
Our editors explain how to write a research
proposal and provide some helpful tips to
make this process easier for you.

Writing a research proposal is a daunting task. There are many variables to consider: What's your discipline? What's your purpose? Who's your audience? These are important questions that need to be answered, as they will help you to determine which elements should be included and which should be excluded from your proposal. The answers to these questions will also help determine what format you should use to write a research proposal. Should your proposal be in APA, MLA, or Chicago Manual of Style format? Despite some differences, there are a few common elements that you should keep in mind when writing your research proposal and we will explain these in detail in part two of our series on writing a research proposal. But before we begin to discuss the nuts and bolts of how to write a research proposal, we need to understand what it is and what it is not. Developing this understanding now will make the process of writing your research proposal a whole lot easier.

It is not research

To begin, it is important to understand the difference between a proposal and research. Research is the process of investigation into a specific area of inquiry. There are no boundaries when it comes to determining what you want to research; you can literally research anything. Research is getting out there and measuring, collecting samples, reading, and interpreting data or texts. Writing a research proposal is very different. When you are ready to write a research proposal, you should already have an idea of what you would like to investigate, but you are not investigating anything just yet. A research proposal is a statement of how you intend to carry out your research. It is essentially stating what you are going to investigate and how you plan to accomplish your investigation.

It is an intellectual contract

A research proposal bears some similarity to a contract. While it is not a contract in a legal sense, it can be thought of as an intellectual contract. It is a promise between you and the person(s) you are writing the proposal for. This promise lays out in detail what you plan to study. It serves as an outline for what you are proposing to research. A proposal also acts as a guideline for potential funders to help them decide whether to go ahead with the funding (sometimes a grant proposal is also required). Once the research is complete, a research proposal helps in evaluating whether the objectives were met.

It is analytical

When considering how to write a research proposal, remember to ask analytical questions. This is an important point to grasp. Descriptive research in academic writing answers “what” questions. For example: What are the migration behaviors of Mallard ducks? Any third grade student with a library card or a connection to the Internet can answer that question. A more difficult question to ask would be: Why have those behaviors changed since the introduction of wind turbines into wetlands? Answering this question involves the collection of data, the reading of current scientific literature, the analysis of information, and the formulation of a hypothesis. With such an involved process, you need to develop a plan as to how you are going to answer this question when writing your research proposal.

Now for the bad news

Research is about the pursuit of knowledge, whether it be welcomed or unwelcomed. When it comes to research, the sad truth is that there is a lot to be done and only a limited amount of resources. When writing a research proposal, you are entering into competition with other brilliant minds, each as committed to their ideas as you are to yours. With such fierce competition, some great ideas inevitably go unfunded. A well-written research proposal will help you get the resources you need in order to carry out your research. So whether you're writing a proposal for a PhD application, a research grant, or for private industry, let our academic editors ensure your research proposal is the best it can possibly be.

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