How to Write a Research Proposal – Part Two

The Anatomy of a Research Proposal

A young blonde scientist is working on her research proposal in a lab.
Now that you know what a research proposal is,
follow these helpful tips to master writing one.

The first part of this article dealt with writing a research proposal, explaining what it is and what it isn't. We will now focus on the anatomy of research proposals. Before beginning, it is important to stress there is no one correct way to write a research proposal. Like all writing, it is dependent upon context. A research proposal titled Genetic Mutations in the Metamorphic Development of Arboreal Parasites in Upper Mozambique is going to be organized much differently than one titled William Blake and the Origins of the Graphic Novel. The discipline you are writing for is going to help determine what needs to be included. Thus, the best approach is to get in touch with the person or organization that will be reading your work and ask them about what their expectations are in terms of format and which specific elements need to be included. That being said, there are some elements common to all research proposals.

Description of the problem

All research seeks to solve a problem or answer a question. A research proposal should contain a clear and concise description of the problem or question. Within this description, you will need to define what your proposal is about, which specific issues you will address, and the significance of your work. Another way of ensuring these criteria are met is to make sure you answer these questions:

What is your research about?

What question(s) does it seek to answer?

What do you hope to communicate?

Make sure you know your stuff

In addition to describing the problem, you also need to demonstrate that you have an understanding of the current literature on your topic. Take Google Scholar's slogan to heart: stand on the shoulders of giants. You might think your research is so incredibly groundbreaking that in the entirety of intellectual history, nothing has ever been written about it before. First, you’re probably wrong and need to do some more reading before you begin writing. Second, even the most groundbreaking theories that resulted in cultural or scientific shifts in the way we understand the world (Copernicus's Theory of a Heliocentric Universe, Darwin's Theory of Evolution, Aquinas's Summa Theologica, etc.) were all written as responses to particular ideas. These thinkers, the ones we consider giants, had the good sense to read what was written about their topic before they started writing. So, read first and then write.

However, you do not need to include everything that has ever been written about your topic because, at this point, it ceases being a research proposal and becomes a very extensive annotated bibliography. You need only summarize a few of the major theorists. You must give the sense that you know what you're talking about and that you've read, assimilated, and are able to respond to contemporary theories and scholarship. That being said, you need not be afraid to point out errors, unanswered questions, inconsistencies, or problems. In fact, that is precisely what you should be doing. If theory X doesn’t make sense for reason Y, state Y. Y is probably the topic of your research proposal.

Discuss the details and consider your impact

A research proposal will end with discussing the ramifications of your research. How will your work affect the field? What are its implications? These are the things you want to think about when writing this portion of your research proposal. The discussion portion connects your potential research to a broader context. You need to explain how your research makes an original impact on the field you are studying. You might also consider if your work will fill in gaps or oversights in the existing literature. While your proposed research might not be original in the strict sense of the word, you are extending the current understanding of a topic. Basically, in this section, you need to show you’ve considered the impact your work will have.

Now for the good news

A research proposal is difficult, but there are helpful resources available. If you're writing a PhD application, talk to your favorite professor. They've been there and know what you're going through. Talk with other students or organizations that have written research proposals. Do they have resources they can share, a good book to recommend, or maybe even some samples of successful research proposals? Finally, our academic editors will tighten your writing and free your research proposal of grammatical and typographical errors.

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