Skip to Content

How to Write a Research Proposal


Writing a Research Proposal

Student writing with a Queen's branded pen


Your research proposal is intended to convince others that you have a worthwhile research project and that you have the competence and the work plan to complete it. It should include all the key elements of your intended research process and provide sufficient information for reviewers to evaluate the proposed study.

Regardless of your research area and the methodology you choose, research proposals must address the following questions:

  • What do you plan to accomplish?
  • Why is the research important?
  • How are you going to carry out your research?

The proposal should have sufficient information to convince those reviewing your application that you have an important research area, a grasp of the relevant literature and major issues, and that your methodology is sound.

The quality of your research proposal depends not only on the quality of the project you’re proposing but also on the quality of your proposal writing. A good research project could run the risk of rejection of rejection because the writing is not coherent, clear, and compelling.

The information on this page is intended as a guide only, some of the schools and departments may require you to complete a more detailed proposal before deciding on your application.



The recommended length for a research proposal is no more than 2000 words (excluding references). Be sure to check the specific requirements for your school or department before you begin writing.

While your proposal is likely to be assessed by academics who are experts in your chosen field, they may not be the only academics involved in the selection process. This is why your proposal must be comprehensible to a broad academic audience.


When you’re creating your title, it should be concise and descriptive (around ten words in length) and should clearly indicate your area of study and proposed approach.

This is usually a tentative title for your intended research; you will be able to revise it once you're accepted into the program.


The abstract should be a summary of approximately 300 words, including the research question, your rationale for the study, a hypothesis (if relevant) and the method.

Descriptions of the method may include the design, procedures, the sample or a range of participants and any instruments that will be used.


Your aims should be broad statements of desired outcomes or the general intentions of the research. They need to emphasise what is it be accomplished, not how it will be accomplished. They should also address the long-term project outcomes.

Objectives are then the steps you plan to take to answer your research questions, or a specific list of tasks needed to accomplish the goals of the project. They:

  • Emphasise how aims are to be accomplished
  • Must be highly focused and feasible
  • Address the more immediate project outcomes
  • Make accurate use of concepts and be sensible and precisely described
  • Are usually numbered so that each objective reads as an 'individual' statement to convey your intention


This part of the proposal is the initial pitch.

Here, you need to provide the necessary background or context for your research problem, what it is you want to do and why.

The introduction generally covers the following elements:

  • State the research problem, which is often referred to as the purpose of the study
  • Provide the context and set the stage for your research question in such a way as to show its necessity and importance
  • Highlight what’s missing from current knowledge and what your research aims to contribute
  • Present the rationale of your proposed study and indicate why it is worth doing
  • Briefly describe the major issues and sub-problems to be addressed by your research
  • Identify the key independent and dependent variables of your experiment. Alternatively, specify the phenomenon you want to study
  • State your hypothesis or theory, if any. For exploratory or phenomenological research, you may not have any hypotheses (do not confuse the hypothesis with the statistical null hypothesis)
  • Set the delimitation or boundaries of your proposed research to provide a clear focus
  • Define key concepts where appropriate


Often the literature review is incorporated into the introduction section, however, most reviewers will prefer a separate section which allows a more thorough literature review.

It’s important to show the reviewers that you’re familiar with the most important research in your chosen topic and that you’re not going to repeat what other researchers have done.

This part of the proposal is also to show that you can critically evaluate relevant literature information and convince your reviewer that you will make a significant contribution to the literature.

Make use of subheadings to bring order and coherence to your review and tell it in a stimulating and engaging manner.


Research questions are a critical part of your proposal. Your questions should demonstrate their relevance to a society, social group or scholarly literature. Many research proposals are too broad and one of the most common rationales for rejecting proposals is that the question is simply too expansive to be carried out by the applicant.

Remember that writing a research question is an iterative process and such concerns need to be carefully considered in your research design and budget.


This section should clearly outline how you plan to tackle your research problem. You should describe your overall approach and practical steps, as well as demonstrate the feasibility of your desired research project.


  • Research type – qualitative, quantitative or a combination of the two?
  • Data – will it be original data collection or primary and secondary analysis?
  • Whether you’re opting for a descriptive, correlational or experimental research design?
  • Who or what will you study?
  • How do you plan to select the subjects – will it be probability sampling or non-probability sampling?
  • When and where are you going to collect the data?
  • What data collection tools are you planning to use and why?
  • How much time will be needed for each step?
  • Are there any potential obstacles and if so, how do you plan to overcome them?


Following on from your methodology, you should clearly outline how long you’ll need to complete each step throughout the study. This allows the reviewer to evaluate the feasibility of your project and shows that you’ve considered how you’re going to put your proposal into practice.


After completion, review your proposal and application, and consider the following questions:

  • Have I checked the School website and is the proposal in an area that staff in the school can supervise?
  • Is it written clearly and concisely and is there evidence of critical evaluation?
  • Does the proposal demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the main theoretical and research debates in the field?
  • Does the proposal focus on a research area that is significant and relevant to the field? - will it make a valuable contribution to knowledge?
  • Is there a clear rationale for the study?
  • Are the research objectives and research questions arising from the literature set out?
  • Does the proposal indicate an appreciation of the research process?
  • Does the proposal demonstrate an understanding of research methods and research approaches and is it clear that the research methods identified are appropriate to the research question identified?
  • Can the proposed programme of research be studied to the depth required to obtain the degree of PhD?
  • Can the proposed programme of research be completed within the time to be designated for it?
  • Have I contacted my referees to confirm that they are willing to provide a reference?

To assist you in devising a research proposal you might wish to refer to the following research methods texts:

  • Baxter, L, Hughes, C. and Tight, M. (2001): How to Research, (Open University Press, Milton Keynes)
  • Cryer, P. (2000): The Research Student's Guide to Success, (Open University, Milton Keynes)
  • Delamont, S., Atkinson, P. and Parry, O. (1997): Supervising the PhD, (Open University Press, Milton Keynes)
  • Kamler, B and Thompson, P (2006) Helping Doctoral Students to Write (Oxon Routledge)
  • Philips, E. and Pugh, D. (2005): How to get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors, (Open University Press, Milton Keynes)
  • Bentley Peter (2006) The PhD Application Handbook (Open University Press, Milton Keynes)