Developing the research proposal

The proposal, as a clear and detailed explanation of what, why, how and when you propose to do, aims to eliminate some of the uncertainty surrounding a new, original project and to persuade (your supervisors, the faculty, funding providers) that what you propose:

  • is worth the effort
  • will represent a useful contribution to your research area
  • is feasible (data, supervision, resources)
  • that you have the skills, background and knowledge to do it
  • that you have considered possible ethical issues
  • that resources are available
  • that you have a workable plan for researching and answering the questions identified
  • that it can be done within allocated time

By addressing each of these points, you also develop a framework for your research.


‘Piled Higher and Deeper’ by Jorge Cham

What to include in a proposal?

The proposal is ready when your thesis topic is clear and you have gathered enough knowledge to confidently set out the project. Proposals may be rejected because the research topic is too broad, too simplistic, or the description of the research is too general or too vague.

The final research proposal should

  • clearly outline the research you are planning to undertake to complete your thesis
  • take into account work carried out since enrolment and comments from supervisors.

In order for the university to judge content, quality, necessary resources, as well as the likely cost of the research, you will need to provide enough details to answer the following questions:

  • Are the aims of the study clear and well defined?
  • Have the outcomes of the research been realistically considered?
  • Has the usefulness and contribution (theoretical or practical) of the research been established?
  • Have you demonstrated an understanding of existing research in the field?
  • Can you explain how the proposed research fits in with existing knowledge?
  • What are the proposed methodology and methods?
  • Are the proposed methodology and methods appropriate?
  • Do you have the necessary research skills and, if not, how will those skills be acquired?
  • Does the University have the necessary resources to support the research and, if not, do you know where they can be found?
  • Have you considered ethics and if relevant can show that plans are in place to gain ethical clearance?
  • Have you identified likely costs?

Sections of the proposal

Your proposal will need to include:

  • An introduction (what is it about?)
  • Overview of what is known in the field and how your project fits in (literature review)
  • Purpose of your research
  • How you will contribute to knowledge
  • How you will do it (methodology)
  • When will you do it (timeline)
  • A provisional title

The introduction

The introduction summarises the proposal, what your research is about. The introduction comes at the beginning of the proposal, but is generally written last.

The introduction needs to:

  • establish the field of the research
  • establish the topic within that field
  • indicate broadly what is known about the topic
  • introduce the particular focus of interest in that topic:
    – what is the problem
    – what do you plan to do
    – what is the significance of your research

Introductions are generally set out as follows:

Intro of prop

As a summary of what the body of the proposal, an introduction generally has few or no references.

The literature review

  • Summarises what is known about this particular topic area
  • Presents argument underpinning your whole research
  • Critically evaluates the relevant literature
  • Justifies that your research is worth doing

Keep it clear and short!

The literature review needs to be linked with your own research. The easiest way to do this is to end the review with a statement on how your research fits in. You can also make links at the beginning, or within the review.

The purpose of your research/the problem to solve/your contribution to knowledge

The literature review should logically lead you to the purpose of the research. This is really about the motivation of your research. Why do you want to do this research or what is the puzzle you would like to solve? What is the value added of the proposed research?

  • Do you intend to explore something that has not been explored before?
  • Do you intend to test a theory in a different context?
  • Do you propose to further examine something?
  • Do you want to investigate how variables relate to each other and what this means?

This has to be linked with the literature review, as the literature review sets out the background, providing a rationale for your purpose. Make sure you use explicit vocabulary to link your purpose with the review. For example:

“This study will build on research….and extends…”

“Until now it has not been possible to…., however ….”

“Until now ……has not been understood, however….”

“…..has been overlooked in previous research…”

“Previous work was limited by ……, this research proposes to…”

The purpose can be presented in a variety of ways.

  • Simply state the purpose of the proposed research.

This research aims to explore….will test…

  • Present your purpose as aims and objectives.  Thinking about it that way can be a useful way to break down various steps involved.

Aim: the overall purpose of the study, the intention or purpose of your research

Objective: how will you achieve that aim.

Make sure you position your objectives within the context identified in the literature review. Explain why, considering what is known and not know, your proposed research is important.

In quantitative research, objectives are often presented as hypotheses to be tested and confirmed.
In qualitative research, objectives are likely to be set of questions.

Your contribution to knowledge

Make sure that you go beyond just listing questions or hypotheses, by clearly stating your contribution to knowledge (as within requirements of the degree you are doing). To do so you need to be very clear about what that contribution is. According to David March (2016)  there are three types of PhD s, with each a specific contribution to knowledge:

  1. The totally empirical PhD – largely based on data obtained as research evidence. In this case you would mostly be doing something that has not been done before. You need to say this clearly.
  2. The PhD exploring conceptual frameworks , theories which aim to generate a better understanding of something
  3. The PhD in which you use a conceptual framework to better understand a case and then a case to further that conceptual framework. The value added here is a better understanding of a specific case and a conceptual framework.


Look at activities A and B and complete the activity that seems to fit best with your work/way of thinking.

Activity A: Articulate the aim(s) and objective(s) of your research. Indicate how your work will contribute to knowledge?


Activity B: Complete as much as possible the following sentences:

  • My research question is … (50 words)
  • Researchers who have looked at this subject are … (50 words)
  • They argue that … (25 words)
  • Debate centres on the issue of … (25 words)
  • There is work to be done on … (25 words)
  • My research is closest to that of X in that … (50 words)
  • My contribution will be … (50 words)

(Source, Murray, 2011, p 118)

Methodology, methods or process

This is where you explain what you will do and how you will do it. You need to explain the choices you made at every step.  It may be useful to develop a conceptual framework showing what you propose to study  and what are major concepts involved. This framework could also come in the purpose section or even at the end of your literature review.

Your choice of a research design will depend on the topic, the field of research, and the type of research you are doing. There needs to be a clear logic correspondence between your research (and its objectives) and the research design you are choosing.

Methodology then refers to broader approaches to research: quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods.

Empirical research, in some cases, may go straight to the methods used without using a broader design.


Methods refers to techniques used. For examples techniques used to select data, collect data and analyse data.  In this section you need to explain in details which methods you will use:

  • which data will be used (if they come from participants, who are they?)
  • how will the data be collected
  • what tools will you develop or use
  • how do you propose to analyse the data

Here you need to be very clear and  precise. Try to imagine that someone has to use your methodology as a guidance to go out and start the research. Could they do it with the information you provided?

selanit-info-lightbulb-300pxStart by explaining clearly what you plan to do and justify some of your choices using theory. DO NOT start writing theories about methods to conclude with the choice you made, but start with choices you made and then justify these. As a general rule, always put what is most important on top.

Use headings to separate subsection for easy reading.

Make sure there is a clear and coherent link between the proposed methods and the research objectives and/or questions.

Check Writing the methods for tips on how to develop this section, but remember that in a proposal you are generally using a future tense (you are referring to what you will do in the future).


If relevant, that is if you will be working with people and/or animals, your project may need to be approved by your University’s Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) and/or Animal Ethics Committee (AEC). Normally this is done after the proposal has been accepted. But it is a good idea to signal that you are aware of ethics requirements in the proposal.

Have a separate section on ethics in which you indicate that you will or have applied for approval.


The proposal needs a timeline:

  • To outline the overall time frame for the project
  • To indicate the project’s main stages and deadlines
  • To indicate the concrete milestones along the way

You can use a Gantt Chart, or a simple table or list to do so.

Check planners available from Thinkwell.

selanit-info-lightbulb-300pxTips for developing a timeline

  • Start to develop your timeline from the end – submission date  – and work your way backwards.
  • Develop a timeline that can grow with you as you progress, in which it unfolds as you progress.
  • Build the timeline up around deadlines, include major milestones.
  • Include enough time for data collection, data analysis, reviewing the thesis and getting feedback.
  • Double the time you think you need for tasks such as data collection, analysis and triple time required for reviewing at the end.

Resources required

If your work will require specific resources, it is best to indicate this in the proposal. This allows the university to formally consider and recognize your needs for specific resources.

If you need to include a budget, check out How to make a simple research budget.

Proposed thesis structure

The proposal needs to include a proposed thesis structure. This shows how, at this stage, you plan the major sections of the thesis. Remember that a proposal is just that: a proposal – the structure is likely to change as you go and that is fine.

Structures differ very much depending on nature of research – have a look at theses in your library.

Common structures:

  • A traditional science structure : IMRAD (introduction, methods, results, and discussion)
  • Humanities: introduction, literature review, methods, findings, conclusion
  • Creative degree (+ creative work)
  • Thesis presented as collection of publications


You need to provide a full reference for all sources referred to in the proposal. If you are unsure how to do this check the library pages on referencing, or attend a training session.

Provisional thesis title

This is important as it will help a potential audience (who may attend seminars and other presentations) identify what your thesis is about.

selanit-info-lightbulb-300pxTips for a title
The title should somehow summarise what you propose to do. Try to be as specific as possible, while keeping it short. Use keywords from the proposal and try to include information of what will be done (at the end you may need to change this to what has been found).

Note, it is only a provisional title and can be changed. In fact it is very likely that it will be changed since the final title of a thesis works best when it provides an answer and at this stage you do not yet have an answer.

How long should the proposal be?

As a tentative rule, a detailed research proposal will be between four and fourteen pages long. Discuss this with your supervisor and be mindful of potential assessors.

When developing the proposal you may have developed pages and pages of literature review. Including these in the proposal may not be useful and may make it difficult for assessors to read everything. The capacity to summarise and to distinguish what is important is one of the skills you are developing and demonstrating in the proposal you present.


David March (2016) Structuring the PhD an unpublished presentation for University of Canberra (March 2016).

Murray, Rowena (2011). How to write a thesis (3rd ed.), Maidenhead, England ; New York : Open University Press.

Internet resources

Many universities have developed websites to help students write better research proposals. These websites offer lots of interesting information (see for example Monash University, UNSW, Adelaide Uni, Sydney Uni). Be aware, however, that some of the policies and administrative processes outlined in these websites are not relevant for the University of Canberra. If you are unsure about some aspects of the proposal, ask your supervisor.

A useful but summarised annotated proposal is available from UOW.

Matt Might pages A thesis proposal is a contract also offers useful advice.

Bates College Experimental Design Worksheet is a useful resource for planning experimental research

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