Writing A Research Proposal

8 Common (And Costly) Mistakes To Avoid 🤦

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) & David Phair (PhD). Reviewed By: Dr Eunice Rautenbach | June 2021

At Grad Coach, we review a lot of research proposals, including dissertation proposals and thesis proposals. Some are pretty good, while others are, well, not fantastic. Sadly, many students only approach us after their proposal has been rejected, meaning they’ve wasted a lot of time and effort.

We’ll look at 8 common mistakes and issues we see cropping up in research proposals so that you can craft your proposal with confidence and maximise the chances of it being approved.

Dissertation and thesis research proposal mistakes

#1: The research topic is too broad.

One of the most common issues we see in dissertation and thesis proposals is that the research topic is simply too broad. In other words, the focus of the research is not ringfenced tightly enough (or just not defined clearly enough), resulting in a proposal that has an unclear direction or attempts to take on too much.

For example, a research project that aims to “investigate trust in the workplace” would be considered very broad. This topic has no specific focus and leaves many questions unanswered, for example:

  • What type(s) of trust?
  • Between whom?
  • Within what types of workplaces?
  • Within what industry or industries?

As a general rule of thumb, you should aim for a fairly narrow focus when you craft your research topic. Doing this will allow you to go deep and investigate the topic in-depth, which is what the markers want to see. Quality beats quantity – or rather, depth beats breadth – when it comes to defining and refining your research topic.

A related problem is that oftentimes, students have a more refined topic within their mind, but they don’t articulate it well in their proposal. This often results in the proposal being rejected because the topic is perceived as being too broad. In other words, it’s important to ensure you not only have a clear, sharp focus for your research, but that you communicate that well in your dissertation or thesis proposal. Make sure that you address the who, what, were and when, so that your topic is well defined.

Let’s look at an example.

Sticking with the topic I mentioned earlier, a more refined and well-articulated research aim could be something along the lines of:

“To investigate the factors that cultivate organisational trust (i.e. a customer trusting an organisation) within the UK life insurance industry.”

As you can see, this is a lot more specific and ringfences the topic into a more manageable scope. So, when it comes to your research topic, remember to keep it tight.

In your proposal, make sure that you address the who, what, where and when, so that your topic is well-defined.

#2: The research aims, objectives and questions don’t align.

Another common issue that we see with weaker research proposals is misalignment between the research aims and objectives, as well as with the research questions. Sometimes all three are misaligned, and sometimes there’s only one misfit. Whatever the case, it’s a problem that can lead to proposal rejection, as these three elements need to link together tightly.

Let’s look at an example of a misaligned trio.

Research Aim:

To identify factors that cultivate organisational trust in British insurance brokers.

Research Objectives:

To measure organisational trust levels across different demographic groups within the UK.

To investigate the causes of differences in organisational trust levels between groups.

Research Question:

What factors influence organisational trust between customers and insurance brokers within the UK?

As you can see, the research aim and research question are reasonably aligned (they are both focused on the factors that cultivate trust). However, the research objectives are misaligned, as they focus on measuring trust levels across different groups, rather than identifying what factors stimulate trust. This will result in a study that’s pulling in different directions – not good.

A related issue we see is that students don’t really understand the difference between research aims (the broader goal), research objectives (how you’ll achieve that goal) and research questions (the specific questions you’ll answer within your study). So, when you’re preparing your proposal, make sure that you clearly understand how these differ and make sure they’re all tightly aligned with each other.

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#3: The research topic is not well justified.

A good research topic – in other words, a good set of research aims, research objectives and research questions – needs to be well justified to convince your university to approve your research. Poor justification of the research topic is a common reason for proposals to be rejected.

So, how do you justify your research?

For a research topic to be well justified, you need to demonstrate both originality and importance.

Originality means that your proposed research is novel, or at least that it’s novel within its context (for example, within a specific country or industry). While the extent of this novelty will vary depending on your institution, programme and level of study (e.g. Masters vs Doctorate), your research will always need to have some level of originality. In other words, you can’t research something that’s been researched ad nauseam before.

Simply put, your research needs to emerge from a gap in the existing literature. To do this, you need to figure out what’s missing from the current body of knowledge (by undertaking a review of the literature) and carve out your own research to fill that gap. We explain this process in more detail here.

Importance is the second factor. Just because a topic is unique doesn’t mean it’s important. You need to be able to explain what the benefits of undertaking your proposed research would be. Who would benefit? How would they benefit? How could the newly developed knowledge be used in the world, whether in academia or industry?

So, when you’re writing up your research proposal, make sure that you clearly articulate both the originality and importance of your proposed research, or you’ll risk submitting an unconvincing proposal.

You have to justify every choice in your dissertation defence

#4: The study has a weak theoretical foundation.

As I mentioned in the previous point, your research topic needs to emerge from the existing research. In other words, your research needs to fill a clear gap in the literature – something that hasn’t been adequately researched, or that lacks research in a specific context.

To convince your university that your topic will fill a gap in the research, your proposal needs to have a strong theoretical foundation. In other words, you need to show that you’ve done the necessary reading and are familiar with the existing research. To do this, you need to provide an integrated summary of the existing research and highlight (very clearly) the theoretical gap that exists.

Some common signs of a weak theoretical foundation that we’ve encountered include:

  • A general lack of sources and a reliance on personal opinion and anecdotes, rather than academic literature.
  • Failing to acknowledge and discuss landmark studies and key literature in the topic area.
  • Relying heavily on low-quality sources, such as blog posts, personal websites, opinion pieces, etc.
  • Relying heavily on outdated sources and not incorporating more recent research that builds on the “classics”.

While it’s generally not expected that you undertake a comprehensive literature review at the proposal stage, you do still need to justify your topic by demonstrating a need for your study (i.e. the literature gap). So, make sure that you put in the time to develop a sound understanding of the current state of knowledge in your space, and make sure that you communicate that understanding in your proposal by building your topic justification on a solid base of credible literature.

The literature review knowledge gap

#5: The research design is not articulated well enough (or is just impractical).

Once you’ve made a strong argument regarding the value of your research (i.e., you’ve justified it), the next matter that your research proposal needs to address is the “how” – in other words, your intended research design and methodology.

A common issue we see is that students don’t provide enough detail in this section. This is often because they don’t really know exactly what they’re going to do and plan to just “figure it out later” (which is not good enough). But sometimes it’s just a case of poor articulation – in other words, they have a clear design worked out in their minds, but they haven’t put their plan to paper.

Whatever the reason, a dissertation or thesis proposal that lacks detail regarding the research design runs a major risk of being rejected. This is because universities want to see that you have a clearly defined, practical plan to achieve your research aims and objectives and answer your research questions.

At a minimum, you should provide detail regarding the following:

  • Research philosophy – the set of beliefs your research is based on (positivism, interpretivism, pragmatism)
  • Research approach – the broader method you’ll use (inductive, deductive, qualitative and quantitative)
  • Research strategy – how you’ll conduct the research (e.g., experimental, action, case study, etc.)
  • Time horizon – the number of points in time at which you’ll collect your data (e.g. cross-sectional or longitudinal)
  • Techniques and procedures – your intended data collection methods, data analysis techniques, sampling strategies, etc.

For more information about each of these design decisions, check out our post detailing the Research Onion.

Of course, your research design can (and most likely will) evolve along the way, but you still need a starting point. Also, your proposed research design needs to be practical, given your constraints. A brilliant design is pointless if you don’t have the resources (e.g. money, equipment, expertise, etc.) to pull it off. So, get detailed in this section of your proposal and keep it realistic to maximise your chances of approval.

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#6: Poor writing and sloppy presentation.

As with any document, poor writing and sloppy presentation can heavily detract from your research proposal, even if you tick all the other boxes. While poor writing and presentation alone probably won’t result in your proposal being rejected, it will definitely put you at a disadvantage, as it gives a negative impression regarding the overall quality of your work.

The main issues we see here are:

  • Directionless or scattered writing – for example, writing that jumps from one point to another with poor flow and connectivity, disjointed points, etc.
  • Poor argument formation – for example, a lack of premises and conclusions, disconnected conclusions and poor reasoning (you can learn more about argument development here).
  • Inappropriate language – for example, using a very informal or casual tone, slang, etc).
  • Grammar and spelling issues, as well as inconsistent use of UK/US English.
  • Referencing issues – for example, a lack of references or incorrectly formatted references.
  • Table and figure captions – for example, a lack of captions, citations, figure and table numbers, etc.
  • Low-quality visuals and diagrams.

The good news is that many of these can be resolved by editing and proofreading your proposal beforehand, so it’s always a good idea to take the time to do this. It’s also a good idea to ask a friend to review your document, as you will invariably suffer from blindspots when editing your own work. If your budget allows, having your work reviewed by an academic editor will ensure you cover all bases and submit a high-quality document.

#7: Poor project planning and risk management.

While different universities will have varying requirements, there is usually a requirement (or at least an expectation) for a project plan of sorts. As I mentioned earlier, a strong research proposal needs to be practical and manageable, given your constraints. Therefore, a well-articulated project plan that considers all the practicalities (and risks) is an important part of a strong research proposal.

We generally recommend that students draw up a fairly detailed Gantt chart, detailing each major task involved in the dissertation writing process. For example, you can break it down into the various chapters (introduction, literature review, etc.) and the key tasks involved in completing each chapter (research, planning, writing, etc). What’s most important here is to be realistic – things almost always take longer than you expect, especially if you’re a first-time researcher.

Gantt chart

We also recommend including some sort of risk management plan. For this, you could make use of a basic risk register, listing all the potential risks you foresee, as well as your mitigation and response actions, should they occur. For example, the risk of data collection taking longer than anticipated, the risk of not getting enough survey responses, etc.

What’s most important is to demonstrate that you have thought your research through and have a clear plan of action. Of course, as with your research design, plans can (and likely will) change – and that’s okay. However, you still need to have an initial plan, and that plan needs to be realistic and manageable, or you’ll risk your proposal getting rejected.

#8: Not following the university’s specific criteria.

While research proposals are fairly generic in terms of contents and style, and tend to follow a reasonably standardised structure, each university has its nuances in terms of what they want to be included in the dissertation or thesis proposal.

Some universities want more or less detail in certain sections, some want extra sections, and some want a very specific structure and format (down to the font type and size!). So, you need to pay very close attention to whatever institution-specific criteria your university has set out.

Typically, your university will provide some sort of brief or guidance document to direct your proposal efforts, so be sure to study this document thoroughly and ask the faculty for clarity if you’re uncertain about anything. Some universities will also provide a proposal template. Pay careful attention to any specific structure they recommend as well as formatting requirements (such as font, line spacing, margin sizes, referencing format, etc.).

If your university provides an assessment criteria matrix, you’ve hit the jackpot, as that document will detail exactly what you need to achieve in each section of the proposal. Study that matrix inside out and make sure that your research proposal tightly aligns with the assessment criteria.

Research proposal criteria

Recap: 8 Research Proposal Mistakes

We’ve covered a lot here – let’s recap on the 8 common mistakes that can hurt your research proposal or even get it rejected:

  1. The research topic is too broad (or just poorly articulated).
  2. The research aims, objectives and questions don’t align.
  3. The research topic is not well justified.
  4. The study has a weak theoretical foundation.
  5. The research design is not articulated well enough.
  6. Poor writing and sloppy presentation.
  7. Poor project planning and risk management.
  8. Not following the university’s specific criteria.

If you have any questions about these common mistakes, leave a comment below and we’ll do our best to answer. You may also want to have a look at some examples of successful proposals here. If you’d like to get 1-on-1 help with your research proposal, book a free initial consultation with a friendly coach to discuss how we can move you forward.

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