Writing Your Research Proposal

5 Essentials You Need To Keep In Mind

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Reviewer: Eunice Rautenbach (DTech) | June 2023

Writing a high-quality research proposal that “sells” your study and wins the favour (and approval) of your university is no small task. In this post, we’ll share five critical dos and don’ts to help you navigate the proposal writing process.

This post is based on an extract from our online course, Research Proposal Bootcamp. In the course, we walk you through the process of developing an A-grade proposal, step by step, with plain-language explanations and loads of examples. If it’s your first time writing a research proposal, you definitely want to check that out. 

1. Understand the rules of the game

All too often, we see students going through all the effort of finding a unique and valuable topic and drafting a meaty proposal, only to realise that they’ve missed some critical information regarding their university’s requirements. 

Every university is different, but they all have some sort of requirements or expectations regarding what students can and can’t research. For example:

  • Restrictions regarding the topic area that can be research
  • Restrictions regarding data sources – for example, primary or secondary
  • Requirements regarding methodology – for example, qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods-based research
  • And most notably, there can be varying expectations regarding topic originality – does your topic need to be super original or not?

The key takeaway here is that you need to thoroughly read through any briefing documents provided by your university. Also, take a look at past dissertations or theses from your program to get a feel for what the norms are. Long story short, make sure you understand the rules of the game before you start playing.

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2. Have a clearly articulated research problem

As we’ve explained many times on this blog, all good research starts with a strong research problem – without a problem, you don’t have a clear justification for your research. Therefore, it’s essential that you have clarity regarding the research problem you’re going to address before you start drafting your proposal. From the research problem, the research gap emerges and from the research gap, your research aims, objectives and research questions emerge. These then guide your entire dissertation from start to end. 

Needless to say, all of this starts with the literature – in other words, you have to spend time reading the existing literature to understand the current state of knowledge. You can’t skip this all-important step. All too often, we see students make the mistake of trying to write up a proposal without having a clear understanding of the current state of the literature, which is just a recipe for disaster. You’ve got to take the time to understand what’s already been done before you can propose doing something new.

Positivism is rooted in the belief that knowledge can be obtained through objective observations and measurements of an external reality.

3. Demonstrate the feasibility of your research

One of the key concerns that reviewers or assessors have when deciding to approve or reject a research proposal is the practicality/feasibility of the proposed research, given the student’s resources (which are usually pretty limited). You can have a brilliant research topic that’s super original and valuable, but if there is any question about whether the project is something that you can realistically pull off, you’re going to run into issues when it comes to getting your proposal accepted.

So, what does this mean for you?

First, you need to make sure that the research topic you’ve chosen and the methodology you’re planning to use is 100% safe in terms of feasibility. In other words, you need to be super certain that you can actually pull off this study. Of greatest importance here is the data collection and analysis aspect – in other words, will you be able to get access to the data you need, and will you be able to analyse it?

Second, assuming you’re 100% confident that you can pull the research off, you need to clearly communicate that in your research proposal. To do this, you need to proactively think about all the concerns the reviewer or supervisor might have and ensure that you clearly address these in your proposal. Remember, the proposal is a one-way communication – you get one shot (per submission) to make your case, and there’s generally no Q&A opportunity. So, make it clear what you’ll be doing, what the potential risks are and how you’ll manage those risks to ensure that your study goes according to plan.

If you have the word count available, it’s a good idea to present a project plan, ideally using something like a Gantt chart. You can also consider presenting a risk register, where you detail the potential risks, their likelihood and impact, and your mitigation and response actions – this will show the assessor that you’ve really thought through the practicalities of your proposed project. If you want to learn more about project plans and risk registers, we cover these in detail in our proposal writing course, Research Proposal Bootcamp, and we also provide templates that you can use. 

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4. Pay close attention to ethics policies

This one’s a biggy – and it can often be a dream crusher for students with lofty research ideas. If there’s one thing that will sink your research proposal faster than anything else, it’s non-compliance with your university’s research ethics policy. This is simply a non-negotiable, so don’t waste your time thinking you can convince your institution otherwise. If your proposed research runs against any aspect of your institution’s ethics policies, it’s a no-go.

The ethics requirements for dissertations can vary depending on the field of study, institution, and country, so we can’t give you a list of things you need to do, but some common requirements that you should be aware of include things like:

  • Informed consent – in other words, getting permission/consent from your study’s participants and allowing them to opt out at any point
  • Privacy and confidentiality – in other words, ensuring that you manage the data securely and respect people’s privacy
  • If your research involves animals (as opposed to people), you’ll need to explain how you’ll ensure ethical treatment, how you’ll reduce harm or distress, etc.

One more thing to keep in mind is that certain types of research may be acceptable from an ethics perspective, but will require additional levels of approval. For example, if you’re planning to study any sort of vulnerable population (e.g., children, the elderly, people with mental health conditions, etc.), this may be allowed in principle but requires additional ethical scrutiny. This often involves some sort of review board or committee, which slows things down quite a bit. Situations like this aren’t proposal killers, but they can create a much more rigid environment, so you need to consider whether that works for you, given your timeline.

Pragmatism takes a more flexible approach, focusing on the potential usefulness and applicability of the research findings.

5. Write critically and concisely

The final item on the list is more generic but just as important to the success of your research proposal – that is, writing critically and concisely

All too often, students fall short in terms of critical writing and end up writing in a very descriptive manner instead. We’ve got a detailed blog post and video explaining the difference between these two types of writing, so we won’t go into detail here. However, the simplest way to distinguish between the two types of writing is that descriptive writing focuses on the what, while analytical writing draws out the “so what” – in other words, what’s the impact and relevance of each point that you’re making to the bigger issue at hand.

In the case of a research proposal, the core task at hand is to convince the reader that your planned research deserves a chance. To do this, you need to show the reviewer that your research will (amongst other things) be original, valuable and practical. So, when you’re writing, you need to keep this core objective front of mind and write with purpose, taking every opportunity to link what you’re writing about to that core purpose of the proposal.

The second aspect in relation to writing is to write concisely. All too often, students ramble on and use far more word count than is necessary. Part of the problem here is that their writing is just too descriptive (the previous point) and part of the issue is just a lack of editing.

The keyword here is editing – in other words, you don’t need to write the most concise version possible on your first try – if anything, we encourage you to just thought vomit as much as you can in the initial stages of writing. Once you’ve got everything down on paper, then you can get down to editing and trimming down your writing. You need to get comfortable with this process of iteration and revision with everything you write – don’t try to write the perfect first draft. First, get the thoughts out of your head and onto the paper, then edit. This is a habit that will serve you well beyond your proposal, into your actual dissertation or thesis.

Pragmatism takes a more flexible approach, focusing on the potential usefulness and applicability of the research findings.

Wrapping Up

To recap, the five essentials to keep in mind when writing up your research proposal include:

  1. Understand your university’s requirements and restrictions
  2. Have a clearly articulated research problem
  3. Clearly communicate the feasibility of your research
  4. Pay very close attention to ethics policies
  5. Focus on writing critically and concisely

If you want to learn more about how to craft a top-notch research proposal, be sure to check out our online course for a comprehensive, step-by-step guide. Alternatively, if you’d like to get hands-on help developing your proposal, be sure to check out our private coaching service, where we hold your hand through the research journey, step by step. 

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This post is an extract from our bestselling short course, Research Proposal Bootcamp. If you want to work smart, you don't want to miss this.

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