What (Exactly) Is A Research Proposal?

A Plain-Language Definition & Explanation (With Examples)

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | June 2020

If you’re nearing the end of your degree program and your dissertation or thesis is on the horizon, or you’re planning to apply for a PhD program, chances are you’re going to need to craft a research proposal. If you’re on this page, you’re probably unsure exactly what that is. Well, you’ve come to the right place. In this post, we’ll explain in simple language:

  1. What a dissertation or thesis research proposal is
  2. What things a research proposal needs to cover
  3. How long a research proposal needs to be
  4. How a research proposal is usually structured
What is a research proposal for a dissertation or thesis?

What is a dissertation (or thesis) research proposal?

A research proposal is a simply a structured, formal document that explains what you plan to research (i.e. your research topic), why it’s worth researching (i.e. your justification), and how you plan to investigate it (i.e. your practical approach). 

The purpose of the research proposal (it’s job, so to speak) is to convince your research supervisor, committee or university that your research is suitable (for the requirements of the degree program) and manageable (given the time and resource constraints you will face). 

The most important word here is “convince” – in other words, your research proposal needs to sell your research idea (to whoever is going to approve it). If it doesn’t convince them (of its suitability and manageability), you’ll need to revise and resubmit. This will cost you valuable time, which will either delay the start of your research or eat into its time allowance (which is bad news). 

Your dissertation or thesis proposal must be convincing

What goes into a research proposal?

As we mentioned earlier, a good dissertation or thesis proposal needs to cover the “what”, the “why” and the “how” of the research. Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail:

WHAT – Your research topic

Your proposal needs to clearly articulate your research topic. This needs to be specific and unambiguous. Your research topic should make it clear exactly what you plan to research and in what context. Here’s an example:

Topic: An investigation into the factors which impact female Generation Y consumer’s likelihood to promote a specific makeup brand to their peers: a British context

As you can see, this topic is extremely clear. From this one line we can see exactly:

  • What’s being investigated – factors that make people promote a brand of makeup
  • Who it involves – female Gen Y consumers
  • In what context – the United Kingdom

So, make sure that your research proposal provides a detailed explanation of your research topic. It should go without saying, but don’t start writing your proposal until you have a crystal-clear topic in mind, or you’ll end up waffling away a few thousand words. 

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WHY – Your justification

As we touched on earlier, it’s not good enough to simply propose a research topic – you need to justify why your topic is original. In other words, what makes it unique? What gap in the current literature does it fill? If it’s simply a rehash of the existing research, it’s probably not going to get approval – it needs to be fresh.

But, originality alone is not enough. Once you’ve ticked that box, you also need to justify why your proposed topic is important. In other words, what value will it add to the world if you manage to find answers to your research questions? 

For example, let’s look at the sample research topic we mentioned earlier (factors impacting brand advocacy). In this case, if the research could uncover relevant factors, these findings would be very useful to marketers in the cosmetics industry, and would, therefore, have commercial value. That is a clear justification for the research.

So, when you’re crafting your research proposal, remember that it’s not enough for a topic to simply be unique. It needs to be useful and value-creating – and you need to convey that value in your proposal. If you’re struggling to find a research topic that makes the cut, watch our video covering how to find a research topic.

HOW – Your methodology

It’s all good and well to have a great topic that’s original and important, but you’re not going to convince anyone to approve it without discussing the practicalities – in other words:

  • How will you undertake your research? 
  • Is your research design appropriate for your topic?
  • Is your plan manageable given your constraints (time, money, expertise)?

While it’s generally not expected that you’ll have a fully fleshed out research strategy at the proposal stage, you will need to provide a high-level view of your research methodology and some key design decisions. Here are some important questions you’ll need to address in your proposal:

So, make sure you give some thought to the practicalities of your research and have at least a basic understanding of research methodologies before you start writing up your proposal.

Your research proposal must be practical and manageable

How long is a research proposal?

This varies tremendously, depending on the university, the field of study (e.g., social sciences vs natural sciences), and the level of the degree (e.g. undergraduate, Masters or PhD) – so it’s always best to check with your university what their specific requirements are before you start planning your proposal. 

As a rough guide, a formal research proposal at Masters-level often ranges between 2000-3000 words, while a PhD-level proposal can be far more detailed, ranging from 5000-8000 words. In some cases, a rough outline of the topic is all that’s needed, while in other cases, universities expect a very detailed proposal that essentially forms the first three chapters of the dissertation or thesis. 

The takeaway – be sure to check with your institution before you start writing.

Check your university's requirements regarding proposal length

How is a research proposal structured?

While the exact structure and format required for a dissertation or thesis research proposal differs from university to university, there are five “essential ingredients” that typically make up the structure of a research proposal:

  1. A descriptive title or title page
  2. A rich introduction and background to the proposed research
  3. A discussion of the scope of the research
  4. An initial literature review covering the key research in the area
  5. A discussion of the proposed research design (methodology)

For a detailed explanation of each of these, and step by step guidance covering how to write a research proposal, have a look at this video post You might also consider using our free research proposal template here.

As you write up your research proposal, remember the all-important core purpose: to convince. Your research proposal needs to sell your research idea in terms of suitability and viability. So, focus on crafting a convincing narrative and you’ll have won half the battle. 

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