Writing Your Research Proposal

Writing Your Research Proposal

Research proposals play a major role in the success of research projects, yet many students and novice researchers may not fully understand the meaning, importance, and components of research proposals.

A research proposal serves as a blueprint for the entire research project, and it convinces others that you have a worthwhile research project as well as the competence and work-plan to complete it.  The major components of the research project should be described in the proposal so clearly and logically that can be accepted and used as foundation of building the entire research. The following provides some guidelines for ensuring a high-quality proposal.

One vital issue in developing an acceptable proposal is making sure all the components of the proposal align logically with each other. To do so, you may consider that developing a proposal is very similar to telling a story. In a story you would create a context or common understanding, a problem, actions to resolve the problem, and lessons and take-away messages. All these elements are meaningfully related and consistently connected to each other. In the same style, in a research proposal you would develop a series of consistent elements including the introduction, research problem, purpose, significance, literature review, and methods that should be all meaningfully related to each other. This is called alignment among the components of the research proposal.

Proposal Outline

Included below is a helpful outline of what a successful research proposal typically includes.

  • Title:
    The title should be concise, clear, tangible, inviting, and informative.
  • Abstract

Provide one sentence for each of the following components:

  • Background
  • Research Problem and Why it’s Important
  • Purpose or Rationale
  • Theoretical/conceptual Framework
  • Research Question(s)
  • Methodology and overall Design
  • Analysis
  • Implications for Positive Social Change
  • Introduction

In the introduction, you set the stage for the research proposal by providing a description of the research background, the problem, the significance based on peer-reviewed sources mostly published within the last 5 year. The section should cover the following components:     

  • Research background and context
  • Problem statement and its importance

    • A description of the theory or evidence which include peer-reviewed article journals published within the last 5 years and/or local reports to support the study
    • Why this study is needed
    • Value of the study
    • Broad and specific problem
    • Literature support (at least 5 peer-reviewed journal articles, published within the last 5 years)
    • Gap in literature
    • Method
    • Population
  • Purpose statement
  • Set the direction
  • Method, explain why it is appropriate
  • Design, explain why it is appropriate
  • Variables or central interests
  • Sample
  • Geographical location
  • Aligned with problem, purpose, method
  • How do answering them solve the problem?
  • How do answering them achieve the purpose?
  • Do the method and design answer the questions?
  • Questions and hypotheses should be aligned
  • Explain why conducting the study is important
  • Contribution to:

    • The field, theory, or application
    • Literature
    • Society
    • Local and international
  • Research question(s) or aim(s) to be investigated, and hypotheses to be tested (if applicable)
  • Significance
  • Brief review of relevant literature

The literature review section should be well-written and up to point, demonstrating your knowledge about the relevant studies in your field. Be sure to synthesize, not summarize, recent studies to support the proposal. The section should cover the following components: 

  • Provide peer-reviewed articles published within the last 5 years to support the research problem, purpose, variables or central interest, and theoretical/conceptual framework
  • Explain theoretical framework for quantitative studies or conceptual framework for qualitative studies. Discuss the theory/theories that can be directly related to the research. Explain how the theories are incorporated in the research.
  • Description of research methodology

The section should be clearly and logically written, demonstrating that you have the required methods skills and workable plan to complete the research. The section should cover the following components: 

  • Method, a description of the proposed method which can be quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods
  • Design, a description of research design consistent with the method. For quantitative studies, select a quantitative design such as experimental or correlational. For qualitative studies, select a qualitative design such as case study or phenomenology.
  • Justification, why the method and design are appropriate and examples from similar studies
  • A description of the study setting
  • Sample, sampling method, justification of the sample size
  • For quantitative studies provide the variables including independent, dependent, or covariates. For qualitative studies provide central interests of the study. 
  • Instruments, such as surveys or interviews. Provide validity of instruments for quantitative studies.
  • Data analysis, deductive or inductive approach, provide the specific test or approach that is used to analyze the data.
  • Any capacity building or partnering required (including the identification of partners) to establish a research site, recruiting participants, or data collection.
  • Overview of potential ethical concerns associated with the research, its implementation, or its representation including institutional approvals
  • Conclusion

Provide a brief summary of the research proposal and reiterate the significance of the proposal

  • References
    Provide the list of sources cited in the proposal with the recommended style (e.g., APA6th, MLA, etc.)  

Additional Resources

A well-organized plan not only starts your research off on the right foot, it also gives you something to return to as your research progresses to make sure you’re on the right track.

For additional support navigating the research process, visit our Research Process blog. There is also a section at the Center for Educational and Instructional Research (CEITR) with related information.


Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Writing a Research Proposal USC Libraries. Retrieved from http://libguides.usc.edu/writingguide/researchproposal