Drew University On-Line Resources for Writers

Writing Research Proposals
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Role of the research proposal Uses of the proposal  Note on disciplinary differences
Organization Statement of purpose Background
Significance  Description Methodology
Problems Bibliography

The Role of the Research Proposal in a Research Project

The research proposal can serve many useful functions.  The most important is that it helps you to think out the research project you are about to undertake and predict any difficulties that might arise.  For those who aren't quite sure what their focus will be, the research proposal can be a space to explore options -- perhaps with one proposal for each potential topic (which can then be more easily compared and evaluated than when they are still just ideas in one's head).  Research proposals can be effective starting places to discuss projects with your professors, too.  A professor who is initially skeptical about a project may be able to imagine it more easily after reading a well written research proposal (this doesn't mean he or she will approve the topic, especially if there are significant potential difficulties that you haven't considered).

Uses of the Research Proposal Once the Research has Begun

Once you have begun your research project, a research proposal can help you to remain on track -- and can also remind you why you started this project in the first place!  Researchers very often begin to lose heart about two thirds of the way into a project when their research hits a snag or when they are having problems developing a thesis, organizing the ideas, or actually starting to write.  Rereading the initial research proposal, especially "Significance" can re-energize the project or help the researcher to refocus in an effective manner.  [See drafting and revising the research paper for more on this aspect of the project.]

NOTE:  Each discipline and granting agency has its own guidelines for writing research proposals, so if you have been assigned to write one for a class other than a composition class, please consult your professor.

 Sample Organization for a Non-discipline-specific  Research Proposal
printable organization (.pdf)


Title of Project:
Give your project a working title, which may or may not become the title of your paper.

Statement of purpose:
Explain what you hope your research will find or show.  State your question or series of questions before you begin your research.  After you have conducted significant research you should be able to answer your question(s) in one or two sentences, which may become the thesis of the final paper.

Explain your interest in and experience with this topic.  Describe any previous research you have conducted on this or related topics, any classes you have taken on this or related topics, or any reading you have already done in the field.  If you have personal experience that has led you to want to do more research, describe that here too.

Explain why this topic is worth considering, or this question or series of questions is worth answering.  Answer the following questions:  why should your instructor let you select this topic?  what do you hope to learn from it? what will this new knowledge add to the field of knowledge that already exists on this topic?  what new perspective will you bring to the topic? what use might your final research paper have for others in this field or in the general public?  who might you decide to share your findings with once the project is complete?

Describe the kind of research you will conduct to complete this project (library research, internet research, interviews, observations, ethnographies, etc.)

Explain how you will conduct your research in as much detail as possible.  If you will consult others (such as a statistician, an ethnographer, or a librarian) explain what role they will serve and how you hope they will enhance your development of an appropriate methodology for this project.  Discuss the kinds of sources you hope to consult and the methods you will use to extract and process the information you gather in as much detail as is possible at this stage.  (As the project is underway you might find the need to revise your methodology, explore new types of source material, and/or adopt new methods of gathering and processing data.  If this happens, revise this section of the proposal.)

Describe the problems you expect to encounter and how you hope to solve them.  For example, texts might be unavailable, necessitating travel to other libraries or use of inter-library loan facilities;  people you had hoped to interview might be unavailable or unwilling to participate, necessitating that you select other interviewees or change the focus; internet sites might be down or no longer available, etc.  (Try to imagine every possible problem so that you have contingency plans and the project doesn't become derailed.)

Make a list of texts you plan to consult.  If you are writing a library-based research paper you should aim to make a list of at least 30 potential sources (40 is better), which you will then narrow down as you conduct the research.  Many sources initially seem relevant, but turn out not to be, so it is always better to list all sources that might be of interest. As you eliminate sources, cross them off of this list.  Mark sources that are particularly useful, and add new sources as you come across them.  This will enable you to make a Works Cited list at the end of your project (i.e.: a list of only the works you have summarized, paraphrased, or quoted from in the paper.)

Sandra Jamieson, Drew University. 1999
Adapted from material written by Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson.
This work is provided free of charge under a Creative Commons License (click here to read the conditions governing use)
For permission to print and use this page, please contact Sandra Jamieson by e-mail.

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