How to Write a Higher Degree Research Proposal

Even if you are not just starting out in research, writing a proposal can be a daunting task.  You need the proposal to convince the university, you are applying to, that you are up for the job.  Unfortunately there seems to be very little by way of guidelines to help you write such a document.  So where do you start?

Let’s get one thing straight before you launch into your help-paper document.  The proposal is NOT the same as the confirmation of candidature document that you must present a year or so into your degree although the formats have much in common. The proposal is simply an outline of the work that you intend to undertake.  A reader of your proposal must be able to grasp the essentials of the research and come to the conclusion that your ideas are sound and worthwhile pursuing.  That means addressing the big questions of who?, why?, where?, when?, what? and how?.


  • is doing the research?  What makes YOU the suitable researcher?
  • will benefit from the outcomes of the research?
  • is involved in the research?  Who are the subjects?
  • will be your supervisor?


  • is the research beneficial?
  • is the research necessary?
  • do YOU need to do the research?


  • will you undertake the research?
  • will you publish the results?
  • will the research take you in the future?


  • are you going to do the research?  What are the stages and when are they taking place?
  • are you going to start?
  • are you going to finish?


  • has been researched in this area before?
  • what are the gaps/unanswered questions in existing research?
  • questions are you going to attempt to answer?
  • domain are you working in?
  • resources are you going to need?
  • are the ethical considerations?


  • are you going to perform the research?
  • are you going to gather the data?
  • are you going to analyse the data?

Before you even begin to attempt a document that looks like something that resembles a proposal you should attempt to answer all of the above questions.  Write a paragraph on each if you can.

It is also vitally important that you justify everything you write.  This is where you need to read over the previous set of paragraphs and ask yourself again why?

  • Why is the research important?
  • Why are you the best person to be doing the research?
  • Why are the methods you have chosen for data collection and analysis the most appropriate?
  • Why do you need the resources you’ve mentioned to complete the study?

Once you’ve done this you should have enough content to structure into a formal proposal.  It doesn’t have to be long it just has to answer all the questions an academic accessing the work will be looking for.  Some universities might have a formal template that you are required to complete though in my experience these are few and far between with most giving very little guidance.  So to give you a little guidance, here are the essential sections a proposal should contain.  Aim for around 8-10 typed pages at 1.5 line spacing.

1. Title (20 – 30 words)

I’m going to say this right up front as I tell all my research students.  A research dissertation IS NOT A CREATIVE WRITING EXERCISE.  Therefore you don’t want some clever title that is funny or a play on words.  The title should be succinct and answer as many of the questions posed beforehand but usually focusing on the “what”. My dissertation title was:

  • The synthesis of emotions in artificial intelligences: an affective agent architecture for intuitive reasoning in computer game characters.

Here are some others:

  • A Novel Scoring Method to Evaluate Associations Between Dietary Variety and Body Adiposity among a National Sample of U.S. Adults by M. Vadiveloo
  • The Social Life of the Pill: An Ethnography of Contraceptive Pill Users in a Central London Family Planning Clinic by V. Boydell
  • The Impact of the Great Recession and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) on the Occupational Segregation of Black Men by M. Holder.

Notice how they tell the reader exactly what to expect by giving specifics.  This is what to aim for.  If you don’t get it exactly right in the proposal, don’t fret as I can guarantee your title will change at least 3 or more times over the course of your studies.

2. Purpose Statement (up to 200 words)

In this section you condense everything that was written in the paragraphs above into one or two sentences that clearly answer who, what, why, where, when and how.  Sounds hard?  You bet.  Sometimes I consider the ability to write a purpose statement as the equivalent of a fire stick challenge right of passage.  If you can write a purpose statement (that makes sense) you deserve a PhD.  But I jest – a little.

The purpose statement will look something like this:

This [type of study e.g. qualitative, quantitative, mixed methods] study will investigate [what] toward (developing/understanding/answering) [gap in understanding in this field] by examining [who and how]. In this study [what] methods will be employed to address the research questions [what] because [why]. The results will add to the body of knowledge in his domain [how] providing significant information to [who and why].

Depending on the methodology that you decide on using this statement will change.  But this provides you with a starting point.

3. Brief Literature Review/Background Context (2-3 pages)

The literature survey provides background to the domain in which you are working and justifies your study.  It should provide a definition and context to your area of study as well as point out where the gaps are.  This section will also be heavily referenced as you need to present the domain and the issue within through the works of others.

My supervisor once told me that every sentence in the literature survey needed to be referenced.  At the time I thought this was extreme overkill and made the document unreadable, but when it comes down to it you just need to do it.

And don’t pick wishy washy references.  You need to identify who the leaders in the field are and reference their peer-reviewed work.  This includes journal papers, books and published conference proceedings.  Blogs, wikipedia and forums are not acceptable as references.

The literature review in a propose will be short and succinct – much shorter than the 20 or 30 pages that you’ll write for the final dissertation. So you need to write with purpose to define the domain and get your point across while pointing out the gaps in the existing understanding.  The literature review should also funnel the topic by starting with the bigger picture and narrowing it to the area you are working in.  For example the structure might go something like this:

Part 1:  Define the domain your topic fits within.  If you want to examine “emotions in computer games”  then start with something like”

Computer games are well known for eliciting emotional responses (insert reference here).  

Then expand this statement out into a couple of paragraph with examples.  If you think it is appropriate provide some history to the domain.

Part 2:  Break the topic up into chunks.  What are the sub categories that are examined within the domain? How are each of these studied and important?  If we continue the the “emotions in games” example you would write about what emotions are studied and what mechanisms are provided in games to form emotional responses.

Part 3:  End the previous section such that it focuses on the area that you are particularly interested in.  Then you can start this part by defining that particular area and identifying why it is significant. At this point you also need to demonstrate that there is a lack of understanding in the area with respect to the specifics of your study.  That will lead you into the next section.

*NOTE* Examples are very, very important. First they help to illustrate your point and second they provide substance to your document.  Don’t ever give a statement and leave the reader hanging without an example.

4. Research Questions (500 words)

By the end of the previous section you will have demonstrated a gap in existing research and should be ready to present your research questions.  You might think the more questions you have the better, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  A higher research degree is about pin pointing and issue and studying the life out of it.  If you’ve got to many research questions your research proposal isn’t refined and narrow enough.  Two research questions are fine, one is better.

The questions your research is attempting to answer must be narrow enough that you will be able to succinctly provide an answer.  Something like:

Do computer games make people emotional?

is far too broad and generalised.  Instead consider narrowing and focussing.  Like this:

How does the difficulty of a computer game influence a player’s anxiety levels?

5. Significance of Proposed Research (500 words)

This section you’ve probably already answered in the literature review, but best to reiterate and focus.  This is where you have to justify your reasons for doing the research.  Why is it important?  What are YOU going to contribute to the field?

6. Scope (200 words)

More often than not a higher degree research student comes to me and wants to solve the problems of the world.  This ain’t going to happen.  Well it might, but don’t count on it.  As I’ve already emphasised the research has to be narrow and focussed.  Very focussed.  Even the question I’ve given as an example in section 4. is still quite broad.  So in the scope, if I were addressing this, I would add something as to restricting the study to 18-24 year olds and testing with only a tile based game on an iPad.

And be honest.  You don’t have time to study every aspect of your research question so therefore say so.

7. Methodology (1-2 pages)

This section is probably the most important section of the proposal (besides establishing how ground breaking and important the research is).  The methodology tells the reader what you are going to do and how you are going to do it.  What existing research methodology are you going to follow and why?  Who are the participants in the study going to be?  Where and when are you going to do the study?

The methodology that you chose will depend on what the research question is and the domain in which you are working.  This is something your supervisor should help you with.

But as a starting point, try this:IMG_0624

Once you’ve decided on the methodology you’ll need to become familiar with it in order to write up how your particular project will proceed.  If you’ve come to the conclusion that your study will be a literature review – then start again – it won’t be appropriate for a Masters or PhD.

Check out these resources for more assistance:

Of course these aren’t the ONLY methodologies available to you, the the decision chart above will point you in the right direction.  In addition to the above generic methods consider Googling for more information in your particular discipline such as “Research Methods in Education” to find even more literature.

If you are still confused as to which methodology to use, take guidance from the literature in your literature review.  Have a look at how the people in your domain carry out their studies.  You could do much worse than mimicking the prominent researchers in your particular discipline.

8. Dissertation Outline (1 page)

This section lists the chapters that you intend to be in your final dissertation.  The structure for a research dissertation is quite mundane and follows a particular formulae which you may stray from at your own risk.  Remember, THIS IS NOT CREATIVE WRITING.  Essentially you will end up with something not dissimilar to this:

  1. Introduction
  2. Literature Review
  3. Methodology
  4. Analysis
  5. Results
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Appendices (if you have any)

Depending on the type of study you might but Analysis and Results together.

The above list of chapters and a one sentence description of their content is all you need in this section.

9. Research Timeline (1 page)

The research timeline presents the start and end dates of what you will be doing throughout your degree.  Naturally this will change as you proceed but it does provide reviewers of the document (and yourself) with the plan.  It will also give you an idea if what you are proposing is humanly possible within the restricted time of your studies. As a rule of thumb, make an estimate of how long it will take you to complete a task and then multiply by 4.

This section can be presented in a table giving dates and then the task thus:

1 June – 30 December        Literature Review

1 Jan – 10 Jan                      Create Survey Instrument

11 Jan – 30 April                  Distribute Survey via online channels to participants


10. References (2 pages)

The references are a list of all the literature you have referred to throughout the document, with the most of it residing in the literature review.  How you present the references will depend on the requirements of your academic discipline and university.  If you are undertaking a research degree I would assume you are familiar with referencing literature but if you need a refresher might I suggest you visit the dedicated websites for the different formats such as APA, Harvard, Chicago and others.  You can also find style guides for these formats all over the web – just Google them.

51i6j+wj8wL._SX350_BO1,204,203,200_For more information and assistance in writing up proposals and other research documents I can’t recommend enough “Research Design” by John W. Crewel.  I have the print copies of the third and forth editions as well as the eBook!

Good luck with your research studies.  I hope this post as gone someway in providing a little guidance in what will most like seem to you at the beginning of your journey into academia quite a chaotic black hole.