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How to write a research proposal

Introduction

You might have the best research idea in the world, with a reliable methodology, a clear set of objectives, and a persuasive argument for its importance.

Yet without funding, none of those things amount to much. Securing support for a research project can be a daunting, uncertain, and complex. And your research proposal is an essential part of that process.

Get it right, and you dramatically improve your chances of success. Alternatively, if your proposal is incomplete or poorly crafted, it could dash your research hopes of studying your research problem entirely.

Whether you’re applying for Ph.D. funding or soliciting a private sponsor on behalf of your organization, in this article, we’ll outline a comprehensive structure for writing your proposal and provide some tips for improving its chances of being accepted.

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is a request for funding for a research project. Most proposals give a clear overview of a key research question, a methodology and schedule, and an outline of the current literature and developments in the field.

While “research proposals” are most commonly sent to universities – usually as part of the application process for postgraduate study – they can also be used to seek funding from private, governmental, or non-educational bodies. Proposals can be submitted by individuals or by organizations (like non-profits).

Generally speaking, research proposals will fall into one of these categories:

Pre-proposal

A pre-proposal is an inquiry sent prior to a full proposal. As a way of gauging whether or not an institution is interested in a proposed research topic, it includes an abstract and a brief summary of the intended methodological approaches, goals, and current state of the field.

Academic proposal

An academic proposal is an application for a research place at a university, usually for a specific period of three to six years. Generally speaking, universities will prescribe a specific structure for proposals and this will need to be followed.

Response to an RFP (Request for Proposal)

A request for proposal (RFP) is an open document sent to numerous individuals, or displayed on a public platform, that acts as an active request for research proposal submissions. The parameters of research for an RFP tend to be quite specific. Like academic proposals, responses may need to follow a specific structure.

Generic proposal

A proposal that doesn’t fit into the categories above will likely fall into this group. Generic proposals are unsolicited requests for research funding and are sent to either private and public organizations that are actively involved in providing funding in various areas.

How to write a research proposal

While it is important to follow any instructions provided by the funding body, most proposals will follow a structure similar to the one outlined below.

It is important to include all of these sections, as the information included is essential for the evaluation process. You can find a sample template here.

Use the following structure to inform your own proposal writing process:

Title

Your title should clearly describe your research idea or key research question.

Abstract

Clearly outline the central area of research in this section. You should provide a little academic background and summarize what you are going to say in the proposal.

Literature review

In this section, you should provide an outline of previous research papers in your field. It is a chance for you to demonstrate your expertise and show where your intended project fits into the broader picture. Good research is essential for this part of your proposal.

Key research question(s)

This is one of the most important parts of the proposal. Clearly explain your research question(s), how it will fit with current research, why it’s important, and what the benefits will be (the practical purpose of the study). You should also state your objectives in this section.

Methodology

There are a number of points that need to be covered in this stage. First and foremost, provide a framework that describes the theoretical underpinnings of your approach and also covers the practical methods involved. Also explain which research resources you will draw from (library, laboratory, field-work, data-collection etc.).

Schedule

Provide a timeline of different stages and the objectives associated with each. If you are sending a proposal to an academic institution, this will likely be within a specific study period of several years.

Bibliography

Include both references to cited sources and any literature that may be useful to the evaluator.

Contact details

Include all contact details, not just an email address, along with an address in case an organization wants to send you mail.

You may also want to add a table of contents, a chapter outline of your thesis, and your signature at the bottom of the document.

There’s also another important point worth noting. A common mistake that people make when writing proposals is sounding too academic. They think they need to impress recipients with their depth of knowledge.

It’s important to remain formal and use language appropriate to your field, describing key concepts and key elements, but it’s also easy to slip into obfuscation. Furthermore, don’t assume that the individuals responsible for evaluating a proposal will necessarily have an advanced academic background.

Can PandaDoc help with your research proposals?

Sending research proposals is a lot easier with the use of proposal software like PandaDoc. Crafting a proposal is hard enough without having to worry about collaboration, tracking, and follow-up. What’s more, it’s likely that you will need to manage multiple documents to send to different organizations.

A “smart app” like PandaDoc streamlines this proposal process significantly. You can quickly add content like charts, text blocks, and tables from a library of saved materials. You can track document opens, reading time, and responses, allowing you to determine when you should follow up. And you can also take advantage of saved templates, automation, and a range of integrations. A single dashboard also allows for collaboration.

To give PandaDoc a test drive and see how it can help you with your research proposals, sign up for a free 14-day trial.