Research Proposals

Research Proposals


Like many writers, you may have already completed a research paper in a high school or college class. You may feel confident completing such a paper, but then become unsure when asked by your professor to submit a research proposal. What is a research proposal, anyway?

Each instructor assigning a research proposal may have slightly different requirements, but generally, there are three main goals: to state your research topic, justify why it is worth researching, and explain how you will conduct your research.

Describing Your Topic

Stating your topic may seem like a simple task, but for a research proposal, this task requires thoughtful, careful attention to detail. The objective is to briefly explain your proposed research topic in general terms, but in sufficient detail that you still touch on all the major points you want to explore.

Sometimes it is helpful to formulate a series of research questions and then answer those questions for this part of a proposal.

For example, if you are assigned to research a political ideology for a government class, and you choose to write about libertarianism, your research questions could be something like the following:

  • What is libertarianism, and what are its core principles?
  • How did it develop or change over time through history?
  • How does this ideology appear in and/or affect American politics today?

These questions are broad, but by answering each in one or two sentences, you lay the groundwork for your research and demonstrate your grasp of the topic. Again, the requirements for research proposals will differ by instructor and class, but this opening description helps readers understand your research focus.

Reviewing Literature and Justifying Your Project

A key aspect of any research project is reviewing the available literature on your topic. Ideally, by the time you begin writing your proposal, you will have already read through some of your source material to understand how other scholars analyze your topic. In this section of your proposal, you’ll likely need to briefly describe the contributions of these authors.

Going back to the political ideology research example, a sentence that integrates a source may look something like:

In their article “Libertarianism,” Tom Smith and Jerry Jones describe the history of libertarian ideology and argue that while libertarians represent a somewhat insignificant aspect of American politics, some of the ideology’s core tenets are becoming increasingly acceptable.

You can also show how your research fills a gap in the literature or looks at a topic in a way that hasn’t been done before.

For example, perhaps in the libertarianism example there isn’t a lot of literature on how libertarian ideology has changed over time, you can discuss this in your work with something similar to the following:

Although authors like Smith and Jones briefly discuss how libertarian ideology has changed over time, they do not delve into the specifics of these changes in regards to foreign and monetary policy. This research project will help to fill in these gaps in the available literature.

After you have shown how your work will contribute to the knowledge on a subject, you may consider answering the, “So What?” question. Tell the reader why researching this particular topic is important. Perhaps your research can shed new light on a neglected aspect of the topic and will help people to look at that topic in a new way, such as:

Providing more detail on the history of libertarianism will help scholars better understand how the ideology has changed over time and how these changes affect our modern political landscape.

Depending on the requirements of your specific assignment, you may need to have a longer, more detailed literature review section, but these examples represent a basic structure with advisable elements to guide your readers’ understanding of your topic’s literature.

Explaining Your Research Strategy

To put it simply, explanations of research strategy/ies in your research proposal tell your readers how you will use your source material to support your argument and/or explain your topic. Some instructors may require you to complete an annotated bibliography, and others may have you explain your research strategy/ies in a few sentences.

Back to the political ideology research example, if you wanted to tell your readers how you plan to conduct your research, you might write something like:

To examine the history of libertarianism, this essay will rely on primary source material from libertarian writers at different points in time throughout history. It will seek to explain the origins of libertarian principles by examining the works of John Locke, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig Von Mises and compare the thoughts of these philosophers with more modern libertarian figures such as Ron Paul.

Again, depending on the length and other requirements of your project, you may have more types of sources and use different structures or guidelines for your discussions. However, the important goal of a research proposal is to communicate your research plan, reasoning, and strategy/ies to your readers.

Page last updated July 11, 2023.