How to Write a Research Proposal
The greatest resource is today’s world is knowledge, and the knowledge we have collectively as humans is doubling at a breakneck speed compared to previous centuries.
One of the reasons knowledge is growing at such a fast rate is the amount of research being done nowadays.
Before new knowledge can be added to the existing archive of world knowledge, an objective study must be undertaken, and it always begins with a question.
For instance, if we wanted to learn if social media in any way influences the behavior of teens, we would ask the question “what are the effects of social media on teenage behavior?”
Research is a complex process, and a very delicate one. Researchers cannot afford to make any mistakes.
For that reason, just as a person building a house must first do a cost analysis and get an architect’s design, so too must a researcher plan out the research project before diving into the research process.
This planning and preparation phase is captured in a document known as the research proposal. In this article, we are going to look at what exactly the research proposal is and how to write one.
WHAT IS A RESEARCH PROPOSAL?
The research proposal is the document you prepare before embarking on the research process.
It is a brief document that outlines your plan for the research project.
You are required to prepare a research proposal before you do any data collection.
When done well, the research proposal acts as a blueprint of your research process, outlining the various parts and how they fit together to make a complete project.
This blueprint should demonstrate what you will do in the research process, how you will do it, and justify your research – why are you doing research on this particular topic?
Without a research proposal, undertaking the study/research would be like attempting to build a castle without a blueprint which shows you where each room, stairway, window, door, and so on should be.
The proposal provides you with the opportunity to actively plan out your research process.
When you know what follows what, you are less likely to get overwhelmed by the scope of the project.
Forward planning and organization are necessary for the successful completion of any project. Planning also ensures efficiency, which means there is less wastage of time and you can be done with your project within the set deadline.
A good proposal involves careful, deliberate, thorough description of what the project will entail and how you will conduct it.
This kind of practical thought process is crucial for success in any project.
It ensures you don’t make any mistakes halfway through your research project and have to start all over again.
The research proposal seeks to answer 7 critical questions:
- What is the research about? (Aims)
- What is already known about the topic? (Literature Review)
- What do we want to find out? (Research Questions)
- How will we acquire the information we need? (Methods)
- How long will the project take and what will it cost? (Resources)
- Is this research project socially acceptable? (Ethics)
- What will be the benefits of conducting this research? (Expected outcomes)
These 7 basic questions encompass the underlying logic of any research project.
They are the questions that will come to most reader’s minds when evaluating whether your proposal is worthwhile and feasible.
The questions reflect the general way of thinking about research.
The answers to these questions are what comprises the content of your research proposal.
Q1: What Is The Research About? (Aims)
This is the most fundamental question about any research project. What is the topic? What precise information about the subject matter of this research can you provide? What is the research trying to accomplish?
This is the information that the readers of the proposal need to form a basis for their evaluation of the project’s worth/feasibility. Without this information, they cannot judge if the methodology you plan to use is appropriate, or if you have enough time and resources to complete the project.
The proposal should provide all the required information in a clear, precise, and succinct manner to ensure there is no misunderstanding.
Q 2. What Is Already Known About The Topic? (Literature Review)
Literature review concerns itself with what other researchers and scholars have uncovered about the project. It contains any relevant knowledge about the research topic that is out in the public domain.
It draws information from a variety of sources, including books, papers, articles, audio-visual sources, and so on.
The logic behind literature review is to prevent you from reinventing the wheel. In other words, if what you are planning to research has already been covered by previous researchers, there is no point in doing the research because it will not add any new knowledge. Doing literature review will help you develop a fresh take on the topic.
The only instance where you can repeat research is if your project’s specified aim is to ascertain the validity of earlier researchers’ findings.
Q3. What Do We Want To Find Out? (Research Questions)
After establishing the aims of your research and reviewing the existing literature on the subject, the next logical step is to ask yourself what new information is needed on the topic.
The beauty of literature review is that it enables you to cross off any questions that have already been conclusively answered. Not only does literature review tell us what we already know, it also reveals what we do not know.
Therefore, after crossing off the questions that don’t add any new knowledge, you develop new research questions that no one else has asked or answered before.
By basing your research on these unique questions, you guarantee that it will introduce new knowledge which scholars will in future have access to, review, and evaluate, citing you as the originator of this new knowledge.
The aim of research questions is to target the research in the areas where it will be most useful. These questions dictate the things you need to focus on so as to gather more insights on the topic.
Research questions contain the variables and their relationships. The readers of the proposal need these factors (the relationship between the dependent variable and the independent variables) spelled out clearly and precisely in the form of research questions.
Q4. How Will We Acquire The Information We Need? (Methods)
This is the most practical part of the research process. While the preceding parts of the proposal concern the theoretical framework of the research process, this step concerns the very practical business of doing the actual work and getting the information you need from the field.
In the methodology chapter of your proposal (Chapter 3), you provide a description of the exact methods you will use to gather, organize, compile, and analyze data.
You outline the research design, sampling design, target population, the data collection instruments and procedures, and the data analysis methods you will use.
The aim of providing all this information is to enable the readers of the proposal to evaluate if the methods you have outlined are suitable to undertake the task at hand.
It helps them determine if your proposed methods can work in practice.
As such, this section of the proposal helps ensure that you don’t undertake the research using the wrong tools and methodologies.
Q5. How Long Will The Project Take And What Will It Cost? (Resources)
This question concerns the practical aspect of the research project. All projects exist under constraints of time and resources.
Project planning involves the calculation of available time and budget. Since the research process is a project, it too is constrained by time scarcity and resource costs.
How long will the research take? What resources do you need to successfully complete the project? How much will it cost?
These questions are of concern to the readers evaluating your research proposal as they are crucial in determining the overall feasibility of your research project.
Q6. Is This Research Project Socially Acceptable? (Ethics)
This question concerns the ethics of your proposed research methods.
The research methods you use should in no way violate the principles of research ethics or the law of the land.
For instance, you should never coerce your research subjects into participating in the research.
Any research methods that violate the constitutional rights of your research subjects are deemed unethical.
Any research methods that project your subjectivity on to the research data are also deemed unethical as they violate a key principle of research ethics – that the researcher should be utterly objective and without any bias when collecting or analyzing data.
The research process should be as scientific as possible.
Q7. What Will Be The Benefits Of Conducting This Research? (Expected Outcomes)
This question concerns the benefits that this research project is expected to produce. What do you want the research to achieve, beyond answering the research questions?
Who will benefit from the research? What is the expected impact of your research project? Answering this question helps determine if your research will be practically useful.
For instance, if you undertake a research project on the effects of social media on teenage brains, the obvious beneficiaries of the research are teenagers.
On the other hand, social media companies will also benefit as they can use your research to make their platforms safer for young people.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF A RESEARCH PROPOSAL?
The following are the reasons why you should write a research proposal:
The basic definition of a project is a series of tasks that is undertaken within a specific duration and when completed is expected to reach a specific outcome.
In this particular case, the research project involves a variety of tasks, including going to the field to collect data, analyzing the data, and codifying and tabulating the data and drawing conclusions from it.
A research project is fairly complex. If you start working on it directly without any prior planning, you are likely to commit many mistakes, which would then require you to start your project all over again and that would waste a lot of time.
The most efficient and effective way to approach this problem is by planning everything in advance.
Just as house-building begins with an architect’s design, so too a research project should start with a research proposal that maps out the entire project in advance.
2. Literature Review
It is highly likely that if not for the research proposal, most people would dive directly into the research process without doing any due diligence on their research topic.
The research proposal compels you to undertake a structured process of literature review during which you sift through the existing literature on your research topic.
As a result, you are able to determine if your research topic has been covered before and if it is worth researching.
The research proposal’s literature review section ensures you don’t repeat what another researcher has already done.
If you discover that your research topic is not unique, you can then tweak it a bit and find a fresh angle from which to approach the question.
3. Establish Worth
The research proposal establishes whether your research topic is worth investigating or not.
Your proposal will demonstrate how well you have thought out the research topic, whether your topic will add new knowledge, whether your proposed research methods are appropriate and so on.
This is especially critical in an academic environment, where a supervisor has to monitor and evaluate your work before giving you a go-ahead.
The supervisor will only allow you to start on the research process if you write a quality research proposal.
The same is true for non-academic environments: the proposal enables the reader to determine if your research study is worth supporting with funding and so forth.
WRITING THE RESEARCH PROPOSAL
Here, we take a look at how to actually write a research proposal, as well as the sections that go into the research proposal.
Ideally, the research proposal contains preliminary pages, three chapters, references, and appendices.
To illustrate what a research proposal should look like, we will use the following example research topic: Factors Affecting the Employability of Millennials in the US.
1. Preliminary Pages
These are the pages that will precede the first chapter of the proposal.
They include the title page, the declaration, the abstract, the table of contents, the list of tables, the list of figures, the operational definition of terms, and the list of abbreviations/acronyms.
2. Chapter One: The Introduction of the Study
This chapter will contain the introduction to the research, the background of the study, the statement of the problem, the objectives of the study, the research questions, the significance of the study (the benefits to be gained from the study), the limitations of the study, and the scope of the study.
Below is a brief explanation of each of the sections that go into chapter one of the research proposal.
In this section, you will briefly introduce the topic and highlight the contents of this chapter.
Background of the Study
Here, you will do a brief sort of literature review on the topic of millennial employability. You will cite scholars and researchers that have written on the topic.
Here, you will compress the research problem/topic into two or so clear paragraphs. For instance:
The generation known as millennials came of age during and in the aftermath of the great recession that began in 2008. This generation has had trouble, unlike previous generations, in securing permanent employment.
This study seeks to understand the reason behind this, using the city of Athens, Ohio as a case study from which to generalize conclusions about the employability of millennials in the US.
Objectives of the Study
Here, you will state the general objective and the specific objectives. The general objective is basically a shortened version of the statement of the problem:
The objective of the study is to investigate to what extent the employability of millennials in the US is affected by the variables used in the study, using the city of Athens, Ohio as a case study.
The specific objectives introduce the independent variables. The independent variables, in this case, are the factors you will be investigating in the research.
The factors that may or may not have an effect on millennial employability. Your aim is to find out if they do and to what extent. You can source these factors from your literature review:
- To investigate the effect of skillfulness on millennial employability in the US.
- To explore the extent to which automation affects millennial employability in the US.
These are the specific objectives inverted into question form:
- To what degree does skillfulness affect millennial employability in the US?
- To what extent does automation affect millennial employability in the US?
Significance of the Study
In this section, we list the benefits that will be potentially gained from the expected outcomes of the study, as well as the people and institutions that stand to benefit from the study.
In our example, the outcomes of the study might benefit millennials position themselves better for employment, companies, human resource and managers, and headhunters might learn new insights related to hiring millennials, and governments might gain new insights on how to draft better policies that will reduce unemployment for millennials.
Limitations of the Study
In this section, you will list some of the problems that you might encounter in the course of conducting the study.
These might include problems such as cultural bias, lack of fluency in the language spoken by subjects, and so on.
The problems could also be methodological limitations such as a lack of reliable data and a lack of prior research studies on the topic.
Scope of the Study
Here, you will describe the population that you intend to investigate in your study and the institutions or areas from which we will source our data.
For instance, in this study we would go to various relevant stakeholders and persons in Athens, Ohio: headhunters, employers, older employees, millennial employees, unemployed millennials, and so on.
3. Chapter Two: Literature Review
This chapter will identify and review topic-relevant information that can be gleaned from past studies and literature produced on the topic.
The chapter will help equip the researcher with relevant background information. Chapter two will contain the following sections.
Review of Theoretical Literature
In this section, you will do a thorough review of existing literature on the topic, using your independent variables (skillfulness, automation, etc.) as your guiding lights.
Here, you will summarize what you have gathered from the literature review.
Here, you will provide a visual representation that illustrates the relationship between the dependent variable (millennial employability in the US) and the independent variables (skillfulness, automation, etc.)
4. Chapter Three: Research Methodology
This chapter will clarify the research methodology that you intend to use in the course of the study.
It reveals how you will gather, organize, compile, and analyze data.
It will include things such as the research design, target population, sampling design, data collection instruments and procedures, and data analysis.
Below is a more detailed look into the sections that go into this chapter.
Here, you will highlight what should be expected from this chapter.
Here, you will define the entire population that is the focus of the study. You will use the findings of the study to generalize conclusions about your target population. In this particular case, the target population is millennials in the US.
In this section, you will define the sampling design technique that you will use. For instance, you might use stratified random sampling.
Here, you will define the sample population, using a visual representation such as a table.
Data Collection Instruments
Here, you will define the data collection instruments you will use in the study – for instance, in this case you could use questionnaires.
Data Analysis Methods
You will define the data analysis methods you will use to convert the data gained from your study into useful information.
For instance, in our example, you might use the Microsoft Excel software program to analyze the data and represent it in tables, figures, and pie charts.
In this section, you will compile every source cited in the literature review.
This section will include the research instruments used in the study, for instance a copy of the questionnaire used to get data from your research subjects.
The research proposal is a critical document prepared during the planning/preparation stage of the research process.
This document acts as a blueprint which maps out the entire process for the researcher.
In addition, the research proposal also establishes the worth of the proposed research topic.
Supervisors in academic environment use the research proposal to determine if the student is ready to begin working on the project.
We will conclude with an apt metaphor that wraps up everything covered in this article: commencing research without writing a research proposal is like setting out on a sea voyage without a map.
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