Format Of A Research Paper Proposal

Beginning the Proposal Process

As with writing a regular academic paper, research proposals are generally organized the same way throughout most social science disciplines. Proposals vary between ten and twenty-five pages in length. However, before you begin, read the assignment carefully and, if anything seems unclear, ask your professor whether there are any specific requirements for organizing and writing the proposal.

A good place to begin is to ask yourself a series of questions:

  • What do I want to study?
  • Why is the topic important?
  • How is it significant within the subject areas covered in my class?
  • What problems will it help solve?
  • How does it build upon [and hopefully go beyond] research already conducted on the topic?
  • What exactly should I plan to do, and can I get it done in the time available?

In general, a compelling research proposal should document your knowledge of the topic and demonstrate your enthusiasm for conducting the study. Approach it with the intention of leaving your readers feeling like--"Wow, that's an exciting idea and I can’t wait to see how it turns out!"


In general your proposal should include the following sections:

I.  Introduction

In the real world of higher education, a research proposal is most often written by scholars seeking grant funding for a research project or it's the first step in getting approval to write a doctoral dissertation. Even if this is just a course assignment, treat your introduction as the initial pitch of an idea or a thorough examination of the significance of a research problem. After reading the introduction, your readers should not only have an understanding of what you want to do, but they should also be able to gain a sense of your passion for the topic and be excited about the study's possible outcomes. Note that most proposals do not include an abstract [summary] before the introduction.

Think about your introduction as a narrative written in one to three paragraphs that succinctly answers the following four questions:

  1. What is the central research problem?
  2. What is the topic of study related to that problem?
  3. What methods should be used to analyze the research problem?
  4. Why is this important research, what is its significance, and why should someone reading the proposal care about the outcomes of the proposed study?

II.  Background and Significance

This section can be melded into your introduction or you can create a separate section to help with the organization and narrative flow of your proposal. This is where you explain the context of your proposal and describe in detail why it's important. Approach writing this section with the thought that you can’t assume your readers will know as much about the research problem as you do. Note that this section is not an essay going over everything you have learned about the topic; instead, you must choose what is relevant to help explain the goals for your study.

To that end, while there are no hard and fast rules, you should attempt to address some or all of the following key points:

  • State the research problem and give a more detailed explanation about the purpose of the study than what you stated in the introduction. This is particularly important if the problem is complex or multifaceted.
  • Present the rationale of your proposed study and clearly indicate why it is worth doing. Answer the "So What? question [i.e., why should anyone care].
  • Describe the major issues or problems to be addressed by your research. Be sure to note how your proposed study builds on previous assumptions about the research problem.
  • Explain how you plan to go about conducting your research. Clearly identify the key sources you intend to use and explain how they will contribute to your analysis of the topic.
  • Set the boundaries of your proposed research in order to provide a clear focus. Where appropriate, state not only what you will study, but what is excluded from the study.
  • If necessary, provide definitions of key concepts or terms.

III.  Literature Review

Connected to the background and significance of your study is a section of your proposal devoted to a more deliberate review and synthesis of prior studies related to the research problem under investigation. The purpose here is to place your project within the larger whole of what is currently being explored, while demonstrating to your readers that your work is original and innovative. Think about what questions other researchers have asked, what methods they have used, and what is your understanding of their findings and, where stated, their recommendations. Do not be afraid to challenge the conclusions of prior research. Assess what you believe is missing and state how previous research has failed to adequately examine the issue that your study addresses. For more information on writing literature reviews, GO HERE.

Since a literature review is information dense, it is crucial that this section is intelligently structured to enable a reader to grasp the key arguments underpinning your study in relation to that of other researchers. A good strategy is to break the literature into "conceptual categories" [themes] rather than systematically describing groups of materials one at a time. Note that conceptual categories generally reveal themselves after you have read most of the pertinent literature on your topic so adding new categories is an on-going process of discovery as you read more studies. How do you know you've covered the key conceptual categories underlying the research literature? Generally, you can have confidence that all of the significant conceptual categories have been identified if you start to see repetition in the conclusions or recommendations that are being made.

To help frame your proposal's literature review, here are the "five C’s" of writing a literature review:

  1. Cite, so as to keep the primary focus on the literature pertinent to your research problem.
  2. Compare the various arguments, theories, methodologies, and findings expressed in the literature: what do the authors agree on? Who applies similar approaches to analyzing the research problem?
  3. Contrast the various arguments, themes, methodologies, approaches, and controversies expressed in the literature: what are the major areas of disagreement, controversy, or debate?
  4. Critique the literature: Which arguments are more persuasive, and why? Which approaches, findings, methodologies seem most reliable, valid, or appropriate, and why? Pay attention to the verbs you use to describe what an author says/does [e.g., asserts, demonstrates, argues, etc.].
  5. Connect the literature to your own area of research and investigation: how does your own work draw upon, depart from, synthesize, or add a new perspective to what has been said in the literature?

IV.  Research Design and Methods

This section must be well-written and logically organized because you are not actually doing the research, yet, your reader has to have confidence that it is worth pursuing. The reader will never have a study outcome from which to evaluate whether your methodological choices were the correct ones. Thus, the objective here is to convince the reader that your overall research design and methods of analysis will correctly address the problem and that the methods will provide the means to effectively interpret the potential results. Your design and methods should be unmistakably tied to the specific aims of your study.

Describe the overall research design by building upon and drawing examples from your review of the literature. Consider not only methods that other researchers have used but methods of data gathering that have not been used but perhaps could be. Be specific about the methodological approaches you plan to undertake to obtain information, the techniques you would use to analyze the data, and the tests of external validity to which you commit yourself [i.e., the trustworthiness by which you can generalize from your study to other people, places, events, and/or periods of time].

When describing the methods you will use, be sure to cover the following:

  • Specify the research operations you will undertake and the way you will interpret the results of these operations in relation to the research problem. Don't just describe what you intend to achieve from applying the methods you choose, but state how you will spend your time while applying these methods [e.g., coding text from interviews to find statements about the need to change school curriculum; running a regression to determine if there is a relationship between campaign advertising on social media sites and election outcomes in Europe].
  • Keep in mind that a methodology is not just a list of tasks; it is an argument as to why these tasks add up to the best way to investigate the research problem. This is an important point because the mere listing of tasks to be performed does not demonstrate that, collectively, they effectively address the research problem. Be sure you explain this.
  • Anticipate and acknowledge any potential barriers and pitfalls in carrying out your research design and explain how you plan to address them. No method is perfect so you need to describe where you believe challenges may exist in obtaining data or accessing information. It's always better to acknowledge this than to have it brought up by your reader.

V.  Preliminary Suppositions and Implications

Just because you don't have to actually conduct the study and analyze the results, it doesn't mean you can skip talking about the analytical process and potential implications. The purpose of this section is to argue how and in what ways you believe your research will refine, revise, or extend existing knowledge in the subject area under investigation. Depending on the aims and objectives of your study, describe how the anticipated results will impact future scholarly research, theory, practice, forms of interventions, or policymaking. Note that such discussions may have either substantive [a potential new policy], theoretical [a potential new understanding], or methodological [a potential new way of analyzing] significance.
 
When thinking about the potential implications of your study, ask the following questions:

  • What might the results mean in regards to the theoretical framework that underpins the study?
  • What suggestions for subsequent research could arise from the potential outcomes of the study?
  • What will the results mean to practitioners in the natural settings of their workplace?
  • Will the results influence programs, methods, and/or forms of intervention?
  • How might the results contribute to the solution of social, economic, or other types of problems?
  • Will the results influence policy decisions?
  • In what way do individuals or groups benefit should your study be pursued?
  • What will be improved or changed as a result of the proposed research?
  • How will the results of the study be implemented, and what innovations will come about?

NOTE:  This section should not delve into idle speculation, opinion, or be formulated on the basis of unclear evidence. The purpose is to reflect upon gaps or understudied areas of the current literature and describe how your proposed research contributes to a new understanding of the research problem should the study be implemented as designed.


VI.  Conclusion

The conclusion reiterates the importance or significance of your proposal and provides a brief summary of the entire study. This section should be only one or two paragraphs long, emphasizing why the research problem is worth investigating, why your research study is unique, and how it should advance existing knowledge.

Someone reading this section should come away with an understanding of:

  • Why the study should be done,
  • The specific purpose of the study and the research questions it attempts to answer,
  • The decision to why the research design and methods used where chosen over other options,
  • The potential implications emerging from your proposed study of the research problem, and
  • A sense of how your study fits within the broader scholarship about the research problem.

VII.  Citations

As with any scholarly research paper, you must cite the sources you used in composing your proposal. In a standard research proposal, this section can take two forms, so consult with your professor about which one is preferred.

  1. References -- lists only the literature that you actually used or cited in your proposal.
  2. Bibliography -- lists everything you used or cited in your proposal, with additional citations to any key sources relevant to understanding the research problem.

In either case, this section should testify to the fact that you did enough preparatory work to make sure the project will complement and not duplicate the efforts of other researchers. Start a new page and use the heading "References" or "Bibliography" centered at the top of the page. Cited works should always use a standard format that follows the writing style advised by the discipline of your course [i.e., education=APA; history=Chicago, etc] or that is preferred by your professor. This section normally does not count towards the total page length of your research proposal.


Develop a Research Proposal: Writing the Proposal. Office of Library Information Services. Baltimore County Public Schools; Heath, M. Teresa Pereira and Caroline Tynan. “Crafting a Research Proposal.” The Marketing Review 10 (Summer 2010): 147-168; Jones, Mark. “Writing a Research Proposal.” In MasterClass in Geography Education: Transforming Teaching and Learning. Graham Butt, editor. (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), pp. 113-127; Krathwohl, David R. How to Prepare a Dissertation Proposal: Suggestions for Students in Education and the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005; Procter, Margaret. The Academic Proposal. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Punch, Keith and Wayne McGowan. "Developing and Writing a Research Proposal." In From Postgraduate to Social Scientist: A Guide to Key Skills. Nigel Gilbert, ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006), 59-81; Sanford, Keith. Information for Students: Writing a Research Proposal. Baylor University; Wong, Paul T. P. How to Write a Research Proposal. International Network on Personal Meaning. Trinity Western University; Writing Academic Proposals: Conferences, Articles, and Books. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Writing a Research Proposal. University Library. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Research Paper Proposal

Before you write your research paper proposal [See the format below.], read this information. Then review the Research Paper Assignment to be sure you are gathering the correct number and kind of sources. Review "Help With Writing Research Papers"
(http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/writ-pap.htm ) before you begin brainstorming about topics or writing your paper.  Your final product will be judged on how well you succeed in producing a well though out, clear paper which shows you can interpret and intelligently discuss the issue and how well you can backup your findings with evidence. If you can't find sufficient sources you may have to rethink your subject. If you are taking a course in your major this semester, you can research a topic for that course (with my permission and the other professor's.) See me about the submission form.

Science and technology rapidly advances; therefore, "old "stuff," other than as background information, can be misleading and lead to wrong conclusions. Look for possible topics and background information in specialized encyclopedias, such as McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, Magill's Survey of Science: Life Science Series, Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Technology, American Medical Association Encyclopedia of Medicine. Encyclopedias should not be your main sources, but can give you good background information and clarify concepts.

Approach: Your paper does not have a chance to be substantive unless you have substantive sources. Out of the 15 possible sources you found for your proposal, you should end up with 7 to 10 VARIED (NOT all Internet sites, for example) sources - including professional journal articles and professional publications, Internet sources, and possibly (but not required) an interview. It is a balancing act to find sources that you can understand - that relate to your level of study in your discipline, and, at the same time, challenge you intellectually.   Be prepared at all times to show me the hard copies of your sources. Keep good notes.  Be sure you have records on  the title of the article, the title of the journal, the author/s names, date of publication, page numbers and other information required on your reference page and in your in-text citation, plus the key points from the source.  Identify whether you are paraphrasing or quoting.]

Below is the format for your Research Paper Proposal. I must approve your topic and sources. I will not accept any papers that have major changes in topic or sources without my prior approval. Your paper must be your original work, fitting the guidelines in your research paper assignment. Please - no papers on global warming or marijuana. Those have been done ad nauseum and will only bore me to death.

Review the Honor Code and Plagiarism Guidelines (http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/plagiarism.htm).  Fortunately, most students do their own work. For anyone tempted to pass off someone else's work as his or her own, I am a sophisticated user of the Internet and can easily spot papers gotten from paper mills, Internet or otherwise. Please do not jeopardize your college career or your grade in this class by using papers that are not written by you.]

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[ The information between the brackets [  ] is to guide you.  Here is a proposal template(http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/prop-res-template) without the explanations.  You can save it as an html file and/or text file and  insert your text.

Date:

To: Professor Virginia Montecino

From: [name and email address]

Subject of my paper:  [The subject is the broad topic]

My Major and why writing about this topic will be beneficial to me: [If you are not vested in your topic, chances are your incentive to write about the subject will be weak. If you are interested in the topic you will probably write a better paper.]

My thesis: [The thesisis generally a sentence or two, which comes after the introductory material and states the main point/s in your paper.  It is NOT a question. If your subject is fertility treatments, for example, your thesis might be "The high number of multiple births is forcing society to examine the ethical issues that are caused by fertility drugs and invitro fertilization. ]

Approach to the subject of my paper: [Try toenvision a logical way in which to present your material. In what order will you present your material to best address the issues? Will you have to define any terms? If so, which ones? Will you have to clarify terms and concepts? Do you think that inserting anecdotal evidence, for example, high profile stories of people who have had multiple births, as in the case above, will help your reader understand your paper? Will you show opposing viewpoints? Will you discuss the plusses and minuses of different platforms that perform similar functions? Will you be comparing and contrasting? Will you be categorizing some information? Perhaps you will be using a number of these approaches in your paper. Let me know where you think you are headed.]

Intended audience: [Your readers should not be specialists in your field. Assume that your readers have, in general, your level of education, but are not necessarily majoring in the same subject. You will have to define terms and explain concepts. But beyond these obvious ground rules, discuss what people or group of people might benefit from reading your paper. For example, in the multiple birth example, might prospective users of fertility clinics, childless husbands and wives, benefit from the information in your paper? ]

Graphs or charts: [Graphs and charts will not impress me unless they truly help the reader better understand some aspect of your paper. Be sure to document charts and graphs from other sources. Charts and/or graphs should not stand alone. They should compliment textual descriptions. Refer to the chart or graph in the text where you discuss the information. Charts, graphs or other appendices do not count toward the 5 to 7 pages of required text.]

Documentation Style: [APA is preferred, but if you want to use another scientific style, such as CBE, or Number, Date style, you must ask for approval. See on-line style guides at http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/stylgui.htm.]

Kinds of sources I will use and why they will benefit my paper: [ Do you have a balanced variety of sources?  What strengths will they lend to the paper?  How will they help clarify points you want to make?Use a combination of sources. Do not use all Internet sources. Some of your sources must be from a professional journal in your field, such as a nursing journal, a computer science or engineering journal, such as IEEE Spectrum. Some high end general audience publications such as Scientific American, or PC Computing can be used. Internet sources can be used if they are from credible sites such as the National Institute of Health, The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). See a list of Internet resources by discipline (http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/disciplines.htm) and do your own searches for other resources.]

Tentative List of References: [You should have at least Fifteen (15) separate sources listed in the proper APA format. This information should be on a separate page called References. Abide by all of the APA format guidelines for the reference page. The sources should be varied - not all Internet sources, for example - and be appropriate for a college level research paper. Peoplemagazine, Readers Digest, and others of that ilk are not satisfactory. Show me that you know how to find and can analyze data from sources within your discipline. Your final reference page in the Research Paper should have a minimum of  7 to 10 sources, each of which must be used as a source in your paper. Do not put any sources in your references that you have not used in your paper. It is possible for some of your sources to change as you become more deeply involved in writing your paper. Advise me of changes in references. ]


Virginia Montecino| montecin@gmu.edu

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