The road to obtain a graduate degree is unquestionably long. But we have ten incredibly helpful steps for writing your graduate research proposal. When you finally reach your destination, it will all be worthwhile.

As a graduate student, when you start your journey, you must write, present and defend a graduate research proposal in front of a committee of professors, also known as a graduate advisory committee.

A research proposal is usually short, with only fewer than ten pages, but it has to cover the proposed research in detail. After the committee approves it, you should follow the research plan explained in the research proposal to complete your research project.

 Research Proposal Timeline

Figure 1. The typical timeline in graduate school.

Why is it important to write a research proposal?

There are eight major reasons for graduate students to write a research proposal in graduate school:

  1. It's required by the graduate school before performing research.
  2. Students become more familiar with the research project
  3. They develop research skills and academic writing skills.
  4. Students develop literature review skills.
  5. Students learn how to identify the research problem, objective, research questions and hypothesis.
  6. They learn to explore different methods to collect and analyze data, and to select the most appropriate methods for solving research problems.
  7. They learn to design research experiments based on logical and chronological steps.
  8. The process nurtures critical thinking and logical reasoning skills.

What to include in a research proposal

The common elements to include in a good research proposal are:

  • Title: The title of a research proposal should be clear and brief.
  • Introduction: This part contains the background information of the proposed study leading to the research problem.
  • Statement of purpose: This element should include the research objectives.
  • Literature review: It should include an overview of findings from the previous studies, the gaps in the previous studies and the findings from a preliminary study.
  • Research questions and hypothesis: This includes the research questions and hypothesis.
  • Methodology: This element contains a full description of the research procedures, possible problems and alternatives strategies.
  • The significance and impact of the study: This part shows how the proposed research will contribute to the field of study.

The 10 steps to writing an incredible research proposal

Below are ten steps for writing a research proposal:

1.Choose a research topic and develop a working title

Having a strong interest in your research topic will certainly help you to keep going when the journey becomes more challenging. The research topic is the subject of your research, which is a part of a broader field of study.

When you pick a research topic, find a topic that is not too narrow nor too broad. You can limit your topic, for example, by focusing on a certain treatment, population group, species, geographical area, period, methodology, or other specific factors.

For example, as a research topic, combating antibiotic resistance is still too far-reaching. Therefore, you can make it more specific: using a new antibiotic to combat antibiotic resistance.

The research topic

After selecting a research topic, develop a working title to help you focus on your topic. As you write the proposal, you can keep changing the working title to formulate the perfect title.

2.Perform a literature review

The next step is to conduct a literature review. This step is important because when you write out the background information and knowledge gaps in your topic area, it will help you become more familiar with your research topic.

In addition, performing a literature review will direct you to a research problem. A research problem is a specific area of concern serving as the focus of your proposed research.

When performing a literature review, a graduate student can also discover some ideas for designing their research plan.

To help you conduct a literature review, answer the following questions below:

What have others done so far to solve the research problem?

Some helpful steps to answer this question:

  1. Understand the experimental designs from previous studies to help you design your own research experiments.
  2. Learn about appropriate sample sizes, data collection, and statistical analyses from previous studies.
  3. Investigate and make a list the reagents and equipment you’ll possibly need for your research.
  4. Learn the research questions, the findings, the impact and the significance of previous studies.
  5. Find out about any ethical concerns.

What additional studies are still needed to solve the research problem?

Some helpful steps to answer this question:

  1. Pay attention to the strength and limitation part of the discussion section of scientific articles. From this part, make notes about the limitations of previous studies to give you an idea about a potential research problem.
  2. Read the suggestions for future research part of scientific articles. That can serve as a call to action for you to solve those unanswered questions from previous studies.
Going back to the antibiotic resistance topic mentioned in step 1, an example of a research problem can be developing an antibiotic with a new mode of action to combat antibiotic resistance.

3.Write an introduction

The introduction of your research proposal builds a framework for the research. This framework is the structure that supports your study and contains the background information. Its function is similar to the role of a foundation in supporting a building—if it is weak, a building will fall apart. Likewise, if your research lacks a strong background as a framework, it’s hard for others to see why it matters.

Writing your introduction can feel a little overwhelming. Where do you begin? How do you know you’re not missing anything?

You might want to read over our article:

How to Write an Effective Introduction Section of a Scientific Article

While the article is more specific to the introduction section of a formal research paper, there are some parts and tips you might find helpful.

4. Write research objectives or aims

In the next step, include research objectives or aims in the research proposal. A research objective is a goal you want to achieve in your research project (Al-Riyami, 2008). Your research objectives must have a strong connection with your research problem.

When developing research objectives, identify all variables associated with the research problem. A variable in the research is a characteristic that you manipulate or observe in your experiment.

There are different types of variables, including an independent variable and dependent variable (Al-Riyami, 2008). An independent variable is a variable you can change in your experiment, whereas a dependent variable is a variable you observe in response to the independent variable. After identifying the variables, connect them to the research objective.

An example of a research objective: to determine the effect of different doses of a novel antibiotic X on the growth rate of some resistant bacterial strains. In this example, the independent variable is the treatment (the different doses of antibiotic X), and the dependent variable is the growth rate of some bacterial strains.

5.State a research question

The next step is to identify a research question. A research question is the key question you want to answer in your proposed study (Farrugia et al., 2010). A research project can contain several research questions.

Keep in mind that your research question must meet the criteria of a good research question, including specific, feasible, interesting, novel, ethical, and relevant (Farrugia et al., 2010).

In term of feasibility, use current methods and technology to answer the question during your limited time in the graduate school.

An example of a research question: What doses of the antibiotic X are effective to inhibit the growth of some resistant bacterial strains?

A research question

6.Formulate a research hypothesis

After developing the research objectives and question, the next step is to formulate a research hypothesis. A research hypothesis is a statement of a possible research outcome.

Some criteria of a good hypothesis (Prasad et al., 2010; Al-Riyami, 2008):

  • Logical, precise, and clear
  • Testable with research experiments
  • Makes a prediction about the relationship between variables

An example of a research hypothesis: The new antibiotic X will significantly prevent the growth of some resistant bacterial strains.

A research hypothesis

7.Explain research methods

The methodology section containing proposed experimental procedures is required for a research proposal. This section has the detailed plan to solve the research problem. It also reflects the research questions and hypothesis.

After reviewing the credibility and validity of your research methods, your advisory committee will make a decision about the fate of your proposed study. Therefore, when writing the methodology section, keep in mind that others should be able to follow each step in the research design to perform the same experiment.

In this section, you should include these following key points:

  • Experimental design: This is the research strategy you choose to solve your problem.
  • Samples: It contains the description about the samples for each group of treatment in the proposed study.
  • Sample size: This information is important to make sure your sample size is sufficient.
  • Materials: It contains the reagents and chemicals needed in the proposed study.
  • Equipment: This has the list of equipment needed for the proposed study.
  • Protocols of data collection: It contains the procedures needed before collecting your data.
  • Ethical issues and consent forms: You may need to include these if your proposed studies will need human participants.
  • Data analysis: This part should include the steps to analyze the data.
  • Gantt chart: This chart contains tasks in each research project with the timeline for each task.

8.Include potential problems and alternative strategies

When performing your study, you may encounter potential problems. Therefore, include some of the possible problems that may occur during your study and the potential solution for them. By doing so, you can use your backup plan to solve each potential problem when the problems actually occurs.

9.Conduct and include a preliminary study

Perform and include the findings from a preliminary study in your research proposal. A preliminary study is a small-scale pilot study, conducted to test the experimental design ahead of time and increase the likelihood of success. By including the findings from a preliminary study, your advisory committee can visualize and assess the feasibility of your large-scale study.

10.State the potential impact and significance

In the last paragraph of your research proposal, include the potential impact and significance of your proposed study.

The potential impact of your study means the changes that your proposed research would make. These changes can be positive or negative, immediate or long-term, and direct or indirect.

Whereas, the potential significance of your study means the contribution that your proposed research would make. For example, you can explain its contribution to the knowledge in your field of study.

After putting it all together, evaluate the entire proposal to make sure it is strong and well written.

How to write a Research Proposal


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