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Writing a Research Proposal

What is a proposal?


A proposal is a request for support of sponsored research, instruction, or extension projects. Good proposals quickly and easily answer the following questions:

  • What do you want to do, how much will it cost, and how much time will it take?
  • How does the proposed project relate to the sponsor's interests?
  • What difference will the project make to: your university, your students, your discipline, the state, the nation, the world, or whatever the appropriate categories are?
  • What has already been done in the area of your project?
  • How do you plan to do it?
  • How will the results be evaluated?
  • Why should you, rather than someone else, do this project?

These questions will be answered in different ways and receive different emphases depending on the nature of the proposed project and on the agency to which the proposal is being submitted. Most agencies provide detailed instructions or guidelines concerning the preparation of proposals (and, in some cases, forms on which proposals are to be typed); obviously, such guidelines should be studied carefully before you begin writing the draft.

Types of proposals


Solicited proposals

Submitted in response to a specific solicitation issued by a sponsor. Such solicitations, typically called Request for Proposals (RFP), or Request for Quotations (RFQ), are usually specific in their requirements regarding format and technical content, and may stipulate certain award terms and conditions. Broad Agency Announcements (BAAs) are not considered formal solicitations.

Unsolicited proposals

Submitted to a sponsor that has not issued a specific solicitation but is believed by the investigator to have an interest in the subject.

Preproposals

Requested when a sponsor wishes to minimize an applicant's effort in preparing a full proposal. Preproposals are usually in the form of a letter of intent or brief abstract. After the preproposal is reviewed, the sponsor notifies the investigator if a full proposal is warranted.

Continuation or non-competing proposals

Confirm the original proposal and funding requirements of a multi-year project for which the sponsor has already provided funding for an initial period (normally one year). Continued support is usually contingent on satisfactory work progress and the availability of funds.

Renewal or competing proposals

Are requests for continued support for an existing project that is about to terminate, and, from the sponsor's viewpoint, generally have the same status as an unsolicited proposal.

Parts of a proposal


Proposals for sponsored activities generally follow a similar format, although there are variations depending upon whether the proposer is seeking support for a research grant, a training grant, or a conference or curriculum development project. The following outline covers the primary components of a research proposal. Your proposal will be a variation on this basic theme.

  1. Title Page: Most sponsoring agencies specify the format for the title page, and some provide special forms to summarize basic administrative and fiscal data for the project. Titles should be comprehensive enough to indicate the nature of the proposed work, but also be brief.
  2. Abstract: The funder may use the abstract to make preliminary decisions about the proposal. An effective summary states the problem addressed by the applicant, identifies the solution, and specifies the objectives and methods of the project. This summary should also outline funding requirements and describe the applicant’s expertise.
  3. Table of Contents: Very brief proposals with few sections ordinarily do not need a table of contents; the guiding consideration in this is the reader's convenience. Long and detailed proposals may require, in addition to a table of contents, a list of illustrations (or figures) and a list of tables. If all of these are included, they should follow the order mentioned, and each should be numbered with lower-case Roman numerals. The table of contents should list all major parts and divisions (including the abstract, even though it precedes the table of contents).
  4. Introduction (including Statement of Problem, Purpose of Research, and Significance of Research): The introduction of a proposal should begin with a capsule statement of what is being proposed and then should proceed to introduce the subject to a stranger. It should give enough background to enable an informed layman to place your particular research problem in a context of common knowledge and should show how its solution will advance the field or be important for some other work. The statement describes the significance of the problem(s), referring to appropriate studies or statistics. 
  5. Background (including Literature Survey): Be sure to (1) make clear what the research problem is and exactly what has been accomplished; (2) to give evidence of your own competence in the field; and (3) to show why the previous work needs to be continued. The literature review should be selective and critical. Discussions of work done by others should therefore lead the reader to a clear impression of how you will be building upon what has already been done and how your work differs from theirs. 
  6. Description of Proposed Research (including Method or Approach): The comprehensive explanation of the proposed research is addressed not to laymen but to other specialists in your field. This section is the heart of the proposal and is the primary concern of the technical reviewers. Remember as you lay out the research design to (1) be realistic about what can be accomplished. (2) be explicit about any assumptions or hypotheses the research method rests upon. (3) be clear about the focus of the research. (4) be as detailed as possible about the schedule of the proposed work. (5) Be specific about the means of evaluating the data or the conclusions. (6) be certain that the connection between the research objectives and the research method is evident. (7) spell out preliminary work developing an analytical method or laying groundwork as Phase 1. At the end of that phase you will be able to report that you have accomplished something and are ready to undertake Phase 2.
  7. Description of Relevant Institutional Resources: In general this section details the resources available to the proposed project and, if possible, shows why the sponsor should select this University and this investigator for this particular research. Some relevant points may be the institution's demonstrated competence in the pertinent research area, its abundance of experts in related areas that may indirectly benefit the project, its supportive services that will directly benefit the project, and its unique or unusual research facilities or instruments available to the project. 
  8. List of References: The style of the bibliographical item itself depends on the disciplinary field. The main consideration is consistency; whatever style is chosen should be followed scrupulously throughout. 
  9. Personnel: This section usually consists of two parts: an explanation of the proposed personnel arrangements and the biographical data sheets for each of the main contributors to the project. The explanation should specify how many persons at what percentage of time and in what academic categories will be participating in the project. If the program is complex and involves people from other departments or colleges, the organization of the staff and the lines of responsibility should be made clear.Any student participation, paid or unpaid, should be mentioned, and the nature of the proposed contribution detailed. If any persons must be hired for the project, say so, and explain why, unless the need for persons not already available within the University is self-evident.
  10. Budget: Sponsors customarily specify how budgets should be presented and what costs are allowable. The budget delineates the costs to be met by the funding source, including personnel, non-personnel, administrative, and overhead expenses. The budget also specifies items paid for by other funding sources. Includes justifications for requested expenditures. 

Must-have resources


Proposal Writing Assistance at the University of Illinois

University of Illinois Graduate College

Conducts proposal writing workshops, offers one-on-one reviews and critiques, and provides guidance in all areas of study.

Center for Writing Studies
Offers proposal writing tips as well as general writing assistance in all disciplines and at all stages of the writing process.

Writing Guides

Guidelines on Writing a Research Proposal

Matthew McGranaghan, University of Hawai'i

The Art of Writing Proposals

Adam Przeworski and Frank Salomon, Social Science Research Council

Dissertation Proposal Workshop (Online)
Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley

A site dedicated to helping students write research and grant proposals for conducting empirical social-scientific fieldwork. Includes a useful suggested proposal-writing timeline.

Proposal Template

Template for an APA-style proposal
Composed by Nelson L. Eby, in  collaboration with Dr. Douglas Degelman, Professor of Psychology, Vanguard University of Southern California. The template may need to be modified for your specific program.

Proposal Examples

Infants' Perceived Gender and Adolescents' Ratings

An APA-style proposal by Douglas Degelman, Ph.D. and Martin Lorenzo Harris, Ph.D., from Vanguard University of Southern California.

A Systems Perspective of Professional Development in a K-12 School District

Dissertation proposal preparation in Instructional Systems Technology by John B. Keller, at the University of Indiana.

University of Texas at Austin

This page showcases dissertation proposals in a range of subjects, from Classics to Chemical Engineering.

University of Maryland Department of Computer Science
Two students' dissertation research proposals.