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(A person)
grows beyond his work,
walks up the stairs
of his concepts,
emerges ahead
of his accomplishments.
John Steinbeck 1902 - 1968
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
American author

Writing assignment series

How to write a research proposal*

These recommendations do not guarantee a successful research application!
They are intended to help you conceptualize and prepare a research proposal,
giving the process structure and a timetable for you to develop. Good luck!

When applying for a research grant or a study scholarship, you are expected to
hand in a "detailed and precise description of study or research proposal as well as information on any previous study or research projects of particular relevance to a decision of award."

The purpose of the proposal is to ensure that

  • the candidates have done sufficient preliminary reading/research
    in the area of their interest
  • that they have thought about the issues involved and are able to provide more than a broad description of the topic which they are planning to research.

The proposal is not a fixed blueprint. One cannot predict one's findings beforehand or mechanically stick to an argument since the research will inevitably alter or even unseat one's initial expectations. There is no fixed formula for writing a proposal.

However, your challenge is to convince members of the scientific community that you

  • have identified a scientific problem
  • have a theoretical background and a methodical approach to solve the problem
  • within a realistic time frame and at reasonable expenses.

With your research you will add a new aspect to the scientific discourse.

First, consult your advisor on length, layout (typeface, line spacing, font, etc.), format, as well as a table of contents and page numbers. Members of the selection committee may have to read a large number of research proposals so good construction and legibility of your proposal is to your advantage.

Title Page:

  • Personal data (name, academic title, your position at your own university, date of
    birth, nationality, your contact information, institutional contact.
  • (Working) Title of your planned dissertation or research report.
    words in the title should be chosen with great care, and their association with one another must be carefully considered. While the title should be brief, it should be accurate, descriptive and comprehensive, clearly indicating the subject of the investigation.

In order to develop a clear title, you must also be clear about the focus of your research!
Strive for the title to be ten words or 60 characters: focus on or incorporate keywords that reference the classification of the research subject

  • Indicate a realistic time frame toward project completion,
    followed by the name(s) of your supervisor(s), the university department where you hope to do your research and, if applicable, information about other academics with whom you plan to collaborate.
  • Refer to successfully funded projects to determine whether your topic fits with the granting organization's mission and to mimic their title/proposal structure

Abstract/summary statement of the research project:
This one page summary focuses on the research topic, its new, current and relevant aspects. Strive for clarity; your greatest challenge might be narrowing the topic

Review of research literature
A short and precise overview about the current state of research that is immediately
connected with your research project.

  • Reference the most important contributions of other scientists.
  • Discuss the theoretical scope or the framework of ideas that will be used to back the research.
  • Demonstrate that you are fully conversant with the ideas you are dealing with and that you
    grasp their methodological implications.
  • Indicate the open problem which then will be the motive for your project. State clearly how your research will contribute to the existing research.

Your history/preparation
Summarize the most important impact of your own work on the topic (if applicable).
Attach copies of your own publications that might be seen in relation to your research project.

Objective of the research project
Give a concise and clear outline of the academic (possibly also non-academic, e.g. social and political) objectives that you want to achieve through your project. Your proposal
needs to show why the intended research is important and justifies the search effort. Here you outline the significance (theoretical or practical) or relevance
of the topic.
Such justification may either be of an empirical nature (you hope to add to, or extend
an existing body of knowledge) or of a theoretical nature (you hope to elucidate contentious
areas in a body of knowledge or to provide new conceptual insights into such
knowledge). All research is part of a larger scholarly enterprise and candidates should
be able to argue for the value and positioning of their work.

Outline the project
This is the central part of your research outline.

  • Detail your research procedure within the given time.
  • List sources and quality of evidence you will consult, the analytical technique you will employ, and the timetable you will follow.
    Depending on the topic, suitable research strategies should be defined to ensure
    that enough and adequate empirical data will be gathered for a successful research project.
  • Describe the intended methods of data gathering, the controls you will introduce, the statistical methods to be used, the type of literature or documentary analysis to be followed, etc.

Consider your work to be a Work-in-Progress and allow yourself a flexible planning:
Stay ready to revise the proposal according to new insights and newly aroused questions
and keep on modifying the working hypothesis according to new insights while
formulating the proposal and the working hypothesis. Once you have a useful
working hypothesis, concentrate on pursuing the project within the limits of the topic.

Timetable
Develop a time table (if possible in table form), indicating the sequence of research phases and the time that you will probably need for each phase. Take into account that at this stage, it can only be estimated, but make clear that you have an idea about the time span that will be needed for each step.

Selective research bibliography
List academic works mentioned in your research outline as well as other important works to which you will refer during your research

Attachments:
List other documents attached to your proposal.
References, CV, etc.

Editing:
Once you have finished the conceptual work on your proposal, go through a careful
editing stage

Writing/presentation style:

  1. Verify that the title, the abstract and the content of your proposal clearly correspond to each other!
  2. Maintain a clear structure,
    an intuitive navigational style throughout the document with headings and summaries, enabling the reader to quickly reference where they are for future commenting;
    (Have a reader skim your document to verify)
  3. Summarize significant issues and make no assumptions where possible.
  4. Keep a reasonable, clear, declarative writing style (active verbs!) throughout the document;
  5. Breakup the narrative with bulleted lists, visuals, etc. demonstrating a command of abstract concepts and relationships
    Use white space to highlight and emphasize important sections
  6. Make sure your proposal does not contain any grammatical/spelling mistakes or typos; engage a proofreader;
  7. Request an experienced academic to proofread your proposal in order to ensure the proposal conforms to institutional and international academic standards.
Partially adapted with permission from
Olk, Dr. Harald. (October 2009). How to Write a Research Proposal. In Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst Dienst (DAAD). Retrieved January 28, 2011

Common rejection reasons *

The National Institute of Health (NIH) analyzed the reasons why over 700 research proposal applications were denied. Their findings as to the cause of rejection are worth reviewing:

  1. Nature of the Problem (18%)
    1. It is doubtful that new or useful information
      will result from the project (14%).
    2. The basic hypothesis is unsound (3.5%).
    3. The proposed research is scientifically premature due to the present inadequacy of supporting knowledge (0.6%).
  2. Approach to the Problem (38.9%)
    1. The research plan is nebulous, diffuse
      and not presented in concrete detail (8.6%).
    2. The planned research is not adequately controlled (3.7%).
    3. Greater care in planning is needed (25.2%).
      1. The research plan has not been carefully designed (11.8%).
      2. The proposed methods will not yield accurate results (8.8%).
      3. The procedures to be used should be spelled out
       in more detail (4.6%).
    4. A more thorough statistical treatment is needed (0.7%).
    5. The proposed tests require more individual subjects
      than the number given (0.7%).
  3. Competence of the Investigators (38.2%)
    1. The applicants need to acquire greater familiarity with the
      pertinent literature (7.2%).
    2. The problems to be investigated are more complex than the
      applicants realize (10.5%).
    3. The applicants propose to enter an area of research for which
      they are not adequately trained (12.8%).
    4. The principal investigator intends to give actual responsibility
      for the direction of a complex project to an inexperienced
      co-investigator (0.9%).
    5. The reviewers do not have sufficient confidence in the applicants
      to approve the present application, largely based on the past
      efforts of the applicants (6.8%).
  4. Conditions of the Research Environment (4.8%)
    1. The investigators will be required to devote too much time to
      teaching or other non-research duties (0.9%).
    2. Better liaison is needed with colleagues in collateral disciplines (0.4%).
    3. Requested expansion on continuation of a currently supported research project would result in failure to achieve the main goal of the work (3.5%).

Based on the above analysis,
a carefully designed, well reasoned proposal will overcome these common pitfalls. It also represents and important credibility statement about the investigator.

The Bureau of Occupational and Vocational Education comparable study.

Based on a sample of 353 research grant applications:

-- 18% forgot to number the pages.
-- 73% forgot to include a table of contents.
-- 81% had no abstract.
-- 92% failed to provide resumes of proposed consultants.
-- 25% had no resume for the principal investigator.
-- 66% included no plan for project evaluation.
-- 17% forgot to identify the project director by name.
-- 20% failed to list the objectives of the project.


Science series

Following the scientific method | Studying text books in science |
Writing lab reports and scientific papers | How to write a research proposal |
Writing white papers | Lab safety

Writing assignments

Writing for the "Web" | The five-paragraph essay | Essays for a literature class |
Expository essays | Persuasive essays | Position papers | Open book exams |
Essay Exams | White papers | Lab reports/scientific papers | Research proposals