Developing a research proposal

The following guide has been created for you by the Student Learning Advisory Service. For more detailed guidance and to speak to one of our advisers, please book an appointment or join one of our workshops. Alternatively, have a look at our SkillBuilder skills videos.   

What is a research proposal

A research proposal outlines a case for undertaking a piece of research and how it will be carried out. Research proposals are an important first step in any research project. The process of drafting a proposal, negotiating a way forward with your supervisor/tutor and then redrafting, can be lengthy. However, it is important to remember that your supervisor/tutor is responsible for ensuring that your proposal:

  • has a specific research question or enquiry.
  • meets the academic requirements of your course.
  • is feasible in the available time and with the available resources.

Departmental procedures for Research Proposals vary across the university. ALWAYS check your course documentation for precise information about the forms to be completed and deadlines for submission. If in doubt, check with your supervisor. 

Components of a research proposal

Word counts and structure vary, but on average they are usually between 1500 to 2000 words and include the following:

  • Title
  • Research context and rationale for research
  • Research issue and questions
  • Proposed research methodology
  • Use of research findings
  • Initial bibliography
  • Time plan/schedule

Before you submit a research proposal check whether there is a prescribed format for the application and, if there is, follow it, even if it differs from what is described in this guide.

Key components of a research proposal explained:


Sum up the objective of the research and the proposed methodology concisely.

Research context and rationale

Explain (supported with research) the situation that has led to the need for the research (e.g. when, what, who, why) and the reasons why this research is necessary. Also consider your own background and clarify how you are particularly well-placed or qualified to undertake this research.

Research issue and questions

Explain the key issues or gaps in knowledge that your research will address. Indicate what core questions your research will be answering.

Proposed research methodology

Explain your research design using research to justify your decisions. Typical areas of discussion:

  • How research questions relate to approaches to research design in the field
  • Sample group and sample methods, supported with research
  • Measurement instruments or data collection procedures to be used, supported with research on why, how and when these instruments/approaches are generally used, consider strengths and weaknesses
  • Data analysis techniques to be used, supported with research on why, how and when these techniques are generally used, consider strengths and weaknesses

Use of research findings

Explain how your research will be used. For example, it may resolve theoretical issues in your field, or lead to the development of new theoretical models; it may affect the ways in which people working in the field operate in future, or influence politicians and other decision makers. Back up your arguments with details in order to build up a case for supporting the research. Give brief details of any immediate applications of your research, including any further research that may be done to build on your findings.

A bibliography

As in any piece of academic writing, you should list the articles and texts to which you have referred to in your proposal.

Time plan/schedule

Draw up a schedule that reflects a realistic appreciation of the time your research will take to complete. Do not be over-optimistic when working out time frames.      

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