How to Write a Successful Research Proposal
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It’s not easy to convince a university or federal institute to fund your research, but does it have to be hard?
Research proposals are typically required for…
- A senior thesis
- A graduate dissertation
- Ethical approval from academic institutions
If you’re serious about advanced education in the sciences or social sciences or if you want to work as a researcher, you won’t be able to avoid writing research proposals. They’re an inevitable part of the work, a guaranteed hurdle between you and groundbreaking discoveries.
So how do you clear that hurdle? How do you write a convincing research proposal that wins over your academic advisor, the grant-funding agency, or other powers that be?
While there’s no single approach to research proposals that will gain approval every time, this guide will help you write a research proposal that presents:
An original idea that adds knowledge and value to your field of study and fills gaps in the existing scholarship.
Let’s learn how to write a stand-out research proposal.
The Basics of a Research Proposal
A research proposal makes the argument that your particular research idea is necessary and will provide value to your field of study.
Different institutions and funding organizations will have their own specific requirements for a research proposal, but in general, you’ll probably need:
- Expected Results/Hypotheses
Each of these sections plays a different role in the argument you’re making.
This sums up your proposal overall, giving readers the nutshell version of your idea, why it’s needed, and how you will approach it.
The intro sets up your proposal. It sketches out your project aims and the big research questions you’re seeking to answer. This may include background information, or the background may be in its own section.
A significant chunk of your proposal will be spent on background information, including a detailed literature review. The goal of this section is to show your audience what is known about your particular topic and where the gaps are, especially the gap that your project seeks to fill.
According to Teresa Buckner, PhD, Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Colorado, you’ll want to structure this section in a way that naturally leads into your research idea, arranging information and subsections in a way that raises the very questions your research will seek to answer.
How will you answer your research questions? What approaches will you use to gather and analyze data? What supplies or materials will you need?
If you’re running experiments on mice, you’ll need to know how many mice, what kind, and where they will be kept. If you’re conducting a survey, you’ll need to outline how you will identify subjects for your survey and what survey methods you will use to reduce bias.
This section shows that you’ve thought your project through. You know what steps you’ll take to carry out your research, what you’ll need to complete those steps, and what hiccups might come up along the way.
What do you expect your research to find? What hypotheses do you have? This is directly tied to your research questions and may stand in its own section or be part of another.
Your project should, in some way, seek to turn over a new leaf of knowledge. Whether through methodologies, use of tech, or approaching a research question that hasn’t been meaningfully answered yet, there should be something novel about your idea.
Special considerations when writing a research proposal for a grant
If you’re writing a proposal in pursuit of grant funding for your project, you’ll likely also need sections that explain:
- Budget (how much money you need and how it will be used)
- Facilities (where you’ll be doing the research, any unique benefits of your institution like state-of-the-art technology or lab space)
- Team (who you’re working with, especially if your collaborators are noted experts in their fields)
- Ethical approval (you should have this from your institution before seeking grant funding)
All of these different sections require a lot of one thing: thought. You need to think through your project from beginning to end, identify how it fits in the larger landscape of scholarship, figure out how you’ll carry it out and what you’ll need to do it well.
But where do you start?
The Optimal Order to Write Your Proposal Sections
1. Start with research aims.
What are you trying to accomplish with your research?
👆 Answer that question in a paragraph or in a single sentence. Then flesh out why you’ve chosen your particular aim.
Your answer will go in your proposal intro (or its own “Aims” section, if your institution calls for one). You’ll want to start with this element because it shapes every other piece of your proposal.
2. Develop your methods.
What is the best way to answer your research question or accomplish your aims? What have you seen in the literature as effective approaches to this type of question? What materials or supplies will you need to carry out your research?
Think through all of these questions and sketch out your research plan, step by step. If you can, get feedback on this section from others in your field to make sure your plan is realistic and feasible and uses the best methodology and analytical approach for your particular research question.
3. Write the relevant background.
Your initial research idea should come from ample time spent reading the scientific literature on your topic. Now’s the time to narrow down what literature makes the most sense to reference and summarize as you craft the background section.
Remember: this section should be crafted in a way that naturally leads to your research question.
You’ll want to inform your readers on the current knowledge on your topic, while also showing the gaps and (if possible) why those gaps exist.
Buckner recommends outlining this section — and using headings to shape and organize everything in a logical manner. Your headings can serve as topic sentences for their subsections, so if you know what points you need to make in this section, use those to craft your headings. Then sort your background information under the headings they fit or support.
4. Describe how your approach will bring innovation and new information to the field.
In light of the background you just wrote and your particular aims and methods, how will your project turn a new leaf in your field of study?
What’s fresh or new or different about your approach in comparison to what has already been done?
Explain this as clearly and specifically as possible.
5. Summarize everything in an abstract.
Now that you have the main sections written, write them up in a condensed, concise manner. Typically, this will be one paragraph, so if you need help, enlist Wordtune Read to summarize your sections and use Wordtune Editor to tighten your self-drafted abstract.
6. Cite your sources.
Especially important for the background section, make sure that you properly credit any scholarship you reference using the citation style required by your institution or grant-making organization. A citation tool like Chegg’s Cite This For Me or MyBib will help you follow that style consistently — and avoid botching names and titles.
6 Tips to Make Your Proposal Stand Out
“If you’re submitting a grant, there is a nonzero chance that it will be rejected,” Buckner says. And if you’re making your career in research, your research proposals will be rejected sometimes.
What you can do is focus on what you actually control: the quality of your research proposal. These tips may just help you turn what would have been a “nope” into a full-blown “yes.”
1. Develop your research idea from the existing literature of your field.
The best research ideas combine originality and a fresh angle with a grounding in existing knowledge. You want to know the field you’re researching in so you don’t propose redundant ideas, but you’ll also benefit from holding a fresh perspective that’s open to trying new approaches and methodologies to answer nagging research questions.
To develop a research question that addresses a gap in the literature, pay special attention to the conclusions of the studies you’re reading.
What do the authors call for more research on? Is there a consistent pattern across studies of authors pointing out the same gap over and over again?
Answer those calls with your research proposal — and then reference those studies in your background section.
2. Get feedback on your ideas and methods early on.
“Iron sharpens iron” — and that’s true in research settings as well. As you develop your ideas and think through how, exactly, you’re going to tackle your research questions, talk with your collaborators, mentors, advisors, and others in your field to make sure you’re on the right track.
They can help you narrow down an idea that’s too broad or refine your methods to make sure they’re effective. Enlisting help early in the process will set you up for success in the long term — especially if you’re getting feedback from the same people who will either approve or reject your final proposal.
3. Look at other proposals to make sure you’re on the right track.
Your grant provider or academic department probably has a repository of past research proposals that were successful. If you can’t find them online, reach out to your contact to request some.
Other approved proposals can give you insight on what the organizations look for: how much detail they want, what types of ideas they favor, and how long (or short) yours could be.
4. Make a checklist of the specific parameters for your proposal.
Every institution and grant-making organization has their own requirements for research proposals. Make sure you meet them by turning the requirements into a checklist for your proposal.
Do this right away, at the beginning of the proposal-writing process, and use the checklist to guide you along. On top of the satisfaction that comes with checking each item off the list, you can be confident knowing your proposal won’t lose points for missing required sections and details.
5. Use Wordtune to polish your writing and help you summarize everything for your abstract.
A research proposal is a project. By the time you write the abstract, you’ve probably been staring at the same document for too long. So take a break, and hand things off to your AI writing assistant, Wordtune.
Simply paste your proposal text into Wordtune Read, and Wordtune will provide summarized points that you can condense into an abstract.
Once you have a rough abstract written, paste it into Wordtune Editor for some help fine-tuning verbiage and tightening the content. Then, you can stick the abstract into the top of your document and run a final round of edits, with Wordtune helping you smooth out clunky sentences and formalize informal language.