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Writing a Research Proposal

A research proposal is exactly as it sounds. It is a summary of what you are proposing to research, how you are going to do it, and provides reassurance to a funding body, ethics committee, employer etc that the proposed study is sound in design, ethics and implementation. It is also a blueprint for the researcher to keep their research on track, as it is easy to become distracted as things unfold. It is worth learning to write these as they often form the basis of grant applications as well.

A research proposal is a document to showcase the value of your research to others without the same invested interest as you. It is both a regulatory document for the researcher, should provide reassurance to an ethics committee or funding body or supervisor and act as a persuasive sales pitch all at the same time.

A typical format for a research proposal would contain:

  • A Title

  • An introduction to the topic and research questions as well as a brief literature review and theoretical framework.

  • Detailed research strategy on methodology, types of data, modes of analysis, access to data sources etc.

  • A realistic timeframe for the proposed research showing key milestones with dates.

  • A detailed discussion of logistical, ethical and legal considerations and obligations.

  • The limitations of the proposed research.

  • Full references and bibliography

If the research proposal is for a funding body then a detailed breakdown of the funding needs to be included.

Identifying Your Research Topic

The first step in any research study is to identify a research topic. You are going to be spending a lot of time living, thinking and breathing this so it is helpful if you pick something that interests you. Often this might arise out of your own lived experience or observations.

It might be at this stage a vague research question is beginning to form.

The next step is to start to read widely around your chosen area of interest and start to narrow down towards specific research questions

It is better to research a narrow area in great detail than a wide area in very little detail. Sometimes this can feel impossible to focus on one area

It can be a good idea to start to write at the reading stage, including making note of references. This saves much time and frustration later. It is easier to take out information later if it is no longer relevant than it is to remember locations and references later.

Research questions should identify an area of research that has not been fully covered by previous researchers. Your research should aim to add something to existing literature, rather than replicating something already done. Aim for your research question to be something to sound like a question that you could ask somebody. When you have possible questions it can be worth checking them against the following criteria.

  • Is this an interesting question both to me and in the wider world?

  • What are the social and practical values in learning the answer to this question?

  • Is my question specific enough to be able to realistically research within the time frame and budget? If not the focus might need to be narrowed down more. A good supervisor or critical external eye might be helpful here.

  • What information and/or resources do you need to be able to answer the question? Are these realistic? How will you obtain them Is 

  • Is there any risk of any harm to anybody taking part in helping you to answer this question. If so what? How can this be mitigated? To the benefits of the research and the safeguards, you can reasonably put in place enough to ethically justify the risk.

Outline Methodology

Every step of what you plan to do to research and answer your research question should be clearly defined. In the therapy world, we often allow the process to unfold with clients, but in research, this is not the way research design is managed.

  • What methodology are you going to use and why.

  • What do you plan to do within your chosen methods (which experimental techniques that you will use and why these are the most appropriate for what you are trying to find out)

  • What are the weaknesses to your approach in terms of methodology and what steps you can take to overcome this as much as possible?

  • How your choices link back to your questions and philosophical base and how they will help you to answer them.

  • How you will analyse your results and why, including any potential weaknesses from your chosen approaches

The Word Count

If there has been a designated word count then it is important that you stick to it. Often funding bodies will not read beyond the word count if you have gone over.

The Final Thing

Always check to see if there are any direct specifications that have been made, such as font, font size, word count, referencing style. this will save you a great deal of stress and torment in having it rejected and having to edit.

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