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What should be included in the Research Proposal?
What should be included in the Research Proposal?

What should be included in the Research Proposal?

The important question that intrigues many minds is that what should be included in the PhD research proposal. Some generic guidelines about a perfect research proposal have already been given on “How to write an effective research proposal?”. This blog post shall provide valuable guidance and useful insight for the doctoral students and research scholars on how to structure their research proposal.

Importance of a research proposal

Being an essential requirement for entry to the doctoral research stage, a PhD research proposal helps the supervisor and evaluators to better understand the research scholar’s line of thinking and how he/she is planning to go about writing their thesis. This is a great tool that can help them structure their thoughts and outline the path they would like to follow during the course of their PhD research. It is said that one’s research is only as good as one’s research proposal.

Contents/Elements of the PhD research proposal

Regardless of the university/institute specific requirements and irrespective of the changing needs of the particular field of study, a general, run of the mill research proposal contains the following major sections/parts:

  • Title
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Need/rationale of the study
  • Purpose and aims of the study
  • Literature review
  • Theoretical/conceptual Framework
  • Research Questions
  • Methodology
  • significance / Expected Outcomes of the study
  • A timescale for the research
  • Proposed thesis structure
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Appendices

Read More: The 10 most common mistakes in Research Proposal Writing

Format of the PhD research proposal

The research proposal is supposed to contain most of the sections listed above; however, it is up to the supervisor or particular requirement of the University/Department stipulating inclusion or omission of some of these parts.

These various sections/components are briefly discussed along with function and characteristics in a tabular form given below:

• The title of the Research Proposal describes the topic of the research study
• It summaries the main idea of the research proposal.
• The title of the Research Proposal provides a preliminary caption for the proposed study, can be changed many times as the research study makes progress
• This can be a tentative suggestion at the proposal stage.
• The title needs to have 3 Cs- catchy, concise and crispy.
• It uses keywords borrowed from the literature. The suggested number of words -15.
• The title of Research Proposal contains the name of the research scholar /supervisor, Institution and Degree.
2Abstract• The abstract of the Research Proposal provides a brief summary of what is going to be covered in the research proposal.• The abstract of the Research Proposal needs to contain IMF :
o I-Introduction
o M-Methodology
o F-Findings
• The abstract of the Research Proposal should usually be no longer than a page (around 300 words).

3Introduction• The introduction of Research Proposal discusses a brief description of the research study.
• This section introduces the proposed research study to the readers.
• The introduction section of Research Proposal delineates briefly the context and backdrop of the field of study as well as the rationale for undertaking the research, are delineated in this section.
• It outlines how the entire proposal is organized.
• The introduction of the Research Proposal refers to key literature so as to strengthen the rationale for conducting the research.
• It enables the reader to understand what this research study is all about and why it is important.
4Background• The background of Research Proposal describes the context of the study
• Provides background information about social / political / cultural/historical / educational settings.
• The background of Research Proposal needs to incorporate social, cultural, religious, historical, political, academic, organizational info relating to the context of the research study.
• It needs to contain theoretical underpinnings of the research.
• The background of Research Proposal should embrace personal motivation (not more than 800 words).
5Need/rationale of the study• It persuades the readers that the study will be sufficiently valuable as well as interesting• It identifies major gaps in the area of research
• Highlights the requirement for applying diverse ideas in a newfangled context
• Explicates the importance of the research area
• Discusses the significance of the study for academia /policymakers /research community (not more than 500 words).
6Purpose and aims of the study• It describes clearly and concisely the purpose and aims of the study.
• It provides direction for the entire research
• It pertains to the purpose of conducting the research and what the researcher specifically want to accomplish.
• The purpose and aims of the study outlines the key research questions (if there is no separate section for it).
• It expresses the purpose in terms of the broader context of the study
• The aims essentially relate to the purpose and motivation (not more than 500 words).
• The purpose and aims of the study stipulates the research question(s) (such as What, How, Why, When and What) that needs to be few and manageable.
7Literature Review • The Literature Review section of the Research Proposal presents the key literature on the subject area covered by the researcher/scholar.
• It shows that the research scholar is aware of the authorities/ key authors / known researchers in the discipline.
• Literature Review delineates that an initial survey of the main theorists has been done to establish the directions.
• It indicates the main issues/topics covered in the review.
• The Literature Review exhibits the researcher is judicious in the selection of the issues.
• The Literature Review takes an approach of critical inquiry in a Research Proposal
• The Literature Review needs to expand on the key literature briefly referred to in the introduction part.
• It needs not to be extensive for the Research proposal.
• The Literature Review section in a research proposal needs to go beyond than just listing of individual studies or theories.
• The Literature Review part in a Research Proposal needs to demonstrate a deep understanding of the current state of knowledge and thoughtful consideration of the key lines of argument and debates on the theme.
• In the Research Proposal the available literature needs to be critically evaluated and analysed.
• It needs to elaborate, how important studies in the field, key arguments and crucial debates are linked and how the existing body of research links to the proposed research area.
• The Literature Review portion of the Research Proposal demonstrates critical analysis
• It establishes the theoretical orientation and provides the theoretical or conceptual framework for the study.
• It explains how the research study is being driven by the gaps in the existing literature
• The Literature Review make comments on how your research could be informed by the existing literature both theoretically and practically.
8Conceptual/Theoretical Framework• The Conceptual or Theoretical frameworks establish the necessary ground for the research study
• The Conceptual and Theoretical framework introduces and describes the theory that explains why the research problem under-study exists.
• the Conceptual/Theoretical frameworks allow the reader to conceptualize the study in a broader context.
• The Conceptual or Theoretical framework provides the lens through which the research problem and the research questions are evaluated
• The Conceptual or Theoretical framework provides a picture of how the theories fit together into the research study.
9Research Questions• The Research Questions provides a statement of the research question/aim,
• The Research Questions guide the direction of entire research study
• It needs to be formulated to show how the aims of the research will be realized the aims and what to be found out.
• Ideally, the Research Questions should be in the form of a central over-arching question
• It may have two or three sub-questions.
• he Research Questions may be clubbed with the aims of the study
• It needs to be sufficiently narrow (not more than 250 words).
10 Research Design• The Research Design outlines how the research will be practically conducted.
• The Research design describes the research plans
• It explains how one goes about the research
• The Research Design identifies the method or methods proposed to be used along with justification (why this method is being used in preference to others).
• The Research Design provides details of the proposed population, sample size, number of respondents, and nature of data with justification for these choices.
• The Research Design includes the comprehension of the world of knowledge and how this touches upon the selection of research approach.
• The Research Design includes a detailed account as well as the rationale for the choice of the research paradigm, population, unite of analysis, sample size, data collection, methods, data analysis and ethical considerations.
• The Research Design contains a brief account regarding the delimitations (boundaries) of the research study
• It needs to make a reference to the literature on the research methods (not more than 500 words).
11Significance / Expected Outcomes of the study• Significance / expected outcomes of the study envisages the importance of the research and the anticipated outcomes.
• Describes the significance of the study to others
• It serves as a calculated guess and may be dropped if the rationale for the research has already been well-grounded in the previous section of the proposal.
• Significance / expected outcomes of the study establishes the degree to which the proposed inquiry makes a contribution ( adds something theoretical, conceptual, methodological or empirical which has already been not provided in the body of literature) (not more than 500 words)
12Research Timetable/plan • It outlines the schedule for the conclusion of the dissertation
• Research Timetable/plan shows the various proposed tasks and the time frame for its accomplishment
• It includes the plan; how the research scholar intends to conduct the research within a specified time frame.
• Research Timetable/plan can be presented in a variety of ways
• Research Timetable/plan takes the shape of a chart, flowchart or a timeline or as deemed appropriate.
• As per Research Timetable/plan certain activities can run concurrently.
• Preferably, Research Timetable/plan is exhibited in various segments of three-month duration.
13Proposed thesis structure• The proposed thesis structure outlines the focus of attention of each proposed chapter• The proposed thesis structure presents a proposed table of contents of each chapter
• It describes the contents of each chapter in a few words or a small paragraph.
14Conclusion• The conclusion section of Research proposal outlines a very brief wrap-up of the proposal.• The conclusion section of Research proposal summarizes expected major contributions to the body of knowledge and how to realize them (not more than 100 words).
15Appendices• The Appendices display the documents which are pertinent to the main text (whose inclusion in the text may potentially be superfluous or distracting) • The Appendices section of the Research Proposal includes documents, auxiliary material, survey instruments, questions for the interviews, the explanatory statements for the consumption of participants.
16References• The References section lists all of the work consulted for and referred in the Research Proposal.• It uses the referencing style recommended by the university/institute for a Research Proposal
• Mostly commonly the APA style is recommended.
• The quality of the research work refereed is more critical than quantity
• It demonstrates preoccupation with the related literature.
• Remember References is the first section, I read as an evaluator/examiner after the abstract of the Research Proposal.

Core parts of the PhD research proposal

Some of the experts in the field suggest that the introduction, literature review and research design are the critical core parts of the PhD research proposal and must be taken care of the same. However, I feel each and every single part of the PhD proposal is important and ought to be taken seriously.

Points to ponder while writing a research proposal

It is important to remember that since the essential contents and structure of a research proposal may vary from one discipline/ field of study to another, hence, the PhD research scholars must take due care of that. Besides, the order of these sections/elements may be changed as per the advice and direction of the supervisor. Some parts/sections may be clubbed or omitted altogether and some more may be added if required.  For instance, the research aims and questions may be merged and may either be incorporated at the end of the introduction section or may be made part of the literature review. The bottom line is that how robust these guidelines may be, the scholars must have to follow the instructions provided by the university or the concerned supervisor for the purpose. The next blog post- How to write an effective abstract? discusses the same topic at length .


A brief version of this article has been presented in the video available on my YouTube channel- Exploring Academia: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOP-skVKbNoio_DVl4p_q0w?view_as=subscriber and can be accessed directly on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omtYXXbW5fA

About Dr Syed Hafeez Ahmad

Having a doctoral degree in human resource management, Dr. Syed Hafeez Ahmad is currently working as Additional Controller of Examinations, Khyber Medical University, Peshawar. He previously served the same university as Additional Registrar. These are mid-career level positions in the university's administration. Besides, he is working in the capacity of a team leader and founder of the Career Development & Research Centre, a startup launched in the Business Incubation Center of Khyber Medical University. He is having more than 18 years of professional experience in academic management with special interest in public sector higher education reforms, sustainability, academic leadership and universities' governance. He is a research blogger, Amazon associate and a YouTuber.

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