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How to... prepare a proposal for a research degree

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The purpose of a research proposal

These pages should not be taken as guidance in isolation of your own university regulations, which should be studied most carefully.

What is a research proposal?

Paul Oliver (2004) has defined a research proposal as a synopsis of proposed research which has to be submitted for approval before data collection can be started, that should set out clearly the research intended and the methods to be used. Walliman (2001) considers it as an explanation of the nature of research, why it is needed, the likely outcomes and the resources needed. Sharp et al. (2003) see the research proposal as a document which finally establishes both the need for the study and confirms that the student has or can acquire the skills or other resources required, while Punch (2000) sees it as an opportunity for the student to present ideas and share in the decision-making process.

Depending on the stage when the proposal is written it can be either a discussion document, intended to act as matchmaker between students' interests and the research facilities of the university, or a contract between the university and the student as to the scope and nature of the research to be undertaken.

Why do a research proposal?

The research proposal serves as a quality and reality check: it helps confirm that you have a genuine research area and that you will go about the research in the most appropriate way. Writing things down helps give clarity to your ideas: the written word is a lot more unforgiving that the spoken one in terms of its demand for precision.

By its very nature, a proposal is written for an audience of more experienced researchers. These can help evaluate the research and provide guidance. It thus gives the researcher the assurance that they are not doing a piece of research in isolation: the document outlining their research has been seen and approved by others. Likewise, it makes sure that the university is aware of the research being carried out in its name.

The research proposal also clarifies expectations and acts as a record for all concerned of the research to be carried out.

When to do the research proposal?

There area two main occasions when it is appropriate to submit a research proposal.

  1. Prior to registration: when you are applying to study for a research degree. See Section 2: Writing an initial research proposal to gain a PhD place.
  2. Post registration: when you are registered for a research degree, to give the go ahead to major part of the research undertaking and to confirm that you and your supervisor are happy for you to undertake this work in preparation for a research degree at that institution.

There are several types of research degree:

  • MPhil/MRes – the object is to show mastery of the main research techniques, and in the case of the MPhil, to offer research which is a new perspective rather than a new contribution to knowledge.
  • MPhil/MRes transfer – provides the foundation for PhD research, which should be an original contribution to knowledge.
  • PhD direct – you would probably only go down this route if you had had a substantial amount of research training such as in an MPhil or an MBA, and had a readily defined problem that you wanted to investigate.

How to do a research proposal?

As stated above, it is very important that you first read and study your university regulations, which may be university wide or may be specific to your department. These documents may well have very specific requirements such as the number of pages or the house style, and may also indicate the sort of questions you should tackle in the research proposal.

You should also talk to your supervisor as you develop the proposal – don't just present him or her with a finished document. Others to consult are experts in the area, and your PhD student colleagues.

It is important to remember that the audience for the research proposal is not made up just of experts, and to write clearly enough that the proposal can be understood on its own, without reference to other documents.

Many students experience difficulty in finding a problem to tackle. One approach to this is to take a broad area in which you are interested, such as international marketing, and refine it further through a study of the literature. Other sources of topics include (Dunford,  2004):

  • Interests arising from previous years of study, or from the workplace.
  • Research articles, which often list areas for further research.
  • Media reports, both general and professional, may stimulate ideas for applied research.
  • Insights from practitioners.
  • Advertisements from those who want people to research in a particular topic.

Sharp et al. (2003) suggest that prior to the research proposal it may be a good plan to carry out an analysis of one or more topics that interest you. The topic analysis is not a formal research proposal as such but rather an in-depth exploration of a topic with some of the headings of a research proposal, notably research objectives/hypotheses, prior research in the area/literature review, value in terms of possible outcomes, and research design or approach to the research. If there is more than one possible topic, then probably the best deciding factor is the value of the research.

A similar approach is suggested by Punch (2000), who also proposes writing a two-page document which focuses on the basic questions – what is your topic, how are you going to research it, why is it important. The approach involves going through a number of stages:

  • Select a research area.
  • Develop a topic within that area (this can be done by talking to peers and generally networking within the area at lectures, conferences etc.).
  • Select the most promising topic (a common dilemma is to find more than one area – here it may be a good idea to explore more than one option, and to further develop the most promising one).
  • Develop the research questions, both general and specific.
  • Determine the type of data needed.
  • Select the research design, data collection methods and data analysis techniques.

What is being evaluated?

At the stage prior to registration, university departments are probably only concerned that the student has thought about the area, has some basic research aptitude, and is interested in an area that the university can provide support for. At the post registration stage, they will be looking for assurances:

  • that the subject: is worth researching, lends itself to being researched, is sufficiently challenging, can be completed in the right amount of time, and can be adequately resourced. All in all, will it provide for a successful dissertation?
  • that the student: can show through the clarity with which he/she writes the proposal that he/she has the necessary ability to develop a complex research topic, the expository skills to explain what they are doing, and the thoroughness to collect and analyse the data.

References

Dunford, R. (2004), "Developing a Research Proposal", in Burton, S. and Steane, P. (eds.), Surviving Your Thesis , Routledge, London, UK

Oliver, P. (2004), Writing Your Thesis , Sage, London, UK

Punch, K.F. (2000), Developing Effective Research Proposals, Sage, London, UK

Sharp, J.A., Peters, J. and Howard, K. (2003), The Management of a Student Research Project , 3rd ed., Gower, Aldershot, UK

Walliman, N. (2001), Your Research Project - A Step-by-Step Guide for the First Time Researcher , Sage, London, UK