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Prepare a proposal for a research degree

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.

The purpose of a research proposal

This content 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.

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

Writing an initial research proposal to gain a place

Where the PhD is taught by research, prospective students will almost certainly be required, prior to registration, to write an outline proposal. This is less likely to be the case for a US-style PhD which follows the route of two years coursework, two years dissertation, as the expectation will be that your research idea will involve in the first two years of study. In such cases, you may be required to support your application with an essay/statement of purpose that describes your research interests, your particular desire to study at the university concerned, your employment experiences, and anything else that may have developed you to the point where you wish to do a PhD.

The guidelines below, with suggested structure and questions, have been compiled after study of a number of institutions, including those rated in the top 20 for doctoral studies by the Financial Times. They may provide a good framework for you to start to firm up your ideas for doctoral research. However the final proposal you submit with your application should follow the style proposed by the institution in its web pages and prospectus.

Length and purpose

This type of proposal will be relatively short – an average stipulation is 4-5 pages, 1,500 to 2,000 words.

At that length it clearly cannot be definitive, and the purpose is to provide a general description of the research, as a document which can serve as a basis for further discussion rather than a contract for the researcher. It is expected that the area will change and mutate as the student gets further into the subject.

Even with the above in mind it is still an important document – the University of Essex's guidelines state that 'the PhD/MRes proposal is perhaps the single most important piece of evidence before the Department's Graduate Committee when it considers your application to be admitted as a PhD/MRes student.'

Perhaps its most important purpose is to ensure that there is a match between your interests and those of the university – that the latter has the right people and other available facilities.

Title and topic

The title need only be a working one, but should be descriptive of the area to be covered.

State the broad field within which the topic falls, including how the two relate. Why is the area important? Why are you interested and what are your qualifications for researching in the area? Do you have particular first-hand experience of the area? (This is important – it may increase your motivation.) What are the objectives of your research? Are there any particular problems? Are you drawing on different disciplines?

Theoretical background and literature review

The literature review should aim to be evaluative rather than general or comprehensive, and to focus on state of the art research, the key studies. What are the main arguments and ideas, what questions arise? What methods have been used? Where is the research going? Note, you may need to review the literature from several fields.

It is particularly important to appreciate the main theoretical/conceptual contributions to the area, and how sound these are. Will your thesis build on these? If there are various theoretical perspectives, do you intend to use one in particular, if so, why?

You should also include important practitioner contributions to the research. For example, do such contributions propose a particular model that could benefit from serious research?

Reference should be made to key texts, and you should provide a bibliography. State the significance of your own research for the field: how will it add to the debate?

Research questions

What are the research questions you will be considering? How do these relate to the literature? Are you able to develop a hypothesis? Why are the questions important and interesting? How do they relate to the published literature? (Note, you need to demonstrate that the topic is manageable in the timeframe.)

Methodology and analysis

This section is very important because it looks at how you intend to carry out the research. What methods and techniques (questionnaires, experiments, observations etc.) do you intend to use to investigate the problem, and how will you design the research? Will you be combining methodologies? In what form will the data be and where, how will you access it, what are the subjects of your data (e.g. individuals, groups, companies)? How will you gain access? Do you foresee any problems? Will it involve a trip overseas? How will you analyse your data?

Outcome and originality

What outcomes do you expect from your study? Think particularly about new knowledge, implications for practice, contribution to debates, filling a gap in research.

A PhD should be an original contribution to knowledge, so it is important that you give some indication of how your research will do this.

Timeline

Provide a brief timetable of the major stages of the research over a three-year period. What are the main goals and milestones?

Your qualifications

You don't need to list these in a formal sense – they will be covered elsewhere in the application. Rather, this is an opportunity for you to say why you are particularly interested in the topic and particularly well qualified to pursue it. For example, you may have experience of the topic in a professional capacity; it may be particularly relevant to a current or previous organisation.

It is obviously very important that you find an institution with appropriate research interests so that it can provide you with a supervisor (who shares your interests and theoretical approach) and other facilities which meet your needs. It therefore pays to establish the main areas of research expertise, research groupings etc. at a university you may be interested in. Is there an active research culture, promoted by seminars etc.? Remember too that you will probably need training in research methodologies: is there teaching in this area? What about study facilities for research students, libraries etc.?

To find out more about this subject, see Finding a PhD topic in the "How to... find ideas for your research" guide.

Writing a post-registration research proposal

Once you are on a PhD programme, you will need to do another more extended proposal, before the extensive research process starts, and probably before you become formally registered for a PhD. This document is considerably longer than that described in “Doing an initial research proposal” to gain a PhD place, and may be up to 50 pages.

It is very important that you prepare this document in consultation with others, particularly your supervisor but also your research colleagues and experts in the field.

The purpose of the research proposal here is to provide a form of contract – an agreement between student and supervisor as to what should be researched.

There is no one right way of organising the proposal, however the following sections will capture requirements and is adapted from Punch (2000) and Walliman (2001).

Title and abstract

The title should be descriptive and informative. Remember that it will be used to search and retrieve information, so include likely keywords. Refer to all variables, and also the place and timescale.

The purpose of the abstract is to provide the essence of the study, and how the objectives will be achieved.

Introduction (including aims of research)

This should look at:

  • What is the research area/topic to be covered?
  • What is the background – how is the problem treated in the scholarly literature? Where are the deficiencies etc.?
  • Why is the problem significant?
  • What are the main objectives of the study?
  • Why are you particularly interested in it – what particular problems will you bring to the study? For example, if part of your methodology is to visit and interview CEOs of the 200 largest companies in the UK, do you have the authority to do that? Just as good research should be a match between the topic and the researcher's skills, so should the proposal highlight the suitability of the researcher to pursue this particular topic.

Research questions/problems

This is the heart of the proposal, and determines the main objectives for your research.

You should list both the general and specific research problems. Your research questions may be stated as such, or perhaps as particular hypotheses, i.e. statements which attempt to explain or predict phenomena. You should also state your relationship to theory: do you have a particular conceptual framework from which you are working? Do you intend to verify a particular theory, or do you intend to generate theory?

What is the significance of the research, in practical as well as scholarly terms? Do others in the field consider it important to answer this question?

Note that the degree to which you can define your research questions depends on whether your research is predominantly quantitative or qualitative. If the former, you should have a clear idea of the research at the outset and therefore be able to formulate precise questions. If the latter, your research will be more exploratory: you will start with general questions, with more specific ones following at a later stage as part of the research process. This should be made clear in the proposal.

Some students may experience difficulties in narrowing in on a particular topic: see the suggestions in the purpose of a research proposal section.

Literature

The literature review should not be an open ended review of the field, but a more critical study which looks at the most relevant literature and which places your own research in that context.

"Literature should be used only to support argument or counter-argument and to move understanding forward. Mere lists of references, as in a 'catalogue' of vaguely relevant items, are not acceptable."

Cryer, 2000.

What literature is relevant? You will need to explore recent and relevant research studies, as well as the theoretical literature, and that of the research methodology/ies which you propose to use.

Your literature review should be selective – avoid at all costs an aimless ramble through the subject and a mere chronological summary. Make use of existing literature reviews of the area, for example:

Agnès Durrande-Moreau in 'Waiting for service: ten years of empirical research' (International Journal of Service Industry Management, vol. 10 no. 2) summarises the main studies which have looked at the effect of waiting on customer service.

Do not give accounts of theoretical positions: summarise these by reference to key publications, for example

Pavio's dual coding theory (1986), whereby learning is facilitated if visual and verbal elements are combined, makes reference to Paivio, A. (1986) Mental Representation: A Dual-coding Approach, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Although you will need to do a literature review in order to formulate your research questions, you won't necessarily have done a complete review of the field at the proposal stage. Instead, this section needs to say how you propose to treat the literature review as part of the research process.

When will it be done, will it be done before or after the empirical research, what will the scope be, and will you be adopting a grounded theory approach, which means looking at new areas and research questions as the research proceeds?

You also need to consider the conceptual framework of your research – are you adopting a particular theoretical framework or testing a theory?

For example, if you are studying organisational behaviour, there are theories on issues such as motivation, stress and group dynamics (Dunford, 2004).

This deductive approach can be relevant in a well-developed field; in a newer field it may be more appropriate to build theory rather than test it.

Finally, although the scholarly literature is really important you should also allow space for your own professional insights, and those of other practitioners.

Methods (including data collection and procedures)

This should look at methodology, i.e. the design of the research, the methods used to collect the data, the sampling plan, and how the data will be analysed.

The methodology connects the data and the research question, and provides a strategic framework for the research. You need to consider whether you will be using predominantly qualitative or quantitative methods, or a combination, and if combining, how.

You also need to consider the research paradigm you are using. Will you follow the traditional scientific paradigm, which suggests that all data are precise and measurable, and so be engaging in quantitative research? Such an approach may not always be appropriate to management, which is concerned at least in part with human subjects and with data which cannot always be precise because it derives from situations which are themselves subject to interpretation.

The paradigm you adopt will affect your choice of research method. If precision is important, you may choose surveys or experiments, but you may also prefer a more humanistic approach in which case you may look for methods which are capable of producing richer data which is more open to interpretation. Such methods will probably involve the researcher in a less objective role, in situations where he or she cannot stand behind the rigour of the instrument, but must interpret. From the point of view of the research, this may be entirely fair, but it needs to be acknowledged, and its position in the research methodology justified.

See Chapter 6 in Pat Cryer's The Research Student's Guide to Success (Open University Press, 2000) for further discussion of these issues.

You will also need to consider issues of reliability (where a different researcher can repeat the research and get the same results) and validity (where the research does what it is intended to do).

Within the framework of the methodology, you need to look at the methods you will use to collect the data – for example questionnaires, interviews, experiments, case studies etc. If you are using a particular instrument for data collection, what is the history of their use? If you intend to construct an instrument, what methodology will you use? In qualitative research, the researcher may be the instrument: this should be indicated, as should the plan for the fieldwork.

You also need to look at how your methods will be affected by the research design, for example:

  • Questionnaires: For qualitative questionnaires, what will their structure be? How will they be pretested?
  • Experiment: How will this be designed?
  • Interviews: What type, what degree of standardisation will there be? How will the interview schedules be tested? How will issues of sensitivity, context, etc. be handled?
  • Case study: How will case studies be selected, will the approach be single/multiple, cross sectional or longitudinal
  • Documents: What sort of documents will be used, e.g. diaries, journals, critical incident reports etc.? Are there sampling considerations? How will the collection be organised?

What is your sampling plan? Will the sample be purposive, representative, how generalisable will it be, what will its size be, and how will it be selected?

How will you go about collecting the data, and how will you arrange your procedures so that you maximise the quality of your data? How will you analyse the data, what statistical tests and software will you use, and how will you evaluate the results?

Significance (including possible outcomes)

Originality is highly important in doctoral research, and it is important that your study is not only worth doing but also makes a significant contribution to knowledge – not only to the scholarly community, but also to practice.

What is the nature and scope of the outcomes, and who will benefit? Possible outcomes include a new product, a reinterpretation of a theory, a new research tool or technique, an in-depth study of a particular topic, a critical analysis, an improved model – there are many possibilities, but you should try and give an indication what these are likely to be.

Limitations

This heading has several aspects:

  1. What are the potential risks to completion, such as difficulty of data access?
  2. What are the study's restrictive weaknesses, i.e. anything that may limit the value of the completed research?
  3. It is important to delimit the study, to draw boundaries around it (to take an obvious example, a study of service encounters in Hong Kong is delimited by that place, but will also need a definition of service encounters).

Consent and ethical issues

These issues are important, and may often be considered in the methodology. Access to data often has an ethical dimension because it involves data about people, and there are issues about anonymity, confidentiality and the use of results. Have you sorted out how you will gain access and consent?

Bibliography and appendices

These may include the following (Punch 2000):

  • Timetable and budget – often this may be a separate section in the body of the proposal. It is an important element, as tenacity and planning is as important in research as originality, and the logistical element of the research needs to be examined, with clear milestones.
  • Letters of introduction.
  • Consent forms.
  • Measuring instruments.
  • Questionnaires.
  • Interview guides.
  • Observation schedules.
  • Details of pilot study.

References

Cryer, P. (2000), The Research Student's Guide to Success, Open University Press, Maidenhead, UK

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

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

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

Some resources

There are a number of useful books which cover research proposals and these are listed below.

Cryer, P. (2000), The Research Student's Guide to Success, Open University Press, Maidenhead, UK

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), 'Preparing the research proposal and starting to write', in Your Research Project – A Step by Step Guide for the First Time Researcher, Sage, London, UK