There are various synonyms for a 'research proposal' produced during the course of a research degree, e.g. 'position statement,' 'statement of intent' or even 'progress report.' Regardless, research proposals have different purposes depending on:
- the stage of the degree at which they are being produced (e.g. prior to or after enrolment) and
- disciplinary requirements.
Proposals produced prior to enrolment or in the very early stages of a degree may be quite limited and general. They may only be two to three pages long. Those produced six months or more after commencement of, say, a PhD may be extensive and detailed. The timing of production as well as the level of degree in which you are enrolled will affect the purpose, and therefore the coverage in your proposal. You will also need to check whether there are any special disciplinary requirements.
Punch's (2006, p. 9) following list explains that the research proposal establishes:
- "what the proposed research is about
- what it is [you're] trying to find out or achieve
- how it will go about doing that
- what we will learn from it and why that is worth learning"
The proposal process helps you to clarify what you are investigating, and how you want to go about the research. You are also being asked to sell the research. In this perspective, the purposes are: to allow a reader to assess the persuasiveness, viability and feasibility of the proposed research and to provide useful feedback on these.
The objective is to convince a reader that the following apply.
- The research proposed is worthwhile for the level of the degree, i.e. the research will warrant the award of that particular degree.
- The scope of the research is suited to the level of the degree; clearly the breadth and depth of research expected will be different for shorter and longer theses.
- The research as outlined is appropriate for the length. Again there is a vast difference between the extent of research required for a shorter thesis of, say, 15,000 words and that appropriate for, say, a PhD of 80,000 words.
- The methods proposed to complete the research are appropriate, that it will be possible to access the resources needed to complete the research, to conduct interviews proposed, to carry out field research, to access needed equipment, etc.
- The proposed research is viable in terms of time available to complete the degree.
These kinds of matters will be taken into account in assessing proposals, so bear them in mind. A good research proposal is therefore one that does the following.
- Identifies a clearly defined research problem, gap or controversy.
- Is contextualised within your discipline.
- Convincingly demonstrates your project's potential to make a significant contribution to disciplinary knowledge, policy and/or practice.
- Draws on wide and critical reading.
- Is mindful of the potential and constraints of the project.
- The methodological design is appropriate, practical and doable within the given timeframe and with the available resources/budget constraints.
- Has clear flow between the different sections.
- Has a catchy but clear title that indicates not only your topic but your approach to it / your argument.
- Punch, K. F. (2006). Developing effective research proposals (2nd ed.). London: Sage.