How to write a research-higher-degree proposal

To be considered for registration for a research degree, prospective candidates must submit a proposal that outlines their intended research. Proposals should be presented under headings that provide the title and summary of the study as well as addressing each of the points listed below.

Purpose of the study – a clearly focused statement of the overall purpose of the proposed research.

Relevant background literature – a section outlining key research that has already been carried out in the particular area.

Research questions or hypotheses – clearly focused research questions/hypotheses that are worth asking and capable of being answered.

Definitions of key terms – precise definitions of the key terms in the research question/s or hypotheses, enabling unequivocal observation, measurement and identification throughout the study.

Research methodology – an appropriate choice of research approach for the particular questions or problems under investigation, including a well-defined list of procedures to be followed in carrying out the research, as well as the method of data collection and analysis, and, if appropriate: a broad description of any particular theoretical framework to be used in the analysis and the reasons for its selection in the study; a brief statement describing how the study population will be selected for the study and the reason for the approach to selection, and; a pilot study in which the research instruments are trialled and evaluated and an analysis is carried out of the trial data.

Significance of the research – a statement that illustrates why the research question or hypothesis is worth asking.

Ethical considerations – consideration of ethical issues involved in carrying out the research such as whether informed consent needs to be obtained and, if so, how this will be done.

Timetable for the research – a proposed timetable is extremely important because it gives an indication as to the feasibility of the proposal.

Anticipated problems and limitations – a section that highlights any anticipated problems and limitations in the proposed study, including threats to reliability and validity and how these will be countered.

Resources required for the research – a proposed budget for the research (if appropriate) should be included under this heading, which is important because it gives an indication of how realistic the proposal may be in terms of financial requirements and whether the research might need to be adapted.

Bibliography – a list of references relating to the proposal.

Appendices – (if appropriate), which contain any material that will be used or adapted for the study, including any permission that might need to be obtained to use it.


Ways to refine a research question

Many students have difficulty refining their research question. The suggestions below should be helpful. They are taken from Stevens and Asmar (1999), Doing Postgraduate Research in Australia. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

  • Read broadly and widely to find a subject about which you are passionate. Immerse yourself in the literature, use your library, read the abstracts of other recent theses and dissertations, check dissertations on the web at, for example, Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations and ProQuest Dissertations Publishing [Alternatively, Fisher Library holds a subscription to the ProQuest database service, so computers in the library can access it].

  • Narrow your focus to a single question: be disciplined and not overambitious.

  • Be prepared to change or modify your question if necessary.

  • Be able to answer the question 'Why am I doing this project (and not a different one)?'

  • Read up-to-date materials to ensure your idea is achievable and no one else has done it or is doing it.

  • Consult other students who are further down the track than you.

  • Discuss your ideas with a possible supervisor. The faculty directory categorises staff under eight major research specialties (and more than 40 sub-specialties).

  • Attend specialised conferences in your area so that you can observe where contemporary research is focused and learn from the experts in your field.

  • Work through the implications of your research question by considering the existing materials and ideas on which it is based. Check the logic, spell out the research methods to be used.

  • Condense your research question into two sentences: write it down, with pride, above your working area.

  • Ask yourself: 'What will we know at the end that we did not already know?'