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how to write a research proposal
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How to write a research proposal for a strong PhD application

30 May 2017
What's expected from your higher degree research proposal?

Applying for a PhD or research master's degree and not sure where to start with your research proposal? Use the below guidelines as a template to prepare a strong application and plan for your research degree. 

Before you read on to learn what's required from a strong research proposal, ask yourself why you've decided to pursue a PhD or research master's degree. Is it because you have a passion for a particular subject and have noticed a gap in the current research? Could it be that you're interested to see how a particular theoretical approach could be adapted or extended, tried or tested in new and innovative ways?

What is a research proposal?

In essence, a research proposal aims to present your idea or your question and expected outcomes with clarity and definition – the what. Your research proposal also seeks to make a case for the reason your question is significant, the value add that your research will bring to your discipline – the why. What it shouldn't do is answer the question – that's what your research will do. 

Another reason why prospective candidates are required to submit a research proposal as part of an application for admission is because it formally outlines your intended research. That means you also need to provide details on how you will go about your research, including your approach and methodology, timeline and feasibility, as well as any other considerations that must be made to progress your research, such as resources. 

Your proposal is less of a contract and more of a guide – a plan for your research that is necessarily flexible. 

Writing your research proposal 

Here are some guidelines to help start writing your research proposal:

  • The below headings can be used as a template to format your proposal.
  • Generally speaking, your research proposal should be no more than 2000 words, but it's worth checking the details of what's required from your specific faculty and degree with your supervisor(s) or the relevant postgraduate research coordinator. 
  • When writing your research proposal think of it as a tool that will help you clarify your own idea and make conducting your research easier. 
  • Remember that presenting your idea clearly and concisely demonstrates that you can write this way – an attribute of a potential research candidate that is valued by assessors. 

You can also download a simplified A4 version of these research proposal guidelines to keep handy. 

Research proposal guidelines

Provide a working title for your research that includes keywords and communicates simply what your research is about. 

State the name, department and faculty of the academic who has agreed to supervise you. Rest assured, your research supervisor will work with you to refine your research proposal ahead of submission to ensure it meets the needs of your discipline. 

Describe your proposed mode of research. This is likely to be closely linked to your discipline and is where you will describe the style or format of your research; for example, data, field research, composition, written work, social performance and mixed media etc. Please note that this would not be needed in the sciences, but your research supervisor will be able to guide you on discipline- specific requirements. 

What are you trying to achieve with your research? What is the purpose? As discussed earlier, this comes back to the original reason why you're applying for a research degree. Are you addressing a gap in the current research? Do you want to look at a theory more closely and test it out? Is there something you're trying to prove or disprove? To help you clarify this, think about the potential outcome of your research if you were successful – that is your aim. Make sure that this is a clearly focused statement. 

Your objectives will be your aim broken down – the steps to achieving the intended outcome. They are the smaller proof points that will underpin your research's purpose. Be logical in the order of how you present these so that each succeeds the previous – ie, if you need to achieve 'a' before 'b' before 'c', then make sure you order your objectives a, b, c. 

The synopsis is a brief but clear summary of what your research is about and outlines the key aspects of what you will investigate as well as the expected outcomes. It briefly covers the what, why and how of your research. A good way to evaluate if you have written a strong synopsis is to get somebody to read it without reading the rest of your research proposal. Would they know what your research is about?

Now that you have your question clarified, it is time to explain the why. Why are you choosing to research problem 'x' or issue 'y'? Here you need to demonstrate an understanding of the current research climate for your area of interest. 

Providing context for your research topic through a literature review shows the assessor that you understand what is currently being discussed about your topic and what has already been published. Demonstrate you have a strong understanding of the key topics, important studies, notable researchers etc in your area of research and how these have contributed to the current landscape. 

Why is your research question or hypothesis worth asking? How is the current research lacking or falling short? What impact will your research have on the discipline? Will you be extending an area of knowledge, applying it to new contexts, solving a problem, testing a theory, or challenging an existing one? Establish why your research is important by convincing your audience there is a gap. 

Your research proposal is your own statement of originality. What will be the outcome of your research contribution? Your research proposal should demonstrate both your current level of knowledge and how the pursuit of your question or hypothesis will create a new understanding and generate new information. Show how your research is innovative and original. 

Be sure to draw links between your research and the faculty/school you're applying to. Why have you chosen your supervisor to guide you with your thesis? What research have they or their school done to reinforce and support your own work? Cite these reasons to demonstrate how your research will benefit and contribute to the current body of knowledge. 

Provide an overview of the methodology and techniques you will use to conduct your research. Which materials and equipment you will use? Which theoretical frameworks will you draw on? Which method will you use to collect data? 

Highlight why you have chosen this particular methodology, detailing its own merits, but also why others may not have been as suitable. You need to demonstrate that you have put thought into your approach and why it's the most appropriate way to carry out your research. It should also highlight potential limitations you anticipate facing, feasibility within time and other constraints, ethical considerations and how you will address these, and general resources etc. 

A work plan is a critical component of your research proposal because it indicates the feasibility of completion within the timeframe and supports you in achieving your objectives over the course of your degree. 

Consider the milestones you aim to achieve at each stage of your research. A PhD or master's degree by research can take two to four years of full-time study to complete. It might be helpful to offer year one in detail and the following years in broader terms. Ultimately you have to show that your research is likely to be both original and finished – and that you understand the time involved. 

Building on the information provided in your proposed research methodology and work plan, here you will provide the details of the resources you'll need to carry out your research project. What significant resources are required for the success of your proposed project? You might consider any equipment, fieldwork expenses or travel. This should also include a proposed budget, which is important to give an indication of how realistic your research proposal is in terms of financial requirements and whether any adjustments need to be made accordingly. 

As for any academic piece of writing, provide a list of references that you've made throughout your research proposal. 

Speak one-on-one with our academics, visit our 'Research at Sydney Hub' and learn about research opportunities at our upcoming Postgraduate Study and Research Week. Register for an event today