Drawing on guidelines developed in the UBC graduate guide to writing proposals (Petrina, 2009), we highlight eight steps for constructing an effective research proposal:
- Presenting the topic
- Literature Review
- Identifying the Gap
- Research Questions that addresses the Gap
- Methods to address the research questions
- Data Analysis
- Summary, Limitations and Implications
In addition to those eight sections, research proposals frequently include a research timeline. We discuss each of these eight sections as well as producing a research timeline below.
Presenting The Topic (Statement of Research Problem)
The research proposal should begin with a hook to entice your readers. Like a steaming fresh pie on a windowsill, you want to allure your reader by presenting your topic (the pie on the sill) and then alluding to its importance (the delicious scent and taste of the cooling cherry pie). This can be done in many ways, so long as you are able to entice your reader to the core themes of your research. Some suggestions include:
Highlighting a paradox that your work will attempt to resolve e.g., “Why is it that social research has been shown to bring about higher net-positive outcomes than natural scientific research, but is funded less?” or “Why is it that women earn less than men in meritocratic societies even though they have more qualifications?” Paradoxes are popular because they draw on problematics (see Chapter 1) and indicate an obstacle in the thinking of fellow researchers that you may offer hope in resolving.
- Presenting a narrative introduction (often used in ethnographic papers) to the problem at hand. The following opening statement from Bowen, Elliott & Brenton (2014, p. 20) illustrates:
It’s a hot, sticky Fourth of July in North Carolina, and Leanne, a married working-class black mother of three, is in her cramped kitchen. She’s been cooking for several hours, lovingly preparing potato salad, beef ribs, chicken legs, and collards for her family. Abruptly, her mother decides to leave before eating anything. “But you haven’t eaten,” Leanne says. “You know I prefer my own potato salad,” says her mom. She takes a plateful to go anyway,
- Provide an historical overview of the problem, discussing its significance in history and indicating how that interrelates to the present: “On January 23rd, 2020, tears were shed as cabbies heard the news of Uber’s approval to operate in the city of Vancouver.”
- Introduce your positionality to the problem: How did it come of concern? How are you personally related to the social problem in question? The following introduction by Germon (1999, p.687) illustrates:
Throughout the paper I locate myself as part of the disabled peoples movement, and write from a position of a shared value base and analyses of a collective experience. In doing so, I make no apology for flouting academic pretentions of objectivity and neutrality. Rather, I believe I am giving essential information which clarifies my motivation and political position
- Begin with a quotation: Because this is an overused technique, if you use it, make sure that it addresses your research question and that you can explicitly relate to it in the body of your introduction. Do not start with a quotation for the sake of.
- Begin with a concession: Start with a statement recognizing an opinion or approach different from the one you plan to take in your thesis. You can acknowledge the merits in a previous approach but show how you will improve it or make a different argument, e.g., “Although critical theory and antiracism explain oppression and exploitation in contemporary society, they do not fully address the experiences of Indigenous peoples”.
- Start with an interesting fact or statistics: This is a sure way to draw attention to the topic and its significance e.g. “Canada is the fourth most popular destination country in the world for international students in 2018, with close to half a million international students” (CBIE, 2018)
- A definition: You may start by defining a key term in your research topic. This is useful if it distinguishes how you plan to use a term or concept in your thesis.
The above strategies are not exhaustive nor are they only applicable to the introduction of your research proposal. They can be used to introduce any section of your thesis or any paper. Regardless of the strategy that you use to introduce your topic, remember that the key objective is to convince your reader that the issue is problematic and is worth investigating. A well developed statement of research problem will do the following:
- Contextualize the problem. This means highlighting what is already known and how it is problematic to the specific context in which you wish to study it. By highlighting what is already known, you can build on key facts (such as the prevalence and whether it has received attention in the past). Please note that this is not the literature review; you are simply fleshing out a few pertinent details to introduce the topic in a few sentences or a paragraph.
- Specify the problem by describing precisely what you plan to address. In other words, elaborate on what we need to know. For example, building on your contextualization of the problem, you can specify the problem with a statement such as: “There is an abundance of literature on international migration. In fact, the IOM (2018) estimates that there are close to 258 million international migrants globally, who contribute billions to the global economy. However, not much is known about the extent of intra-regional migration in the global south such as within the African continent. There is, hence, a pressing need to study this phenomenon in greater detail.”
- Highlight the relevance of the problem. This means explaining to the readers why we need to know this information, who will be affected, who will benefit?
- Outline the goal and objectives of the research.
- The of your research is what you hope to achieve by answering the research question. To write the goal of your research, go back to your research question and state the results you intend to obtain. For example, if your research question is “What effect does extended social media use have on female body images?”, the goal of your research could be stated as “The goal of this study is to identity the point at which social media use negatively impact female body images so that they can be informed about how to use it responsibly.
- The of your study is a further elaboration on your goals i.e., details about the steps that you will take to achieve the goal. Based on the goal above, you probably will study incidents of depression among female social media users, changes in self-esteem and incidents of eating disorders. These could translate into objectives such as to: (1) compare the incidents of depression among female social media users based on length of use (2) assess changes in female social media users’ self esteem (3) determine if there are differences in the incidents of eating disorder among female social media users based on extent of use. Notice that in achieving those objectives, you will be able to reach the goal of answering your research question.
In summary, you should strive to have one goal for each research question. If your project has only one research question, one goal is sufficient. Your objectives are the pathways (or steps) that will get you to achieve the goal i.e., what will you need to do in order to answer the research question. Summarize the steps in no more than two or three objectives per goal.
Brief Literature Review
After the problem and rationale are introduced, the next step is to frame the problem within the academic discourse. This involves conducting a preliminary literature review covering, inter alia, the history of the phenomena itself and the scholarly theories and investigations that have attempted to understand it (Petrina, 2009). In elaborating on the history of the concepts and theories, you should also attempt to draw attention to the theories which will guide your own research (or which will be contested by your research). By foregrounding the major ways of perceiving the problem, you will then set the stage for your own methodology: the major concepts and tools you will use to investigate/interpret the problem.
While in graduate research proposals the literature review often composes a section of its own (Petrina, 2009), in undergraduate research this step can be incorporated into the introduction. However, you should avoid, as Wong (n.d.) writes, framing your research question “in the context of a general, rambling literature review,” where your research question “may appear trivial and uninteresting.” Try to respond to seminal papers in the literature and to identify clearly for your reader the key concepts in the literature that you will be discussing. Part of outlining the scholarly discussion should also focus on clarifying the boundaries of your topic. While making the significance concrete, try to hone in on select themes that your research will evaluate. This way, when you go to outline the methods you will use, the topic will have clearly defined boundaries and concerns. See chapter 5 for more guidance on how to construct an extended literature review.
- Summarize: The literature in your literature review is not going to be exhaustive but it should demonstrate that you have a good grasp on key debates and trends in the field
- Quality not quantity: Despite the fact that this is non-exhaustive, there is no magic number of sources that you need. Do not think in terms of how many sources are sufficient. Think about presenting a decent representation of key themes in the literature.
- Highlight theory and methodology of your sources (if they are significant). Doing so could help justify your theoretical and methodological decisions, whether you are departing from previous approaches or whether you are adopting them.
- Synthesize your results. Do not simply state “According to Robinson (2021)….According to Wilson (2021)… etc”. Instead, find common grounds between sources and summarize the point e.g., “Researchers argue that we should not list our literature (Bartolic, 2021; Robinson, 2020; Wilson 2021).
- Justify methodological choice
- Assess and Evaluate: After assessing the literature in your field, you should be able to answer the following questions: Why should we study (further) this research topic/problem?
- Contribution: At the end of the literature, you should be able to determine contributions will my study make to the existing literature?
As you briefly discuss the key literature concerning your topic of interest, it is important that you allude to gaps. are ambiguities, faults, and missing aspects of previous studies. Think about questions that you have which are not answered by existing literature. Specifically, think about how the literature might insufficiently address the following, and locate your research as filling those gaps (see UNE, 2021):
- Population or sample: size, type, location, demography etc. [Are there specific populations that are understudied e.g., Indigenous people, female youth, BIPOC, the elderly etc.]
- Research methods: qualitative, quantitative, or mixed [Has the research in the area been limited to just a few methods e.g., all surveys? How is yours different?]
- Data analysis [Are you using a different method of analysis than those used in the literature?]
- Variables or conditions [Are you examining a new or different set of variables than those previously studied? Are the conditions under which your study is being conducted unique e.g., under pandemic conditions]
- Theory [Are you employing a theory in a new way?]
Refer to Chapter 6 (Literature Review) for more detail about this process and for a discussion on common types of gaps in social research.
To indicate the usefulness and originality of your research, you should be conscious of how your research is both unique from previous studies in the field and how its findings will be useful. When you write your thesis or research report, you will expound on these gaps some more. However, in the body of your proposal, it is important that you explicitly highlight the insufficiency of existing literature (i.e. gaps). Below are some phrases that you can use to indicate gaps:
- …has not been clarified, studied, reported, or elucidated
- further research is required or needed
- …is not well reported
- key question(s) remains unanswered
- it is important to address …
- …poorly understood or known
- Few studies have (UNE, 2021)
Research Questions & Research Questions that Address the Gap
The gaps and literature you outline should set the context for your research questions. In outlining the major issues concerning your topic, you should have raised key concepts and actors (Wong, n.d.). Your research question should attempt to engage or investigate the key concepts previously stated, showing to your reader that you have developed a line of inquiry that directly touches upon gaps in the previous literature that can be concretely investigated (ie. concepts that are operationalized). After indicating what your research intends to study, formulate this gap into a set of research questions which make investigating this gap tangible. Refer to the previous chapter for more advice about devising a solid research question. Remember, as McCombes (2021) notes, a good research question is:
- Focused on a single problem or issue
- Researchable using primary and/or secondary sources
- Feasible to answer within the timeframe and practical constraints
- Specific enough to answer thoroughly
- Complex enough to develop the answer over the space of a paper or thesis (i.e., not answerable with a simple yes/no)
- Provide scope for debate Original (not one that is answered already)
- Relevant to your field of study and/or society more broadly.
Methods to Address Research Questions
By the time you begin writing your methodology section, you would have already introduced your topic and its significance, and have provided a brief account of its scholarly history (literature review) and the gaps you will be filling. The methods section allows you to discuss how you intend to fulfill said gap. In the methods section, you also indicate what data you intend to investigate (content: including the time, place, and variables) and how you intend to find it (the methods you will use to reveal content e.g., qualitative interviewing, discourse analysis, experimental research, and comparative research). Your ability to outline these steps clearly and plausibly will indicate whether your research is repeatable, possible, and effective. research allows other researchers to repeat your methods and find the same results (Bhattacherjee, 2012), thereby proving that your findings were not invented but are discoverable by all. Your descriptions must be specific enough so that other researchers can repeat them and arrive at the same results. It is important in this section that you also justify why you believe this specific methodology is the most effective for answering the research question. This does not need to be extensive, but you should at least briefly note why you think, for instance, qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods (and your specific proposed approach) are appropriate for answering your research question. For more details about writing an immaculate methodology, refer to Chapter 7.
This short section requires you to discuss how you intend to interpret your findings. You will need to ask yourself five critical questions before you write this section: (1) will theory guide the interpretation of the results? (2) Will I use a matrix with pre-established codes to categorize results? (3) Will I use an inductive approach such as grounded theory that does not go into an investigation with strict codes? (4) Will I use statistics to explain trends in numerical data? (5) Will I be using a combination of these or another strategy to interpret my findings?This section should also include some discussion of the theories that you intend to use to possibly explain or understand your data. Be sure to outline key notions and explain how they will be operationalized to extrapolate the data you may receive. Again, this section also does not have to be extensive. At this point, you are demonstrating that you have given thought to what you intend to do with the data once you have collected it. This may change later on, but make sure that the proposed analytical strategy is appropriate to the data collected, for example, if you are evaluating newspaper discourse on the coronavirus pandemic, unless you intend to code the data quantitatively, you would not be expected to use statistics. Content, thematic or discourse analysis might be more intuitive. See the Data Analysis (Chapters 9 and 10) for more details.
Summarize, Engage with Limitations, and Implicate
After you have outlined the literature, the gaps in the literature, how you intend to investigate that gap, and how you intend to analyze what you have found, it is important to again reiterate the significance of your study. Allude to what your study could find and what this would mean. This requires returning to the significant territory that began your proposal and linking it to how your study could help to explain/change this understanding or circumstance. Report on the possible beneficial outcomes of your study. For instance, say you study the impact of welfare checks on homelessness. Then you could respond to the following question: How could my findings improve our responses to homelessness? How could it make welfare policies more effective? Remember you must explain the usefulness or benefits of the study to both the outside world and the research community. In addition to noting your strengths, also reflect on the weaknesses. All research has limitations but you need to demonstrate that you have taken steps to mitigate those that can be mitigated and that the research is valuable despite the weaknesses. Be straightforward about the things your study will not be able to find, and the potential obstacles that will be presented to you in conducting your study (in research that is conducted with a population, be sure to note harms/benefits that might come to them). With this in mind, try to address these obstacles to the best of your ability and to prove the value of your study despite inevitable tradeoffs. However, do not finish with a long list of inadequacies. End with a magnanimous crescendo –with the impression that despite the trials and limitations of research, you are prepared for the challenge and the challenge is well worth overcoming. This means reiterating the significance, potential uses and implications of the findings.
- Introduce the overall methodological approach (e.g., qualitative, quantitative, mixed)
- Indicate how the approach fits the overall research design (e.g., setting, participants, data collection process)
- Describe the specific methods of data collection (e.g., interviews, surveys, ethnography, secondary data etc.)
- Explain how you intend to analyze and interpret your results (i.e. statistical analysis, grounded theory; outline any theoretical framework that will guide the analysis; see below).
- If necessary, provide background and rationale for unfamiliar methodologies.
- Highlight the ethical process including whether institutional ethics review was done
- Address potential limitations (see below)
|Table 2.2- Common Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis Methods
|Qualitative Analysis Methods
|Quantitative Analysis Methods
|Qualitative Content Analysis
Grounded Theory (Inductive)
Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis
Mean, median, standard deviation, skewness
T-tests, ANOVA, Correlation, regression, chi-square
Bhattacherjee, Anol. (2012). Social Science Research: Principles, Methods, and Practices Textbooks Collection. https://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1002&context=oa_textbooks
Bowen, S., Elliott, S., & Brenton, J. (2014). The joy of cooking? Contexts, 13(3), 20-25.
CBIE [Canadian Bureau for International Education] (2018, August). International students in Canada. https://cbie.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/International-Students-in-CanadaENG.pdf
Germon, P. (1999). Purely academic? Exploring the relationship between theory and political activism. Disability & Society, 14(5), 687-692.
International Organization on Migration. (2018). “Global Migration Indicators.” global_migration_indicators_2018.pdf (iom.int)
McCombes, S. (2021, March 22). Developing Strong Research Questions: Criteria and Examples. Scribbr. https://www.scribbr.com/research-process/research-questions/
UNE (2021). Gaps in the literature. UNE Library services. https://library.une.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Gaps-in-the-Literature.pdf
Petrina, Stephen. (2009). “Thesis Dissertation and Proposal Guide For Graduate Students.”
What one hopes to achieve by answering the research question.
A further elaboration on goals i.e., details about the steps that will be taken to achieve the goal.
The ambiguities, faults, and missing aspects of the established literature.
The notion that another researcher should be able to repeat your methods and find the same results (see replicable).