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Write a Research Proposal

Structure and content

The structure and content of a research proposal can vary depending upon the discipline, purpose, and target audience. For example, a graduate thesis proposal and a Tri-Council grant proposal will have different guidelines for length and required sections.

Before you begin writing, be sure to talk with your supervisor to gain a clear understanding of their specific expectations, and continually check in with them throughout the writing process.

This template can be used in conjunction with the sections below.


What are some keywords for your research?

  • Should give a clear indication of your proposed research approach or key question
  • Should be concise and descriptive

Writing Tip: When constructing your title, think about the search terms you would use to find this research online.


Important: Write this section last, after you have completed drafting the proposal. Or if you are required to draft a preliminary abstract, then remember to rewrite the abstract after you have completed drafting the entire proposal because some information may need to be revised.

The abstract should provide a brief overview of the entire proposal. Briefly state the research question (or hypothesis, thesis statement, aim), the problem and rationale, the proposed methods, and the proposed analyses or expected results.

Introduction (to topic and problem)

The purpose of the introduction is to communicate the information that is essential for the reader to understand the overall area of concern. Be explicit. Outline why this research must be conducted and try to do so without unnecessary jargon or overwhelming detail.

Start with a short statement that establishes the overall area of concern. Avoid too much detail. Get to the point. Communicate only information essential for the reader’s comprehension. Avoid unnecessary technical language and jargon. Answer the question, "What is this study about?"

Questions to consider:

  • What is your topic area, and what is the problem within that topic?
  • What does the relevant literature say about the problem? – Be selective and focused.
  • What are the critical, theoretical, or methodological issues directly related to the problem to be investigated?
  • What are the reasons for undertaking the research? – This is the answer to the "so what?" question.

The following sections - listed as part of the introduction - are intended as a guide for drafting a research proposal.
Most introductions include these following components. However, be sure to clarify with your advisor or carefully review the grant guidelines to be sure to comply with the proposal genre expectations of your specific discipline.

Broad topic and focus of study

  • Briefly describe the broad topic of your research area, and then clearly explain the narrowed focus of your specific study.

Importance of topic/field of study

  • Position your project in a current important research area.
  • Address the “So what?” question directly, and as soon as possible.
  • Provide context for the reader to understand the problem you are about to pose or research question you are asking.

Problem within field of study

  • Identify the problem that you are investigating in your study.

Gap(s) in knowledge

  • Identify something missing from the literature.
  • What is unknown in this specific research area? This is what your study will explore and where you will attempt to provide new insights.
  • Is there a reason this gap exists? Where does the current literature agree and where does it disagree? How you fill this gap (at least partially) with your research?


  • Convince your reader that the problem has been appropriately defined and that the study is worth doing. Be explicit and detailed.
  • Develop your argument logically and provide evidence.
  • Explain why you are the person to do this project. Summarize any previous work or studies you may have undertaken in this field or research area.

Research question or hypothesis

  • Foreshadow outcomes of your research. What is the question you are hoping to answer? What are the specific hypotheses to be tested and/or issues to be explored?
  • Use questions when research is exploratory.
  • Use declarative statements when existing knowledge enables predictions.
  • List any secondary or subsidiary questions if applicable.

Purpose statement

  • State the purpose of your research. Be succinct and simple.
  • Why do you want to do this study?
  • What is your research trying to find out?

Goals for proposed research

  • Write a brief, broad statement of what you hope to accomplish and why (e.g., Improve something… Understand something… ). Are there specific measurable outcomes that you will accomplish in your study? 
  • You will have a chance to go into greater detail in the research question and methodology sections.

Background or context (or literature review)

  • What does the existing research on this topic say?
  • Briefly state what you already know and introduce literature most relevant to your research.
  • Indicate main research findings, methodologies, and interpretations from previous related studies.
  • Discuss how your question or hypothesis relates to what is already known.
  • Position your research within the field’s developing body of knowledge.
  • Explain and support your choice of methodology or theoretical framework.

Research question (or hypothesis, thesis statement, aim)

The research question is the question you are hoping to answer in your research project. It is important to know how you should write your research question into your proposal. Some proposals include

  • a research question, written as a question
  • or, a hypothesis as a potential response to the research question
  • or, a thesis statement as an argument that answers the research question
  • or, aims and objects as accomplishment or operational statements

Foreshadow the outcomes of your research. Are you trying to improve something? Understand something? Advocate for a social responsibility?

Research question

What is the question you are hoping to answer?

  • Use questions when research is exploratory.
  • Use declarative statements when existing knowledge enables predictions.
  • List any secondary or subsidiary questions if applicable.

Subsidiary questions (if applicable)

  • Does your major research question hinge on a few smaller questions? Which will you address first?


Your hypothesis should provide one (of many) possible answers to your research question.

  • What are the specific hypotheses to be tested and/or issues to be explored?
  • What results do you anticipate for this experiment?

Usually a hypothesis is written to show the relationship between the independent and dependent variables.
Your hypothesis must be

  • An expected relationship between variables
  • Testable
  • Falsifiable
  • Consistent with the existing body of knowledge

Thesis statement

Your thesis statement is a clear, concise statement of what you are arguing and why it is important. For more support on writing thesis statements, check out these following resources:

Aims and objectives

Aims are typically broader statements of what you are trying to accomplish and may or may not be measurable. Objectives are operational statements indicating specifically how you will accomplish the aims of your project.

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • How are you going to address the research question?

Be specific and make sure your aims or objectives are realistic. You want to convey that it is feasible to answer this question with the objectives you have proposed.

Proposed methodology

Make it clear that you know what you are going to do, how you are going to do it, and why it will work by relating your methodology to previous research. If there isn’t much literature on the topic, you can relate your methodology to your own preliminary research or point out how your methodology tackles something that may have been overlooked in previous studies.

Explain how you will conduct this research. Specify scope and parameters (e.g., geographic locations, demographics). Limit your inclusion of literature to only essential articles and studies.

Questions to consider:

  • How will these methods produce an answer to your research question?
  • How do the methods relate to the introduction and literature review?
  • Have you done any previous work (or read any literature) that would inform your choices about methodology?
  • Are your methods feasible and adequate? How do you know?
  • What obstacles might you encounter in conducting the research, and how will you overcome them?

This section should include the following components that are relevant to your study and research methodologies:

Object(s) of study / participants / population

Provide detail about your objects of study (e.g., literary texts, swine, government policies, children, health care systems).

  • Who/what are they?
  • How will you find, select, or collect them?
  • How feasible is it to find/select them?
  • Are there any limitations to sample/data collection?
  • Do you need to travel to collect samples or visit archives, etc.?
  • Do you need to obtain Research Ethics Board (REB) approval to include human participants?

Theoretical frame or critical methodology

  • Explain the theories or disciplinary methodologies that your research draws from or builds upon.

Materials and apparatus

  • What are your survey or interview methods? (You may include a copy of questionnaires, etc.)
  • Do you require any special equipment?
  • How do you plan to purchase or construct or obtain this equipment?

Procedure and design

What exactly will you do? Include variables selected or manipulated, randomization, controls, the definition of coding categories, etc.

  • Is it a questionnaire? Laboratory experiment? Series of interviews? Systematic review? Interpretative analysis?
  • How will subjects be assigned to experimental conditions?
  • What precautions will be used to control possible confounding variables?
  • How long do you expect to spend on each step, and do you have a backup plan?

Data analysis and statistical procedures

  • How do you plan to statistically analyze your data?
  • What analyses will you conduct?
  • How will the analyses contribute to the objectives?

Anticipated findings

What are the expected outcomes from your methods? Describe your expected results in relation to your hypothesis. Support these results using existing literature.

  • What results would prove or disprove your hypotheses and validate your methodology, and why?
  • What obstacles might you encounter in obtaining your results, and how will you deal with those obstacles?
  • How will you analyze and interpret your results?

Contributions - impact and significance

This section may be the most important part of your proposal. Make sure to emphasize how this research is significant to the related field, and how it will impact the broader community, now and in the future.

Convince your reader why this project should be funded above the other potential projects. Why is this research useful and relevant? Why is it useful to others? Answer the question “so what?”

Specific contributions

  • How will your anticipated results specifically contribute to fulfilling the aims, objectives, or goals of your research?
  • Will these be direct or indirect contributions? – theoretical or applied?
  • How will your research contribute to the larger topic area or research discipline?

Impact and significance

  • How will your research contribute to the research field of study?
  • How will your research contribute to the larger topic addressed in your introduction?
  • How will this research extend other work that you have done?
  • How will this contribution/significance convince the reader that this research will be useful and relevant?
  • Who else might find your research useful and relevant? (e.g., other research streams, policy makers, professional fields, etc.)


Provide a list of some of the most important sources that you will need to use for the introduction and background sections, plus your literature review and theoretical framework. 

What are some of the most important sources that you will need to use for the intro/background/lit review/theoretical framework? 

  • Find out what style guide you are required to follow (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago).
  • Follow the guidelines in our Cite Your Sources Libguide to format citations and create a reference list or bibliography.

Attach this list to your proposal as a separate page unless otherwise specified.

Tables and figures (if applicable)

This section should include only visuals that help illustrate the preliminary results, methods, or expected results.

  • What visuals will you use to help illustrate the methods or expected results?

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