Sample of academic research proposal
Jun 21, 2018
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PandaTip: Please note that the nature of a research proposal will vary depending on your specific audience. If, for example, you are addressing only academics in your precise field, you can be quite specific about your area of study and assume a high degree of existing knowledge. But if you are addressing a wider audience, you need to assume that they have less existing knowledge. In any case, it is important to keep your tone formal and academic, while still being as clear and simple you can in your language. Many people writing research proposals make the mistake of trying to over-complicate their language with the idea that it will make them sound academic / impressive. What is most impressive is having an idea that is worthy of academic research whilst remaining comprehensible.
PandaTip: While this document has the form of a sample, the main body of an academic proposal needs to be based on your research idea: all the rest of the content needs to flow from that if it is to be academically credible. The notes and guide that form most of the words in this template are more important than the sentences to fill in. Often, the less ‘filler’ in an academic proposal, the better, as this means it is clear to your readers that your work is content-oriented. Often, the title of a subsection will be enough to introduce it. But it is important to get the title right.
PandaTip: From here onwards, this sample is split into 13 sections according to the sections that should be included in an academic research proposal. Each section includes example notes and guidance on the suggested length and content. Some sections also include suggested content templates to be filled in, but given the nature of a research proposal as academic, this can unfortunately only be limited. Please also note, the abstract, contents page, introduction and references should always appear on new pages on a printed document. Other sections can continue without page breaks.
PandaTip: This should be clear and concise, while leaving the reader in no doubt as to your field of study. A good title structure can often be “Short Title: Longer Explanation of Your Field”. Your academic institution may have a preferred format for the title, or even a title page. Find out before you submit your proposal. If there is no preferred format, keep it simple and clear, and use a ‘serif’ font that is easily legible.
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An academic proposal is the first step in producing a thesis or major project. Its intent is to convince a supervisor or academic committee that your topic and approach are sound, so that you gain approval to proceed with the actual research. As well as indicating your plan of action, an academic proposal should show your theoretical positioning and your relationship to past work in the area.
An academic proposal is expected to contain these elements:
- a rationale for the choice of topic, showing why it is important or useful within the concerns of the discipline or course. It is sensible also to indicate the limitations of your aims—don’t promise what you can’t possibly deliver.
- a review of existing published work (“the literature”) that relates to the topic. Here you need to tell how your proposed work will build on existing studies and yet explore new territory (see the file on The Literature Review).
- an outline of your intended approach or methodology (with comparisons to the existing published work), perhaps including costs, resources needed, and a timeline of when you hope to get things done.
Particular disciplines may have standard ways of organizing the proposal. Ask within your department about expectations in your field. In any case, in organizing your material, be sure to emphasize the specific focus of your work—your research question. Use headings, lists, and visuals to make reading and cross-reference easy. And employ a concrete and precise style to show that you have chosen a feasible idea and can put it into action. Here are some general tips:
- Start with why your idea is worth doing (its contribution to the field), then fill in how (technicalities about topic and method).
- Give enough detail to establish feasibility, but not so much as to bore the reader.
- Show your ability to deal with possible problems or changes in focus.
- Show confidence and eagerness (use I and active verbs, concise style, positive phrasing).
(For help with thesis and grant proposals in graduate schools, see also our online handout on Academic Proposals in Graduate School.)