The research proposal presents graduate students with the opportunity to communicate the principal ideas of their projects to supervisors and colleagues.

More importantly, the proposal allows early career researchers to think through their ideas and organize them effectively. Because writing is essentially thinking made clear, you are encouraged to treat your proposal as an exercise in organizing and elucidating tentative thoughts.

While it is inevitable for a research project to develop, expand, and even morph into a new form between the proposal stage and final version, a well-written proposal will serve as a microcosm of the final project—a blueprint that becomes the project’s road-map and possibly its anchor.

In short, writing a research proposal is an exercise in imagining the relationship between complex sets of ideas that currently lack form.


  • Consult with your supervisor on the specific organization pattern to which you are expected to adhere.
  • Keep the big picture in mind. While the organization pattern may vary depending on discipline, department, or even supervisor, the research proposal is generally intended to present the research problem, justify the research to be conducted, and explain the importance of arriving at the solution(s).
  • Write concisely. Your research proposal is a relatively short document describing a much longer one. As a result, writing in a concise manner is an absolute necessity. Focus on putting the ideas on the page when writing the first draft and think about conciseness during the processes of revision and editing.
  • Write coherently. Because your research proposal contains snippets of information about a larger project, it is easy for these snippets to appear disconnected, which is why coherence is often an issue in research proposals. To remedy this issue, challenge yourself to view the document from the perspective of the reader. Do not assume the connections between the various snippets are apparent. Work deliberately on creating the connections that will bring together your ideas by thinking about the overall structure, logical flow, and transitions.
  • Establish the boundaries of your research. It is tempting to establish your research boundaries by stating what the research is intended to cover. However, it is also important to state what the research does not cover. Use qualifications to delimit your research area.
  • Focus on the major issues. While major research ideas might initially come out of very specific, minute concerns, your research proposal should be centred around major issues with minor ideas serving as clarifications and/or support.
  • Think of the research proposal as a document that provides compelling answers to the questions what, why, and how: what type of research do you plan to conduct? Why should this research be conducted? How do you plan to conduct the research?
  • Cite and highlight the key research/researchers of the field you intend to study.

Suggested Steps

I. Develop a comprehensive list of the sources. Composing this list as an annotated bibliography would help you stay organized and would make the process of managing a large list of sources much easier. Discuss your topic and research question with your supervisor and ask them about the key theorists/researchers in the field. You may also draw on the sources (and the bibliography) you read while choosing a topic. Include all potential sources, even if you remain unsure which ones will be discussed in the proposal.

II. Write a concise introduction in which you define the research problem. While closely related to your research question, this part expands on the question by indicating why your research needs to be conducted. In short, what is at stake?

III. Synthesize the literature review part of your proposal by dividing it into logical sections. These sections may be based on common topics, overlapping or opposing theories, shared or contested ideas, methodologies, etc. This list is not exhaustive, so ask yourself if there are any other patterns in the research you are reviewing.

IV. Explain how you plan to conduct your research. What is your methodology and why do you think it is the most appropriate one for tackling the research problem?

V. State what you seek to contribute to the existing body of knowledge. There are many ways of formulating your project’s potential contribution(s), but you may begin to think about it along the following lines: does your project seek to fill a gap in existing research, apply existing theories in new ways, view an existing research problem from a new perspective, or propose a novel theoretical approach in response to existing approaches?

VI. Explain the significance of your potential contribution. You explained why your research problem deserves to be investigated. Try to expand on that discussion by arguing that your potential contribution would provide the needed solutions/results.