The components and elements of a research proposal

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There’s not one set structure for all research proposals at RMIT, so you’ll need to check your School guidelines. As we said earlier, all proposals identify what research you propose, why this research needs to be done and how you will conduct the research. However, you may find it difficult to easily identify each of these elements within your School’s guidelines. Here  is a document with the general guidelines from RMIT and from six discipline areas; in each case, we’ve identified the what, the why and the how. Notice that there is a different order in some cases, and in others, the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ are merged into one section.

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There is also substantial disparity in the length required. For a PhD proposal (Masters is usually slightly less), some schools ask for 2 – 5 pages, some 8 – 10 pages, and others can be considerably longer. It is not unusual for those from more humanities-based disciplines to be as long as 30 pages. In some cases, the length is negotiated with your supervisor.

Specific elements found in research proposals also vary between disciplines. Here is a list of elements that are always included and elements that are often included:

 Always included

  • Title
  • Background to the study
  • The current body of knowledge (review of the literature)
  • Research question/s or problem/s and/or hypotheses
  • Rationale for the research
  • Scope of the research
  • Research methodology
  • Milestones or timeline
  • Significance of the research/contributions of the research
  • Reference list

 Often included

  • Abstract
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Definitions
  • Statement of the problem
  • Research aims and/or objectives
  • Epistemological stance and theoretical framework
  • Particular needs, e.g. resources
  • Expected preliminary outcomes
  • Intellectual property issues
  • Ethics approval/evidence of application

Look at the guidelines from your own discipline or school. Identify the sections that answer the ‘what’, the ‘why’ and the ‘how’? What elements have you been asked to include? Are there others you feel should be included? Would these be best included in the ‘what’, the ‘why’ or the ‘how’ sections of your proposal?

The questions driving the structure of the research proposal are reflected in the introduction, literature review and methodology content of a thesis or dissertation as the diagram below indicates. Thus, by completing a research proposal, you have potentially already begun to write your thesis or dissertation!