Writing the ‘what’ of your research proposal

Topic Progress:

The purpose of the ‘what’ section of your research proposal is to generally describe what your proposed research is about. It establishes how it’s situated within your discipline or field, so it has mainly contextual and fundamental information, such as:

  • the context for the research
  • research questions, problems or hypotheses
  • the scope of the proposed research (i.e. what you will and what you won’t do).

It may also include:

  • aims and/or objectives
  • introduction to the theoretical framework within which your research sits
  • a statement of the problem grounded in the context or theoretical framework and a resulting argument for something to be done (although this may be more appropriate in the rationale)
  • the timeliness of your proposed research (i.e. why should it be done right now?)
  • definitions if needed.

Your review panel will look for:

  • the proposed research to be situated within the context of the scholarly literature in your topic area
  • a clearly stated and defined topic
  • clear, unambiguous, feasible research questions, problems or hypotheses.

What does the 'what' section look like?

Your readers first need to have a clear understanding of how the proposed research is contextualised within its field. To do this, you’ll need to develop an understanding of how knowledge around your topic area is organised and which are the key journals. Contextualisation often includes the following:

  • The key ideas, theories and concepts; in art and design, the focus of the design field or studio
  • The major issues and debates
  • The key players and seminal texts or key artists
  • The questions that have been asked around this topic.

As we’ve discussed, there is little consistency in research proposals between disciplines. However, to get some idea of what’s possible, here is a research proposal written by a PhD student in social science. This is from some years ago (the citations show its age) and comes from an era when research proposals were much shorter than is usual now; however, it models the essence of a research proposal. Read the proposal, including the annotations:

  • Note what the text is doing.
  • Why is it a good model?
  • Read the ‘why’ and ‘how’ sections and note the links between them. 

Now click on one of the research proposals listed below from a discipline that is closest to your own. Identify the following:

  • Background/context to the study
  • Clearly stated topic
  • Research aims and/or objectives
  • Research question/s or problem/s and/or hypotheses
  • Scope of the research
  • Significance of the research/contributions of the research
  • Introduction
  • Definitions
  • Statement of the problem

If you have a comment to make or difficulty in identifying the elements, engage in the Discussion Forum to see what others who have read the same proposal have to say.

Sample Research Proposals

'Starter' phrases commonly used to describe your proposed research

When you read journal articles, you may have noticed that many of the same phrases are used at the beginning of sentences. It’s useful to make a note of these and use them in your own research writing. This is called ‘syntactic borrowing’; it’s not plagiarism because the phrases don’t involve content, and they are used by many research writers. There are two lists below. One has examples of phrases commonly used when writing about the description and purpose of your research. The second list has examples of starter phrases often used when introducing the literature. You will need to contextualise your proposed research within the literature when you’re describing your research and also when you’re justifying it, so this list will also appear in the following module.

Describing your proposed research:

  • This research seeks to understand / identify / apply / answer the question….
  • The research will investigate / offer new insights into…
  • The proposed research will explore the impact of… on…
  • The research will focus on…
  • The proposed research aims to…
  • The objective of the proposed study is to…
  • The research will also attempt to…
  • The research will answer the following questions…
  • I position my art practice within…

 Introducing the literature:

  • Several studies have sought to understand / identify…
  • One factor / issue that has been identified / investigated is …
  • Several factors / issues have been identified, including…
  • The current debates on… have contributed to…
  • Consequently, various studies have attempted to…
  • A number of scholars have found…
  • Recent research has found…

Hear what supervisors have to say about writing the description of the research

Associate Professor Craig Batty.  School of Design & Social Context

Dr Emily Gray.  School of Design & Social Context

Associate Professor Madhu Bhaskaran.  School of Engineering

Dr Konrad Peszynski.  Business IT and Logistics

Discussion Forum

Post questions or ideas you have at any time. Here are a few questions to get you started:
• In the research proposal guidelines from your school or discipline, can you identify the ‘what’, the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ sections? Explain or demonstrate.
• What are some of the difficulties in explaining your proposed research?
• Comment on the Prezi activity? How helpful was it in framing your problem statement and research questions?
• What possible changes could you make to the structure of the annotated model? How would you change it to suit your field/your research topic?

Workspace Forum

This is your chance to get some valuable feedback on your writing.
Please write and get feedback on:
• Your problem statement, research questions and/or aims and objectives
• Two paragraphs of your writing addressing the ‘what’ element of your research:
- The background for your research (context)
- A brief description of your proposed research.