Writing a successful Research Proposal
Having mentally formulated the necessary steps to conduct and complete a piece of research, you might now be wondering how to articulate this effectively to communicate your work to your peers. This is where a research proposal comes in.
Purpose of a research proposal
A research proposal summarises the rationale, overall plan and outcomes of your proposed piece of work, to be easily consumed (received) by potential funders or collaborators. Successful research proposals would usually also include concrete practicalities pertaining to how you plan to achieve the outcomes set out in the proposal.
Here, we discuss the key points for preparing a successful research proposal.
1. Keep it simple – until you can’t
A research proposal is complicated in the sense that while you may be addressing multiple audiences and stakeholders with different interests and focus, you still have to include a certain level of detail. Therefore, make sure to keep your proposal simple and clear by avoiding jargon and using only as much detail as is absolutely necessary to get your point across.
How to do it
For example, you will need to begin with your rationale for the proposed research. Keep this as broad as possible, and make sure that you address your audience as you write this section. Your rationale will not make sense to people outside of your field if it is too focused or too (technically) detailed.
On the other hand, your methodology and project plan need to include details on how you will conduct the research to achieve the outcomes you have set out.
2. Be reasonable with your goals
Since you are likely trying to convince someone of your great idea through a research proposal, you should aim to be reasonable with the milestones that you are setting for the project. This includes both your proposed timeline and the magnitude of the work you plan to do. This requires striking a fine balance; you want to come across as confident and ambitious, but not overly ambitious or even unreasonable.
How to do it
A good way of putting together a reasonable timeline is to start by formulating your ultimate goals and working backwards from there. Ask yourself:
- What exactly do I want to achieve?
- What do I need to do to get there?
If these components start adding up to a larger, longer-term project than you anticipated, then scale down your goals to smaller, more manageable ones first and then work your way up.
3. Present the potential impact of your proposed research
A long-standing question in academia is the notion of impact:
What is the impact of this research?
Why is this research so important?
How would this research relate to or be relevant to the field or to society?
In essence, the outcome of your work should have some impact. This does not necessarily mean a publication in a journal with a high impact factor, but rather, impact in the broader and even practical sense of the term. For example, your work:
- May have commercialisation potential
- May inform policy and legislature
- Might offer new perspectives to shift certain paradigms and evolve debates on a topic
(Learn more here about the implications and recommendations of research: Difference between Implications and Recommendations in a research paper)
How to do it
As you prepare your research proposal, it is very useful to start thinking about the potential impact that your research can create and ensure that you are communicating that clearly. Your readers, funders, stakeholders etc. will want to know not just what you intend to do in your research project but also how it can eventually be beneficial and useful – to your field, to society or the world.
The research proposal thus needs to communicate the methodology as well as the need and practical relevance of the research. The notion of impact has to be more global and far-reaching than your personal intentions (for gaining merit as a credible scholar out) of the research. This will not only communicate to others that you care about your work’s overall imprint on the world but will also make it more compelling to a broader audience.
A research proposal is essentially a pitch, but with more specific details. You are pitching your great idea and your practical, realistic plans and goals to potential funding bodies and collaborators – so make sure to appeal to them and what they’d be looking for. Keeping your proposal brief and clear is key, as is ensuring that you address your potential readers’ goals and aspirations by outlining your intended outcomes and their anticipated impact.
Read previous (first) in series: Understanding and developing a Concept Paper
Read next (third/final) in series: Concept Paper vs. Research Proposal – and when to use each
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