Beginners Guide to the Research Proposal

Don’t know how to write or where to start when writing a research proposal? Here is a simple guide to get you thinking in the right direction: I heartily recommend that you cut/paste the sections into your document and use this post a reference in crafting each section.

Success Keys: Overall Quality of the Study

  • Good research question (Read the in-depth article on writing qualitative research questions here)
  • Appropriate research design
  • Rigorous and feasible methods
  • Qualified research team

Success Keys: Quality of the Proposal

  • Informative title
  • Self-sufficient and convincing abstract
  • Clear research questions
  • Scholarly and pertinent background and rationale
  • Relevant previous work
  • Appropriate population and sample
  • Appropriate methods of measurement and manipulation
  • Quality control
  • Adequate sample size
  • Sound analysis plan
  • Ethical issues well addressed
  • Tight budget
  • Realistic timetable

Quality of the Presentation

  • Clear, concise, well-organized
  • Helpful table of contents and subheadings
  • Good schematic diagrams and tables
  • Neat and free of errors

Research Proposal Elements

  1. Title
  2. Abstract
  3. Study Problem
  4. Relevance of the Project
  5. Literature Review
  6. Specific Study Objectives
  7. Research Methods
    1. Study design
    2. Participants
      1. Inclusion/exclusion criteria
      2. Sampling
      3. Recruitment plans
      4. Method of assignment to study groups
    3. Data collection
      1. Variables: outcomes, predictors, confounders
      2. Measures/instruments
      3. Procedures
    4. Statistical considerations
      1. Sample size
    5. data analysis
  8. Ethical Considerations
  9. Work Plan
  10. Budget
  11. Bibliography

Literature Review

A critical summary of research on a topic of interest, generally prepared to put a research problem in context or to identify gaps and weaknesses in prior studies so as to justify a new investigation.

Be sure to:

  • Be thorough and complete
  • Present a logical case
  • Include recent research as justification
  • Propose original research (or if duplicating, note that)
  • Include primary sources
  • Include a critical appraisal of your study
  • Build a case for new study

Study Problem (Study Purpose)

Broad statement indicating the goals of the project. This was commonly called the “who gives a shit?” question in my grad program. Ask yourself that simple question and address it. If the answer is “no one,” rethink your study. In your answer be:

  • Clear
  • Relevant
  • Logical
  • Documented

Objectives/Research Questions/Hypotheses

Identifying the research problem and developing a question to be answered are the first steps in the research process. The research question will guide the remainder of the design process (read the in-depth article on writing qualitative research questions here).

Research Objectives
A clear statement of the specific purposes of the study, which identifies the key study variables and their possible interrelationships as well as the nature of the population of interest.

Research Question
The specific purpose stated in the form of a question. You study will be the answer to this question.

A tentative prediction or explanation of the relationship between two or more variables. A prediction of the answer to the research question is usually a hallmark of a quantitative study, qualitative studies are usually have far more open ended and don’t always contain predictions.


  • Provide reviewers with a clear picture of what you plan to accomplish.
  • Show the reviewers that you have a clear picture of what you want to accomplish.
  • Form the foundation for the rest of the proposal.
  • Will be used to assess the adequacy/appropriateness of the study’s proposed methods.

Keys to Success

  • Clear and consistent.
  • Key concepts/constructs identified.
  • Includes the independent and dependent variables (if applicable).
  • Measurable.
  • Hypotheses clearly predict a relationship between variables.
  • Relevant or novel

Research/Study Designs

The overall plan for obtaining an answer to the research question or for testing the research hypothesis.

Will have been chosen based on:

  • Research question/hypothesis.
  • Strengths and weaknesses of alternative designs.
  • Feasibility, resources, time frame, ethics.
  • Type of study: Qualitative, quantitative, or mixed.

Keys to Success

  • Clearly identify and label study design using standard terminology.
    • Quantitative/qualitative
    • Cross-sectional/longitudinal
    • True Experiment/Quasi-Experiment
  • Must specify the major elements of the design
    • Variables, instruments
    • Participants: sampling frame, sample size, selection procedures
    • Timing of testing/intervention
  • Use a diagram
  • Must be consistent with objectives/hypotheses.
  • Must justify choice of design
    • Appropriate choice to answer question
    • Lack of bias/validity
    • Precision/power
    • Feasible
    • Ethical


Obviously based on your type of study you may or may not have participants. A content analysis, for example, wouldn’t include this section.

  • Who will be studied?
  • How will they be selected?
  • How will they be recruited?
  • How will they be allocated to study groups?

1. Who Will Be Studied: Specify eligible participants

  • Target population: demographic characteristics
  • Accessible population: temporal & geographic characteristics
  • Inclusion/Exclusion Criteria

2. How Will They Be Selected: Sampling

The process of selecting a portion of the population to represent the entire population.

Types of Sampling

  1. Probability: each element in the population has an equal, independent chance of being selected.
    1. Simple random sampling
    2. Stratified random sampling
    3. Cluster sampling
    4. Systematic sampling
  2. Nonprobability
    1. Convenience sampling
    2. Snowball sampling
    3. Judgmental sampling

Keys to Success

  • Clear description of study population.
  • Appropriate inclusion/exclusion criteria.
  • Justification of study population and sampling method (bias).
  • Clear description of sampling methods.

3. How Will They Be Recruited?

Describe what methods will be used to recruit participants. Important to document that the study will be feasible and that there will be no ethical problems.

4. How Will They Be Allocated To Study Groups?

Random Allocation: The assignment of participants to treatment conditions in a manner determined by chance alone.

Goal of Randomization: to maximize the probability that groups receiving differing interventions will be comparable.

Methods of randomization

  • Drawn from a hat
  • Random number table
  • Computer generated

Data Collection

Variables: Characteristic or quality that takes on different values.

In Research Identify:

  • Dependent or outcome variables (the presumed effect).
  • Independent or predictor variables (the presumed cause).
  • Note: Variables are not inherently independent or dependent.
  • In descriptive and exploratory studies, this distinction is not made.

Questionnaire: A method of gathering self-report information from respondents through self-administration of questions in a paper and pencil format (Read the in-depth article on crafting a good survey questionnaire here).

Keys to Success

  • Are the words simple, direct and familiar to all?
  • Is the question as clear and specific as possible?
  • Is it a double-barreled question?
  • Does the question have a double negative?
  • Is the question too demanding?
  • Are the questions leading or biased?
  • Is the question applicable to all respondents?
  • Can the item be shortened with no loss of meaning?
  • Will the answers be influenced by response styles?
  • Have you assumed too much knowledge?
  • Is and appropriate time referent provided?
  • Does the question have several possible meanings?
  • Are the response alternatives clear and mutually exclusive (and exhaustive)?

Scale: A composite measure of an attribute, consisting of several items that have a logical or empirical relationship to each other; involves the assignment of a score to place participants on a continuum with respect to the attribute.

Examples of Scales

  • Quality of Life
  • Customer Satisfaction
  • Source Credibility
  • Social Economic Status

Criteria for Instrument Selection

  • Objective of the study
  • Definitions of concept and measuring model
  • Reliability: degree of consistency with which an instrument or rater measures a variable (i.e., internal consistency, test-retest reproducibility, inter-observer reliability).
  • Validity: degree to which an instrument measures what it is intended to measure (i.e., content validity, concurrent validity and construct validity).
  • Sensitivity: ability to detect change.
  • Interpretability: the degree to which one can assign qualitative meaning to an instruments quantitative scores.
  • Burden or ease of use

Keys to Success

  • Always pretest questionnaires.
  • Always indicate if a questionnaire has been pretested.

In experimental research, the experimental treatment or manipulation.

Keys to Success

  • Careful description of treatment/manipulation
  • Be aware of unintended manipulations

Data Analysis

Detail your planned procedures for:

  • Recording, storing and reducing data
  • Assessing data quality
  • Statistical analysis

Step 1: Descriptive statistics

  • Describe the shape, central tendency and variability
  • Looking at variables one at a time: mean, median, range, proportion


  • Summarize important feature of numerical data
  • Pick up data entry errors: i.e. 3 genders, age 150
  • Characterize participants
  • Determine distribution of variables

Assess assumptions for statistical tests: Some statistical tests, such as a t test, are only valid if certain assumptions about the data hold true. For the t test, the assumptions are that the data for the two groups are from populations with a Normal distribution and that the variances of the two populations are the same. Inherent in these two assumptions is that the study sample represents a random sample from the population. These same assumptions hold for tests such as analysis of variance and multiple linear regression. When these assumptions can not safely be believed to be true than alternate, distribution-free, methods can be used. These are called non-parametric tests. Examples of these are the Wilcoxon signed rank test and the rank sum test.

Step 2: Analytic/inferential statistics

  • Example: Looking at associations among two or more variables


  • Estimate pattern and strength of associations among variables
  • Test hypotheses

Sample Size

To make a rough estimate of how many participants required answering the research question. During the design of the study, the sample size calculation will indicate whether the study is feasible. During the review phase, it will reassure the reviewers that not only the study is feasible, but also that resources are not being wasted by recruiting more participants than is necessary.

Hypothesis-based sample sizes indicate the number of participants necessary to reasonably test the study’s hypothesis. Hypotheses can be proven wrong, but they can never be proven correct. This is because the investigator cannot test all potential patients in the world with the condition of interest. The investigator attempts to test the research hypothesis through a sample of the larger population.

Keys to Success

  • Justify sample size
  • Provide data necessary to calculate and state how the sample estimates were obtained, including desired power, Alpha level, one/two-sided tests, estimated effect size.

Ethical Considerations

Many time you’ll need to certify your study with your school’s approval board for research on human subjects, pretty much so you don’t repeat the Stanford Prison Experiment.

  • Ethical Principles
    • Respect for persons (autonomy)
    • Non-maleficence (do not harm)
    • Beneficence (do good)
    • Justice (exclusion)
  • Ethical Considerations
    • Scientific validity – is the research scientifically sound and valid?
    • Recruitment – how and by whom are participants recruited?
    • Participation – what does participation in the study involve?
    • Harms and benefits – what are real potential harms and benefits of participating in the study?
    • Informed consent – have the participants appropriately been asked for their informed consent?


Getting funded is the primary reason for submitting a grant application.

Keys to Success

  • Read instructions (i.e., overhead, issues not covered, if in doubt call the person in charge of the grants)
  • Itemization of costs
    • Personnel (salary and benefits)
    • Consultants (salary) – Equipment
    • Supplies (be complete, include cost per item)
    • Travel
    • Other expenses
    • Indirect costs
  • Do not inflate the costs
  • Justify the budget
  • Enquire about the granting agency’s range
  • Review a successful application
  • Start early, pay attention to instructions/criteria
  • Carefully develop research team
  • Justify decisions
  • Have others review your proposal


Present a Works Cited list at the end of your proposal (i.e.: a list of only the works you have summarized, paraphrased, or quoted from in the paper.)

This basic information was available at in a sub-page, obviously I’ve added my own editorial and information throughout. But I’ve been unable to locate it, so it’s here for your enjoyment & enlightenment. If you know where I can attribute it please contact me and I’ll be happy to do so.