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How to write an effective research proposal

This article explains the purpose of a research proposal and teaches you how to write one.

Ashwin Sriram

Think of your research proposal as an initial outline rather than a finished product. You will be given an opportunity to refine your research proposal once you begin working on your project.

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Have you been thinking about applying for a postgraduate or PhD program abroad?  

If you are planning to apply for an MPhil, a MJur or a PhD program, you may be asked to submit a research proposal that outlines your proposed area of study.

An effective research proposal will help you stand out from the crowd and improve your chances of being selected for the program.

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is a concise and coherent summary of the research you intend to carry out once you set foot into the University. It is the most important document that you need to submit as part of the application process. 

The University examines your proposal to see if it has the expertise and infrastructure to support your project plans. The proposal gives you an opportunity to demonstrate your skills and capacity in the field of research. Your proposal needs to convince others that your project is worthwhile and that you have the right plans and understanding to complete the task within the time-frame you set.

Your proposal should raise the central issues and questions that you aim to address through your project. It outlines the broader field of study within which your proposed research falls. But most importantly, your proposal should demonstrate the originality of your thinking and research and the feasibility of your project.

Typically, a research proposal should contain all the key elements involved in the research process, including methodology, scope and other relevant information.

The University uses your proposal to understand whether you can communicate complex ideas clearly, concisely, intelligently and critically. Universities also use your proposal to assign a suitable mentor/supervisor.

Your research proposal goes a long way in determining the overall quality of your application. 


Regardless of your area of research, all proposals must address the following questions: 

  • What do you plan to accomplish?
  • Why do you want to do it? 
  • How are you going to do it?
  • Why are you most suited to do this?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How much time will it take?
  • How does your project help others?
  • Is this an original idea?
  • What has already been accomplished in this field of research? 

You need to answer all these questions in a convincing manner and give priority to your answers based on the specific requirements of your University. Most Universities hand applicants a guideline to writing a proposal. You must diligently follow their specific instructions.

Importance of language

Keep this in mind: Your overall project is only as good as your proposal, and your proposal is only as good as your research. So don’t express any vague, ambiguous and speculative ideas in your proposal. A good research idea will likely be rejected if it’s written poorly. So run your proposal by someone who can critically review your language, sentence structure and grammar. Be straight to the point and back your ideas with valid research. A clean, well thought-out proposal is the basis for a solid project. 

Is your proposal set in stone?

No. Although your proposal should outline the research you intend to carry out in the University, you will be given a chance to refine your proposal once you begin working on your project. Think of your research proposal as an initial outline rather than a finished product. Your project will evolve as you begin your work, so your original proposal may end up being revised based on new developments. 


Whatever is the length of your proposal, the basic rules on writing one are the same. Your proposal should typically include the following information:

1. Title

You should give a tentative title for your proposed research. You can amend it later as your project takes shape.

2. Abstract

Your proposal should include a brief statement of your project plans. This should be a couple of sentences at the most and can be presented in the form of a question that you intend to solve.

3. Context

You should explain the background against which you are going to conduct your research. This includes a brief statement on your area of study and the current levels of knowledge. 

4. Questions

Your proposal should list out the central aims and questions that revolve around your research. Take some time to reflect on the questions your project aims to answer. Many research proposals end up taking on a broad topic and subsequently suffer in execution. So by listing out a few key questions, you can narrow your field of research and achieve focus on your project.

5. Methods

Your proposal should outline your research methodology. In this section, you need to explain how you plan to carry out your research. Your methods could include library visits, laboratory work, field work, interviews and surveys.

6. Significance

You should effectively demonstrate the originality and importance of your intended research. This section should explain the merits of your project, its importance to others, its relevance to the field and the reasons why it should be explored in the context of our time.

7. Results

It’s obvious that you are not going to show any results at the proposal stage, but you still need to present tentative ideas about the kind of results you expect. You can give a rough estimate based on the data you plan to collect.

8. Bibliography

Your proposal should include various references and sources that helped you compile your research. These could include authors, experts and articles you referenced.


A good research proposal should have all these elements in their proper order. Typically, the word limit for a research proposal is around 3000 words, but different Universities have different guidelines when it comes to the proposal's structure and word-limit. Follow these suggestions to write an effective research proposal. If you have any questions or tips related to the topic, please share them in the comment section below. 

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