The purpose of the research proposal is to help you organise your ideas about your major research project, and to enable you to get feedback on what you are planning to do. It is worth putting in careful thought at this stage: it will mean that the project is more likely to run smoothly in the long run, and much of what you write in it can eventually be recycled into the final thesis write-up. The proposal is also needed for NHS ethics applications.
The proposal is a course requirement, but is not an assessed piece of work. It is due early in Term 1 of Year 2 (the date will be announced). Please submit an electronic copy to the Research Administrator (following the procedure detailed on the Project Support Moodle site).
Some sample proposals from previous years are available on the 'Proposal' (Topic 4) section of the Research Project Support Moodle. However, we have shifted to a novel format using a standardised form recently. The content in the prior example will be useful to filling in this form, but you should rely on the form itself to guide what you write. As this is not an assessed piece of work, put you name, not your code, on the form.
The proposal form is very structured. This should help you to ensure all the relevant information needed to assess the proposal is included. There are instructions throughout the form, please pay attention to these. There are no enforced word limits, but where they are stated, please try to keep to them. The intention is to have a concise proposal, not a comprehensive literature review!
The content of the proposal is similar to that of the introduction and method sections of a journal article:
A Summary with (1) the provisional title of the project (this can be modified later on), (2) your name, (3) your internal and external supervisors, (4) the setting where the study is likely to take place, (5) the date, and (6) what ethical bodies’ approvals are needed (e.g. NHS or UCL). If you are doing a joint project with other trainees, this should be stated here and the other trainees should be named. (Including all of this information on the first page is very helpful for the course’s administrative purposes.). Also here you should write an “executive summary” of the project – a simple description of the important aspects of the study – you might want to write this last.
The introduction states what the research topic is and why it is important. It succinctly reviews previous research in the area and relevant psychological theory, and summarises the rationale for the intended study. The introduction should end with one or more clearly stated research questions or hypotheses. The reference list gives all cited works. (It is important to check that this is complete, because reviewers may consult some of your references to understand the background to your study.)
The method section describes in detail the proposed research methods: the setting, participants, research design, measures, data analysis procedures. For quantitative research, the sample size needs to be determined by a power calculation, which should be reported here (a separate document on power calculations is on the Project Support Moodle site). Measures that are not well known should be included as an appendix. For qualitative research, describe your interview schedule (append a draft) and your proposed method of analysis, including the types of “credibility checks” that you propose to use. For all methodologies, briefly describe the protocol – what will happen to people who participate.
The ethical considerations and Experts by Experience involvement section ensures you think carefully about these two important aspects of clinical research. You need at this stage to understand what kind of ethical approval is needed – discuss this carefully with your supervisor. Also consider how the needs and views of Experts by Experience or other relevant members of the public have shaped or will shape your project. This could include examples of Experts by Experience influencing: (1) the choice of topic to be researched; (2) decisions about methodology; (3) the design of materials such as invitation letters and participant information sheets; (4) the design of a qualitative interview schedule, and (5) the ethics of the research.
Experts by Experience consultation on the major research project is often undertaken locally, accessing forums or involvement groups within the host trust/department where the research is taking place. For some projects however, this may not be feasible. The UCL Experts by Experience Committee also have a strong interest in supporting trainees with research and have therefore provided consultation for a number of previous projects. As our membership is relatively small, it is not possible to consult on all projects, but trainees interested in making contact with the committee should complete and send the form which can also be found on Moodle (in the section on preparing the proposal) to Jarrod Cabourne (Senior Clinical Tutor/ Experts by Experience Involvement Lead), who will distribute this to committee members. Please outline any plans for Experts by Experience involvement later in the project.
Remember, whilst there are formal ways of eliciting Experts by Experience views, such as the use of focus groups and services such as FAST-R (Feasibility And Support to Timely recruitment for Research), informal sources of information are also valuable, and can be described here. This might include conversations with individual Experts by Experience, experiences from clinical work, or interactions that take place on-line.
Whilst we strongly encourage trainees to use Experts by Experience input when developing their research, this is not obligatory. Sometimes consultation with Experts by Experience and other members of the public is not necessary, for example in some studies of healthy volunteers. If there has been no input from Experts by Experience or members of the public, please use this section to state this, and briefly (a couple of sentences) explain why.
The feasibility section has a brief appraisal of how realistic your project is in practical terms, particularly with regard to recruiting participants. Many trainees (and their supervisors!) tend to be over-optimistic at this stage of the project, and it is a good idea to address potential recruitment problems at the outset. You should also include a fallback plan in case things go pear-shaped (which, sadly, in clinical research they often do). It would be helpful if you provided an estimate of what the smallest viable sample size would be, so that we (and you) have an idea of what a worst-case scenario might look like. This should be informed by a power analysis unless there is a strong reason not to do so (e.g. many qualitative projects use “rules of thumb” to determine sample size). A general timetable for the project is given in the guidelines for the major research project. If you anticipate any major departures from this, give details and a rationale.
The joint working element is, of course, only required if you are proposing a joint project. In this section provide a brief outline of what your anticipated contribution to the overall study will be, and what will be done by others. There should be a statement of how your research question(s) and analyses will be distinct from those of other students involved in the project. It will be helpful to consult the course guidelines on joint projects when planning any joint study.
The institutional arrangements, e.g., the setting, and who has agreed to be your internal and external supervisors. It is critical in this section that you describe how you will be supported for any techniques or activities that you don’t currently know how to do. This particularly applies to advanced statistics – if you plan to use a technique that your supervisor is not familiar with, how will you learn it – name people or courses.
The costings section sets out any substantial expenses that the project may entail. Note that the Department has limited funds and does not normally fund projects costing more than £250 over two years (see the course document on research funding). If your project is likely to cost more than this, the course may possibly be able to provide some additional funding up to £400, although this cannot be guaranteed. It is your responsibility to secure additional funding for expenses beyond that allocated by the course.
Appendices include measures not in common use, draft qualitative interview schedules, etc.
Research proposals usually need to go through several drafts. Show your internal and external supervisors a draft early enough so that you can incorporate their comments into a revised draft before submission. Supervisors will be expected to sign off that they have read and approved your final version. Unsigned forms will not be reviewed, creating a delay for your project approval.
Please also agree supervision arrangements with your supervisor(s), including frequency of supervision meetings, progress reviews, written feedback on drafts, and an outline timetable for the project. These do not need to be included in the form, but the supervisor will need to sign off that they have been agreed.
Review of the proposal
The proposal will be read by one of the academic staff, and will be discussed at a proposals review meeting in October. The resultant written feedback that you receive (towards the end of October) will give you a clear indication of the general feasibility of your project, and suggest any changes that will need to be made before it goes ahead.
This process counts as the "peer review" that is required for all NHS ethics applications. Therefore, once your proposal has passed the review stage, those of you applying for NHS ethics should contact the Research Director to ask for a letter confirming that your project has been successfully peer reviewed.