IOE Writing Centre


Develop a Research Proposal

The sections below provide guidance on developing a research proposal as part of postgraduate / doctoral studies or when applying for a research grant. 

Please note that the guidance below is generic and you should follow any additional specific guidance given by your department or funding body.

What is a research proposal?

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal provides a detailed plan of a research project before you undertake the research.

A proposal is usually submitted before you undertake research for a final dissertation during postgraduate study, and before or during doctoral studies. A proposal may also be submitted as part of an application for a funding grant.


What should a research proposal include?

What to include in a research proposal

A research proposal will usually (but not always) include the following key elements:

  • An outline of the background and context of the research topic / issue
  • Reasons why the specific topic / issue is important (rationale)
  • A review of key literature related to the topic / issue
  • An outline of the intended research methodology (including consideration of ethical issues)
  • A discussion of ethical issues 
  • How the findings will be disseminated
  • A timescale for the research
Getting started

Getting started 

Start by choosing a topic or issue related to your course. A broader topic / issue will need to be narrowed down to a more specific focus that can be explored or investigated. Recommendations for further research at the end of published papers can be a useful source of ideas.

To help narrow down a topic / issue and plan your research project:

  • Start by re-reading some of the research papers which you read as part of your course. Conduct a preliminary review of the literature related to the topic / issue. This can include literature related to theoretical concepts as well as practical research.
  • Aim to identify what is currently known and whether there are any 'gaps' in existing knowledge. This will enable you to determine how your own research will contribute to and build on what is already known.  
  • Identify how research on the topic / issue has previously been conducted in terms of, for example: approach, methods, analysis of data.
  • It will also be useful to refer to literature on research methods - check the recommended reading list for your dissertation module / Centre for Doctoral Education guidance.
  • For Masters level research, the contribution to existing knowledge does not necessarily need to be something completely new that has never been explored before. Your research could make a contribution to existing knowledge by, for example: Adopting a less commonly used research approach / research method or focusing on a particular context (such as a school or country) where  a limited amount of research has been conducted
  • For doctoral level research, there will usually be a need to demonstrate more originality.
Writing the proposal

Below is an outline of the sections typically included in a research proposal.

Specific guidance on how to structure the research proposal for a dissertation or doctoral research will usually be given by individual departments. If you are applying for doctoral research funding, specific guidelines will be stipulated by the funding body.

It is important to follow specific guidance given by your department or funding body when writing your own research proposal for a dissertation or PhD application, but the following can be used as general guidance.

Title / working title of the research

An initial idea of the title should be given - this is likely to be revised as the research progresses and can therefore be a tentative suggestion at the proposal stage.


The context and background of the research topic / issue, as well as the rationale for undertaking the research, should be outlined in the introduction section. Reference to key literature should be included to strengthen the rationale for conducting the research. This will enable the reader to understand what the research will be about and why it is important.

At the end of the introduction, include an outline (or synopsis) of how the proposal is organised.

Literature review

This should expand on the key literature referred to in the introduction. The review of the literature will need to go further than listing individual studies or theories. You will need to demonstrate an awareness of the current state of knowledge and an understanding of key lines of argument and debates on the topic / issue.

The literature will need to be critically analysed and evaluated rather than just described. This means demonstrating how studies, arguments and debates are linked and how the existing body of research links to your own research area / issue.

Research aims and questions

The research aims and research questions should be used to guide your research.
The aims of the research relate to the purpose of conducting the research and what you specifically want to achieve. The research questions should be formulated to show how you will achieve the aims of the research and what you want to find out.

The research aims and questions can either be stated at the end of the introduction (before the outline of the proposal) or after the literature review - guidance from your department / funding body may specify this.


The methodology section of the proposal should outline how the research will be conducted. This should generally include a description and justification of: sample / participants, methods, data collection and analysis, and ethical considerations.

To justify the chosen methodology, you can refer to recommended reading for research methods as well as previous studies conducted on your chosen topic.


Including a detailed discussion of the ethics of your research project can really strengthen the proposal. It forces you to think in very practical and detailed terms about what you are planning to do.  


You may be required to include a schedule or plan of how you intend to conduct the research within a specified timeframe. This can be presented in a variety of ways but should generally include specific milestones (e.g. collection of data, analysis of findings) and intended completion dates.

Reference list

The reference list should include all sources cited in the research proposal. Departmental guidelines for referencing should be followed for in-text citations and the reference list.