Writing your research proposal
The research proposal is a very important part of the application and serves as an indicator of your ability to undertake doctoral studies. The proposal you submit at this stage will not commit you to an irrevocable course of research, but will serve as a foundation for further developing the research. It also allows us to assess the potential of the project, and whether we have sufficient expertise in the area to provide adequate supervision for your project.
You can search our list of research supervisors to look for potential supervisors in your area of interest. You may also wish to contact potential supervisors to discuss your research project.
A proposal means outlining what investigation you would like to do in the near future (that is, 12 - 24 months following the writing of this proposal). There should not be any case description or analysis in a proposal; case description and analysis should be written after you have done the research, and have something to analyse. The model of research proposal presented here is based on the idea that research follows a logical developmental process. In this process the researcher begins by identifying a clear focus (aim and objectives or research questions), followed by a review of existing published knowledge around that focus (literature review). This establishes for the researcher what is known and importantly what is not known. S/he then explains how they intend to investigate some aspect of the unknown (research design or methodology). This is followed by conclusions and a list of references.
The proposal should be organised as explained below. Follow the format presented here using the same main headings, and in the same order as shown here. All sections must be completed. Suggested word count is 1,500 - 2,000.
Your research proposal should aim to be clear and concise but will vary in length according to the subject area. For humanities, languages, education, social sciences and business-related studies, research proposals should be in the region of 1,000 - 1,500 words. For science, computing and engineering, research proposals should be in the region of 500 - 800 words.
Your proposal should indicate:
- An awareness of academic literature in your field and how your proposal relates to existing research by citing some relevant literature, including a bibliography.
- A detailed statement of the question(s) you wish to research.
- Some thoughts about the methods you will use for your research - what sources, analytical framework or experiments you propose to use.
- The way in which your research will make an original contribution to knowledge.
- Introduction to the proposal: outline the sections of the proposal for the reader.
- Research aim and objectives
- Rationale of research: why you want to do it and why it interests you.
- Background: the significance of the topic and issues (practical or theory) relevant to the study. Identify and cite the debates.
- Potential contribution to knowledge. Findings should be significant, with implications for existing theory, methodology, practice or some combination.
Research aim and objectives/research questions
Specify as clearly as possible the focus of your research, written as an aim and subordinate objectives or as one or more research questions. Think of a research aim as an orange and the objectives as the segments. You would not try to put the whole orange in your mouth. Rather you would divide the orange into segments and eat each segment. In a similar way think of the research aim as a broad statement, which you need to divide into segments (subordinate objectives) in order to carry out the study.
If your research is driven by policy debates, describe the specific aspects of these debates on which your research will focus. If your research is driven by theoretical debates, or apparent omissions or inconsistencies in the existing literature (theoretical or empirical), what aspects of these debates will you address? If your research focus is on the nature of practice in some field (eg business management or science research) then what aspects of practice will you explore (eg managerial behaviour or scientific discovery?).
In thinking about aim and objectives it may be useful to keep in mind the purpose of most research. Research is normally undertaken for differing (and sometimes overlapping) intellectual reasons:
- Exploratory: provides initial insight to a new situation, issue or phenomenon.
- Descriptive: classifies phenomena - questions who, what, where, when and how.
- Explanatory: seeks to explain a causal relationship that is meaningful - asks why.
- Evaluative: seeks to assess or measure impact by assuming a causal relationship.
- Are broad statements of desired outcomes, or describe the general intentions of the research, the focus of your research proposal.
- Should reflect the aspirations and expectations of the research topic.
- Emphasize what is to be accomplished, not how it is to be accomplished.
- Identify the scope of the project outcomes.
Once aims have been established, the next task is to formulate the objectives. Generally, a project should have no more than one or two aim statements, and should include a number of objectives consistent with the aim(s).
- Are the steps you are going to take to answer your research aim or question
- Are a specific list of tasks needed to accomplish the goals of the project
- Must be clear and achievable
- May describe an intention to provide an immediate project outcome (such as a new model)
- Make accurate use of concepts and be sensible and precisely described
- May emphasize how aims are to be accomplished
- Are usually numbered so that each objective reads as an "individual" statement to convey your intentions
Aims and objectives should not:
- Be too vague, ambitious or broad in scope; aims are often over-optimistic of what the project can achieve
- Repeat each other in different terms
- Be a list of things related in an unspecified way to your research topic
- Discuss details of your job or research topic
Example research questions and potential hypotheses, these need to be testable, for example:
- Does X have a positive or negative impact on Y?
- Does X vary by level in Y? (eg: Does job satisfaction vary by level in the organisation?)
- Does X lead to Y or Z?
word count: 200–300
Following the stated aim or research question, you must review the published literature on your topic. Here you show what has already been proposed, claimed, or established. The literature you review should normally comprise theoretical and empirical studies, policy and industry reports and articles published in the quality periodicals and newspapers. Summarise and evaluate the usefulness of these previous studies in relation to your stated aim or research question.
It is important that you show awareness of the most important and relevant theories, models, empirical studies and methodologies. A good literature review will compare and contrast theories and empirical results, pointing out agreement and disagreement, gaps and overlaps of argument. A poor literature review often simply provides summarised lists of theories and empirical studies, with little or no attempt to compare, contrast or evaluate these theories and empirical studies.
Make clear how well these published studies address your research focus, by examining the extent to which they provide insight to, or answer, each of your research objectives or questions. The identification of omissions or weaknesses in the published literature leads to the opportunity and justification for your study. In addition, identifying weaknesses and omissions within the published knowledge base represents your contribution to knowledge: a contribution that you will seek to elaborate and establish more firmly through carrying out your own empirical research.
Depending on your intended research design (next step) you may convert the identified weaknesses and omissions into hypotheses. A hypothesis is a simple but testable statement that proposes that one factor (call it A) causes another factor (call it B) to behave in a certain way.
word count: 600-750
Following your literature review, you should outline how you plan to go about collecting empirical data that will build the understanding required to fulfil your research aim, or test the hypotheses you have developed from your review of the literature. Describe how you will carry out your study, referring to frameworks and concepts found in the research methods literature.
Specifically this section must describe your overall approach and specific methods/techniques of collecting data. You must also explain how you will analyse the data collected (methods/techniques of data analysis), what measures you are taking to ensure the quality of your research design (research quality issues), and show an awareness of ethical considerations around academic research (research ethics issues).
The proposal requires that you have made firm arrangements with your target (eg: the organisation or community you propose to study or work with) for access to data prior to writing the proposal, rather than describing that you plan to seek access to your target after the proposal is written.
- Overall approach: This will be either qualitative or quantitative, or some combination of the two. Describe your particular approach (eg: ethnographic case study, survey, or experiment) and why the chosen approach is appropriate for the study.
- Methods/techniques of data collection: The overall approach is broken down into specific methods/techniques of data collection. For example: a qualitative approach can be broken down into semi-structured interviewing and observation, while a quantitative approach is broken down into questionnaires, experiments, and others. Describe your chosen methods/techniques and explain why they are appropriate techniques for achieving your research objectives or testing your hypotheses.
- Methods/techniques of data analysis: How will you analyse the data collected? Describe the methods/techniques of data analysis, for example the procedures you will use for analysing text or quantitative data or patterns (eg: statistical analysis).
- Research quality issues: Explain how you will ensure that you collect the right data to address the research questions or hypotheses, or that the data you collect is reliable. This requires some discussion about the validity and reliability of your data, and what triangulation techniques have been employed to strengthen the validity and reliability of your data. Your findings should also be generalisable rather than only valid for the particular phenomenon you studied. You are encouraged to check the meaning and relevance of these terms in any research methods textbook (see References below).
- Research ethics issues: Does your proposed research topic raise any ethical issues? For example, does your research design present any possible danger to your subjects (physical, emotional, professional)? If so, what will you do to avoid that?
word count: 500–700 words
Summarise your proposal, including your potential contribution to knowledge. In thinking about what could be your contribution to knowledge, consider:
- The importance of the question. Why is the question worth asking?
- The significance of the findings. Why do these findings matter?
- What are their implications for theory, methodology, practice?
- What are the limitations to generalization of the findings?
Making a "significant contribution" means adding to existing knowledge or to the discourse around a phenomenon. Research work is part of an ongoing discourse among many researchers, each critiquing the available evidence and providing fresh argument and evidence that contributes to knowledge and understanding. Research involves questioning the accepted wisdom (the obvious), examining and analysing phenomena from a different perspective, and investigated through a variety of techniques. Research seeks to create new understanding of the world, using new ideas and approaches, rather than describing it using existing frames and tools. As more evidence is presented, existing explanations are re-evaluated. In this way knowledge is constantly reconfirmed, elaborated, revised, or overturned. Knowledge claims may be small and still contribute to the discourse.
- Re-contextualization of an existing theory or method, applying a technique in a new context, testing theory in a new setting, showing the applicability of a model to a new situation, and evaluating the result and any implications.
- Corroboration and elaboration of an existing model (eg: evaluating the effects of a change of condition; experimental assessment of one aspect of a model).
- Falsification or contradiction of an existing model, or part of one.
- Drawing together two or more existing ideas and showing that the combination reveals something new and useful.
- Developing and testing a new concept, showing that something is feasible and valuable (or not) and why.
- Implementation of another's framework or principle to some field of practice, showing how it works and its limitations.
- Empirically-based characterization of a phenomenon (eg: detailed, critical, analytic account of the evolution of an idea; detailed analytic characterization of a crucial case study or a novel chemical compound, or a new planet).
- Providing a taxonomy of observed phenomena.
- Well-founded critique of existing theory or evidence (eg: correlating the results of a number of existing studies to show patterns or omissions).
word count: 200 – 250 words
According to Harvard style:
Name (year), ‘Article title’, Journal name, vol xs: page no.
Name (year), Book name, Publisher, Place of publication.
Include some research methods sources, indicative:
Bryman A & Bell E (latest edition) Business Research Methods, Oxford University Press.
Bryman A & Cramer D (latest edition) Quantitative Data Analysis with SPSS, Routledge.
Burton D (ed.) (2000), Research Training for Social Scientists, Sage Publications Inc.
Collis, J. and Hussey, R. (2003), Business Research. A Practical Guide for Undergraduate and Postgraduate Students (2 edn.), London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Creswell, J.W. (latest edition), Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches, Sage.
Cuba L and Cocking J (1994), How to write about the social sciences, HarperCollins.
Curran J. & Blackburn R (2001) Researching the Small Enterprise, Sage.
Easterby-Smith M., Thorpe R., Jackson P., Lowe A., (latest edition), Management Research: Theory and Practice, Sage.
Girden, E.R (2001), Evaluating Research Articles: From Start to Finish. (2nd ed), Sage Publications, London, UK.
Gomm, R.(2003), Social Science Research Methods, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Holborn, G. (1999), Legal Research Guide, Butterworths.
Jankowicz AD (2000), Business Research Projects, Thomson Learning.
Johnson P and Duberley J (2000), Understanding Management Research, Sage.
Punch K F (2000), Developing Effective Research Proposals, Sage.
Robson C. (2002), Real World Research: A Resource for Social Scientists and Practitioner-researchers, Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
Ryan B, Scapens RW and Theobald M (2002) Research Methodology in Finance & Accounting, Thomson.
Saunders M, Lewis P and Thornhill A (latest edition) Research Methods for Business Studies, Financial Times Management.
Smith M (2003) Research Methods in Accounting, Sage.
Stott, D. (1999), Legal Research, Cavendish.
Usunier J-C (1998) International and Cross-Cultural Management Research, Sage.
Yin RK (latest edition) Case Study Research Design and Methods, Sage.
Zikmund W.G., Babin B.J., Carr J.C, Griffin M. (latest edition) Business Research Methods, Cengage Learning.