The format of a research proposal varies depending on what or who it is required by. They can vary in length, ie. be very concise or quite long and detailed. Also the headings for the different sections can vary.  Therefore, this guide deals with the research proposal in its most generic form, which should be easily modifiable to fit the criteria for any research body.

The ultimate aim of any research proposal is to convince people that your research is important, has not been done before, is worthwhile and is feasible. Hence you have to make a strong argument for your research. The language used should be clear and easy to understand, as often non-experts will assess it.  Some funders may, and the Research Ethics Committee application form will, want a ‘lay’ summary in addition to your basic proposal document.  It is usually only in the background and methodology sections that writers tend to assume that the intended audience has a particular knowledge of their research area.

 Additionally, it is crucial that different sections of your research proposal should link or follow on from each other, eg. the research question should link with the methodology.  This may sound obvious, but revisions of one section can lead to mis-matches. Check this before submitting your proposal! 

Typical stages in a research proposal

1. The purpose of a research proposal is:

  • To help to focus on a relevant and current topic.
  • To identify a gap or inadequacy in the research literature.
  • To make sure that these are your ideas, and to help you to focus and crystallise your ideas.
  • To help you to focus on what the actual stages involved in the research process will be, eg. the exact methodology and data analysis that will be adopted.
  • To justify a proposed research project to a particular audience, eg. supervisor, departmental or faculty committee, external funding body etc.

2. Some strategies before you start:

  • Search through literature for topic related articles and books, ie. search through databases/catalogues/journals etc.
  • Look at what is already being done in the area i.e. existing data and research.
  • Read critically, ie. look for interesting and suitable gaps – areas for research.
  • Talk to your employer for approval – there is no point in starting research that you will not be allowed to complete.
  • Talk to your local research and development teams.  They will be able to tell you the specific criteria for any research proposal and may highlight some issues that you have overlooked.
  • Talk to experts or supervisors in the field – in person, phone, letters, e-mail.
  • If it is helpful, use concept maps to link ideas, and or formulate questions that the literature review should address. 

3. Identifying your research question:

Any research proposal needs to have a clear research question for it to succeed.  Without a clear question research will become confused and lack direction. Subsequent analysis will be difficult because the research question is key to forming your hypothesis or aims, and later analysis.

Do start by writing a question, not a statement.  This will help clarify exactly what the issue is that you are trying to find a solution to.  Hypotheses, aims etc can then follow from this.

Your research question should:

  • Be as clear and concise as you can make it.  Don’t use multi-barrelled questions if you can avoid them.
  • Be informative – state your population of interest, locality etc.
  • Avoid technical jargon – this is the golden rule in most areas of research proposals.  Remember that your research question is what will capture the interest of the reader / assessor.
  • Relate to the proposal title – often the research question is quoted as the title of the proposal.
  • Relate to the aim of the research – again, the research question is often quoted as the research aim.

It should be obvious from your question alone what the project will aim to do, and on who.

4. Project title:

The title should be brief but informative. It is important that it is clear and easy to understand, and describes what your proposed research is.  As previously stated, this is often the research question.

5. Abstract or summary:

This is a very important section which bears a disproportionate share of responsibility for success or failure of a proposal, as it may act as the initial ‘hook’.

It needs to be written for a wider audience, so technical vocabulary has to be limited. The abstract also needs to come quickly to the proposed research. Abstracts for grant proposals usually begin with the objective or purpose of the study, move on to methodology (procedures and design), and close with a modest but precise statement of the projects’ significance.

The significance should:

  • Be about one paragraph – if it needs any longer it is advisable to rethink your research or break it down into more manageable chunks.
  • Explain to the reader why the study is “significant”, in the sense of advancing general knowledge.
  • Explain what the benefits to the patient / health community are.
  • Encourage funding.

Although you present this first in the document, write it last so that its content accurately reflects the whole proposal.

6. Introduction:

The introduction is also written so that a more general audience can easily obtain a general idea of what the project is about, and the major concepts involved. It will also typically begin with the purpose of the proposed research.  The introduction will typically be quite short, leaving the detail to the background and methodology sections.

7. Background:

It is only in the background and methodology sections that writers tend to assume that their intended audience is a specialist in their research area, and so use more technical language.

This section will include the literature review.

The purpose of a literature review is as follows:

  • To become familiar with the research area and keep up to date with the current research in your area of interest.
  • Identify an appropriate research question.
  • Establish a theoretical framework for the research.
  • Justify the need for the research.

Through the actual process of writing the literature review you, the researcher, can explore the relevant literature, formulate a problem, defend the value of the research, and compare the findings and ideas with your own. The literature review establishes a context and orientates the reader to your research topic.

The common structure of the literature review is likened to a “funnel effect”, which goes from general to more specific studies etc directly relating your intended project, ending with your research question, problem or objective.

In summary the stages of a literature review are as follows:

  • General statement(s) about the field of research – the setting.
  • More specific statements about the previous research.
  • Statements that indicate the need for more investigation.
  • Very specific statement(s) of the research question, problem or objective.

Your Trust librarians will be able to help with appropriate literature searching techniques if required.

8. Methodology:

The method or methodology section describes the steps you will follow in conducting your research. It is a very important section as assessors will scrutinise it to evaluate the feasibility and likelihood of successful completion of your proposed research.

Some strategies:
  • Examine methodology sections of research articles in your research area.
  • Arrange to discuss your research with a statistical and/or methodological specialist (Trust and other local research clinics / groups).
  • Discuss with other researchers in your discipline the methodologies they have adopted.
  • Consult methodology texts and statistical packages.
Methodology stages:
You need to definitely include the procedures and materials stages and possibly some of the other stages, depending on your research area.  For health research these include:


Overview of research:

Population/sample to be studied, including:

  • How you have arrived at the sample size.
  • How they will be recruited.
  • Location of the research.
  • Restrictions/limiting conditions.
  • Sampling technique.
  • Procedures.
  • Materials.
  • Analysis tools and methods.
Remember that you cannot go into too much detail with your methodology.  A poorly thought out methodology dooms your proposed research to failure and will not achieve research funding.
You should also identify a ‘sponsor’ of your research. This is not the provider of funds (they are called ‘funders’), but is the person/organisation responsible for guaranteeing the quality of the work, and to ensure compliance with any relevant regulation.  Sponsors can be Trusts, Universities, Research Councils etc, and your project must have one in order for it to be able to be carried out. For more detail on this please contact the R&D Dept., or consult the UK Policy Framework for Health and Social Care Research .

9. Timescale:

This indicates the time frame within which various parts of the project will be completed. It demonstrates the feasibility of the project and gives realistic time frames for the different parts of the project.  The timescale should efficiently justify the time, and often finance, requested for completion of your research.
Don’t forget to include time for the relevant approvals processes, and dissemination activities. These are often produced as tables or Gantt Charts.


10. Budget:

This should include a detailed costing of the project. All resources necessary to undertake the project should be included, eg. salaries, travel, accommodation, equipment and other incidentals. Each specific cost for the research needs to be justified, including the reasons for employing researchers and the level they are paid at.
The budget has to relate directly to your timescale. It is pointless asking for funding for three months if your research is likely to last a year. It is also a good idea to include quotes from companies for any equipment that is needed. You may also need to consider organisational overheads.
Seek support from your Trust research and development office and appropriate finance department staff with this aspect, especially for studies requiring significant funding.


11. Ethical considerations:

Don’t forget that it is important that ethical considerations are made, and appropriate approval is acquired from appropriate bodies either prior to submitting the proposal or commencing research. Important human participant issues include
  • Benefits vs risks of the involvement in the project.
  • Receipt of informed consent.
  • Protection of participants (including data protection and storage issues).
  • Privacy, minimising discomfort etc.
  • Community values.
Although usually not stated as a requirement by research bodies, it is helpful if ethical issues are explicitly listed within the proposal, either as part of the methodology or more usefully as a separate section within the proposal.
Consider also the potential of your participants to have the appropriate capacity to consent to be in the project.  The Mental Capacity Act 2005 requires this, and the Research Ethics Committee application form has a section for its considerations.


12. Dissemination strategy:

Increasingly funders and commissioners of research are demanding guidance on how your project will make a difference to practice and policy.  It is unusual for many funders of research to provide support for to increase the knowledge base type research unless it has a clear application, and research management also requires this as part of the governance process.
It is therefore essential that you include persuasive and realistic references to potential beneficial impacts on any or all of:
  • The targets of your research eg. staff, patients, service users or carers,
  • services locally and/or nationally,
  • policies that drive the above services.
Include a dissemination strategy that reflects your methods of making this impact, eg. publishing, team meetings, clinical guideline development etc, and for giving feedback to the project’s participants.


13. Bibliography and references:

All pieces of literature referred to should be listed at the end of the proposal using the referencing style appropriate to the department or intended target for publication.
 It is important to ensure that all the key journals and books in your field have been referred to in the proposal. This demonstrates that you have carried out a thorough and competent job.  
Make sure that your references are up to date– new research is being published all the time and it is easy to miss important articles that may change the focus of your own research.  Don’t be tempted to quote references in an order that is more supportive to your research – this will do your proposal more harm than good.  
Also remember that many research articles have had comments or letters written in response to them, often highlighting intrinsic problems in the research.  Failure to take these into account may mean that your research question and methods are based on a shaky foundation.


Good luck with your project!

Useful reading:
Bowling A (2002), Research Methods in Health: Investigating Health and Health Services 2Rev Ed edition, Open University Press
Polgar S and Thomas SA. (4th  Edition 2004)  Introduction to Research in the Health Sciences. Churchill Livingstone.
MRC Good Research Practice Guidance

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