How to Structure Your Research Proposal


In my previous post I shared with you some hints on how to write your research proposal and how to present it orally. I also discussed the purposes of the research proposal.

Here is a summary of purposes that I discussed:

  1. To convince the university that your study is viable.
  2. To serve as a structure for your thesis or dissertation.
  3. To clarify your mind.
  4. To show how you will approach the problem.
  5. To help you choose a research method.
  6. To decide what sources of information you should use.

In this post I will share with you some ideas on how to structure your research proposal so that the Research Committee will be convinced that your idea is a good one.

The structure of your research proposal

Most universities will require of you to cover the following in your research proposal (show the list on the screen):

  1. A title for your research report.
  2. Table of contents.
  3. The context of the research.
  4. The goals of your study.
  5. Research approaches and methods.
  6. The table of content for your research report.
  7. Bibliography.
  8. Endnotes and footnotes.

What you write and discuss under each of these eight points will determine if your application to study for a PhD will succeed or not.

Let’s look at the eight points.

A title for your research report

  1. The title should be brief and descriptive.
  2. Professors might suggest a different title.
  3. Can change at any time during your studies – check with your study leader.

Table of contents for your proposal. The table of contents should give an overview of all the topics that you will cover in your research proposal.

The context of the research

  1. The context can also serve as the scope or limits of your research.
  2. This will largely determine if your proposed study is viable.

The goals of your study

  1. This section should start with the purpose of your research followed by the goals that you hope to achieve.
  2. The goals and purpose of your study will determine the value of your study.

Research approaches and methods

  1. Your research approach can be quantitative, qualitative or mixed.
  2. Your choice will depend on your personal preference, research skills and the topic of your research.
  3. You will probably also indicate which paradigmatic approach or approaches you will follow here.

The table of contents for your research report

  1. The table of contents should provide an outline of your chapters.
  2. It can also serve as the scope for your research.


  1. Your bibliography cannot possibly be complete and final yet.
  2. List the sources that you already consulted or plan on consulting.
  3. You will probably need to consult more sources, most of which you are not aware of yet.

Endnotes and footnotes

  1. You will not have a heading for endnotes and footnotes.
  2. They are used to explain terminology, to make incidental comments or to amplify or corroborate a point of argument.

Close and summary

In summary, do not underestimate the importance of preparing for the oral presentation of your study proposal. What you write and present will determine if the university will allow you to study for a PhD.

You need to know what you should discuss, and you need to do it well. That is why I will share with you in future posts hints on how to write and present every issue that you need to cover in your study proposal.

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The Research Proposal


You will notice that the structure of a research proposal is pretty much the same regardless of which approach, quantitative, qualitative or mixed, you will follow.

The main difference between a quantitative and qualitative approach is vested in the content rather than the structure of the research report. It is not that simple, though. We will discuss the difference between a quantitative and qualitative research approach in a future article.

The purpose of a research proposal

I am not aware of a university that does not require of prospective PhD students to submit a research proposal. And, furthermore, all of them will require of you to submit your proposal in writing or online as well as to do an oral presentation of your proposal.

  1. The main purpose of the research proposal is to convince the Postgraduate Committee that your research project is viable, that it has not been researched before, and that it will add value to the academic knowledge currently available.
    1. Viable – will it be possible for you to cover the topic in the time and with the funds at your disposal.
    1. Not researched before – this will probably not be possible. There are just too many people doing research all the time and you will not know who is studying what.
    1. Add value – this is important, but keep in mind that the PhD is often just the beginning of the student’s research in a particular field.
  2. To show that you have some knowledge of the topic of your research.
  3. To show that you have the potential to successfully complete your studies.
  4. To clarify your own thinking about your research topic.
  5. To form a point of reference for your research project. That is why it is a good idea to decide in advance what paradigmatic approach you will follow. (Remember, you will need to maintain consistency in your arguments and to focus on the topic of your study.)
  6. Your research proposal is also your plan of action for your further research.

Hints on preparing your research proposal

  1. Different universities have different requirements for the format and layout of a study proposal. What I suggest is a generic format, but you will need to check it with the university where you plan to study.
    1. Word count: mostly 2,000 to 3,000 words, excluding the bibliography (6 to 10 A4 pages).
    1. Font type – Popular and legible types, for example Times New Roman or Ariel.
    1. Font size: mostly 11 or 12.
    1. The university might also specify the indents, use of capital letters, language, numbering of chapters, pages, paragraphs, etc.
    1. Layout and wording of the title page.
  2. Ask your study leader for a copy or copies of other research proposals that he or she considers to be good. Learn from them.
  3. You must have a clear idea of what the problem statement, problem question or hypothesis for your study is.
  4. Academic research is not a linear process. It is a spiral. Therefore, your research proposal is not cast in concrete.
  5. I will discuss the structure of your research proposal with you in a future article. For the time being, just remember that you will need to cover the following:
    1. The reason why your think that your research topic is important.
    1. The purpose of your research.
    1. What you intend to achieve or prove.
    1. The methodology that you will use.
    1. Your paradigmatic approach.
    1. How you will collect and process data.
    1. Evidence that you have already done some prior research. (You must at least have done some literature study.)

Hints on presenting your study proposal

  1. Keep in mind that some of the members of the Postgraduate Committee might not want to be there.
    1. They often have lots of other work.
    1. They might be studying themselves.
    1. They probably will have other post-graduate students who are already studying whom they need to help.
    1. They might be tired.
    1. They might not be interested in your proposed topic.
    1. They might have a golf appointment.
  2. Know your topic and show that you have some knowledge and, perhaps experience in the field.
  3. Know the meaning of the terminology that you use. (I did not, and I often wondered afterwards if I really got away with it or not. The professors were probably just being kind.)
  4. Start with your research as far as possible in advance (all will probably not agree with this).
  5. Your proposal is not a concept thesis or dissertation. It is just the scope – the parameters of the problem or topic that you intend to explore.
  6. You can’t come to conclusions about your research problem or hypothesis now already, so don’t.

Summary and close

  1. Remember – Your research proposal is the tool with which you can gain access to PhD studies.
  2. You need to prepare well. This will require some research in advance, preparing presentation tools and notes and rehearsing your presentation.
  3. Keep in mind that the Postgraduate Committee are people with their own perceptions and needs. They will be experts in postgraduate research, but it is up to you to convince them that your research will be viable and valuable.
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Why would you embark on PhD studies?

It is always a good idea to establish a healthy relationship with your study leader, and you should approach him or her for assistance as often as you possibly can. However, they always have lots of work and limited time. That is where I am hoping to save you and your study leader time and energy through this series of articles on research methodology.

I don’t think you would have even searched for a topic on PhD studies if you were not the inquisitive type.

You don’t need to be a nerd to be a good academic researcher. All you need is the “right” reason for embarking on post-graduate studies. I guess what I am saying is that you need to be motivated to study.

Here are some reasons why one would study towards a PhD:

  1. To add value. In my opinion, the most important reason why you would embark on post-graduate studies should be to contribute. On PhD level, you will need to create something from which society or at least a section of society will benefit.

You might develop new knowledge, new procedures to do a job, new medicine, new ways in which to solve problems, a new philosophy, etc.

  • To pursue your interests. Don’t try to do research on something that you know nothing or little about and in which you are not interested.

It will be so much easier and so much more fun to study something about what you already have expert knowledge and with which you already have ample experience.

Without knowing it you will have done a lot of research already and you will probably already be an expert on the topic of your research if it is something that you are interested in.

Then again, most academic wizards have a way of developing an interest in a problem or a topic once they have decided to study it. Besides, after a year or two of intensive research, you might well know more about the topic of your research than your study leader.

  • Status value. Regardless of whether you are interested in the topic of your research or not, you will probably wish to obtain a PhD because of its status value.
  • For the sake of others. You might wish to make your parents happy, impress your children or spouse.
  • To improve your self-image. Regardless of whether it was your intention, obtaining a PhD will probably improve your self-image.
  • To improve your job situation. A PhD can help you find the job of your dreams, to be promoted, to earn a higher salary.
  • For the piece of paper? Here is a word of caution – never embark on post-graduate studies for the sake of the piece of paper. Studying on any level should first and foremost be about gaining additional knowledge and skills, not about getting a certificate that you can frame and hang on your office wall.

If it is just the certificate that you are interested in, you can just as well buy your PhD on the internet.

Focusing on the piece of paper rather than on the improvement of your knowledge and skills can lead to serious humiliation, embarrassment for you and your loved ones.

Your employer and colleagues at work will expect you to perform better once you have obtained your PhD. If you can’t they will catch you out.

You might be demoted or lose your job. If you obtained your PhD illegally you might even end up in jail.

It will not help to apply psychological pressure on your study leader, for example by accusing him or her of discrimination if they do not accept the work that you submit.

  • I’ve heard a professor say that people of a certain profile will never pass his course.
  • I’ve also witnessed a professor who was really upset because a student accused her of discrimination because she would not accept his submission, even though the submission was clearly not up to standard.

Study leaders who discriminate are the exception and you should get rid of them as early as possible during your studies or perhaps even before starting your studies if you can.

Here you will need to be absolutely objective and fair, because if you lose a good study leader who gives you quality feedback you might destroy your chances of successfully completing your studies.

In summary, you should do research on a topic that you are familiar with and you will need to focus on creating new knowledge, procedures, philosophy, etc. There is, however, nothing wrong with improving your marketability, your image, your status and so on.

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