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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