Written by Dr J.P. Nel
The table of contents is your first opportunity to impress upon the Postgraduate Committee and your study leader the importance and value of your planned research.
Especially experienced professors often claim that they can already see if your study proposal is viable or not by just looking at the table of contents.
Just to avoid confusion – you can have two tables of content in your research proposal. The first would be the table of contents for the proposal itself and the second can be the proposed table of contents for your research report.
In this post, I will share with you hints on what you should write under each heading of your table of content to gain the approval of the Postgraduate Committee and your study leader.
The table of contents
To begin with, here is an example of a table of contents for a research proposal.
Table of Contents
1 Introduction 1
1.1 Introduction to the problem 1
1.2 The Primary Focus of the Study 2
1.3 The Importance of the Problem 2
1.4 Definition of the Problem 3
1.5 Definition of Concepts 3
1.6 The Motivation for the Study 5
1.7 Current Knowledge of the Problem 5
1.8 Potential Benefits of the Research 6
2 Research Design 7
2.1 The Research Approach 7
2.2 Research Methodology 8
2.3 Data-collection Strategy 9
2.4 Ethical Issues for Consideration 10
2.5 Proposed Chapter-outline and Deadline Dates 11
3 References 12
4 Definitions 13
5 Quick Reference Manual 14
You will notice that the research proposal consists of three main sections, namely the introduction, the body and supplementary information.
In the introduction, you should discuss the context and purpose of your planned research.
In the body, you should discuss how you will approach and conduct the research.
Supplementary information should lend authenticity and validity to your proposal.
1.1 Introduction to the problem
See if you can here already impress upon the Postgraduate Committee the importance of the study by discussing your ideas in the context of your planned target group or target area.
You should link your introduction to the environmental factors that you regard as wonting and show how your research can solve problems in that context.
Do not criticize if you do not have facts to substantiate your claims.
1.2 The Primary Focus of the Study
Keep in mind that your research proposal, like your eventual research report, should follow the so-called golden thread that runs through your study.
To achieve this, let the environment and context that you discussed in the introduction to the problem develop into your focus for the study.
After all, you should focus on the research problem if you are to solve it.
1.3 The Importance of the Problem
Link the importance of the problem with the previous issue, that is the focus of your study. Discuss why the problem is important and who will benefit if the problem is solved.
Do not claim over-emotional problems. Always reason in an objective and professional manner.
It is especially when you choose a critical paradigm, for example, critical theory, critical race theory, or feminism that researches sometimes can ignore the facts to prove a point about which they feel strongly.
1.4 Definition of the Problem
Please do not now define a problem that has no relevance to what you discussed so far. Your problem statement, problem question or hypothesis should follow from what you already wrote.
The research approach that you will follow will largely decide if you will define a research problem, research question or hypothesis.
You will probably formulate a hypothesis if you intend to use quantitative research.
You will probably formulate a research problem or research question if you intend to use a qualitative approach.
You can have more than one research problem or question, but don’t list too many. I would suggest not more than three.
1.5 Definition of Concepts
The definition of concepts is a challenge even in the policies and procedures for Ph.D. and master’s degree studies of universities and other research organisations.
That is why you will need to explain what you mean by key terms and concepts.
Once you have explained what you mean by such terms and concepts, you must apply the meanings consistently.
1.6 The Motivation for the Study
The motivation for the study links up with the importance of the study. The importance of the study is mostly also the motivation for the study.
You should not use something like “It is important because my dad wants me to study for a Ph.D.” as a motivation for the study.
Your motivation for the study should reflect the needs of the community, a sponsor, the academic fraternity, even perhaps the entire world.
The potential value of your study should invite acceptance, validity and sincerity.
1.7 Current Knowledge of the Problem
It would be risky to choose a research topic about which you know nothing.
You will probably need to do some prior studying and you should provide evidence of such prior knowledge and, perhaps, experience.
You can also mention the profiles of the individuals or organisations who will be involved in your research if it is relevant.
Just keep in mind that they cannot do your research for you.
1.8 Potential Benefits of the Research
Your research must have theoretical value, practical value and scientific value.
Theoretical value would be the new knowledge that will result from your research.
Practical value would be what can be applied in the industry.
Scientific value can be to the benefit of a field of science.
Theoretical, practical and scientific value can form the basis for future research.
2 Research Design
2.1 The Research Approach
You should mention if you will do quantitative or qualitative research.
Briefly explain why you chose the approach that you did.
You can also discuss the paradigmatic approach that you will follow here, or you can discuss it under a separate heading, also here.
2.2 Research Methodology
Make sure that the research methodology that you will use is reconcilable with the research approach that you chose.
2.3 Data-collection Strategy
Data collection strategies are often regarded as research methods.
I don’t think this is a serious problem because data collection strategies are, indeed, often also research methods.
Then again, not all data collection strategies go with all research methods or even research approaches.
This, however, is also not a serious problem.
You will learn that what you intended to do cannot be done once you get to the point where you need to do the research and collect the data.
2.4 Ethical Issues for Consideration
We will discuss ethical issues in much more detail in a future post because ethics in Ph.D. are a mouthful. It includes issues such as being honest, protecting the identity of people involved in your research, not committing plagiarism, trust, deception, legality, professionalism and many more.
2.5 Proposed Chapter-outline and Deadline Dates
The proposed chapter outline can be a provisional table of contents for your research report.
You will also need to provide deadline dates for your research.
We will discuss the chapter-outline and deadline dates separately in future posts.
You can have a separate heading for literature study in which you list the references that you already consulted and a list of references for your research proposal.
Don’t list references that you did not use. If you list references that you did not use yet in your literature study, you will need to point this out.
4 Definitions and a Quick Reference Manual
You might have separate headings for references and a quick reference manual.
Not all study leaders will allow this, though.
Definitions and the quick reference manual are mostly there to help you maintain consistency in your writing.
Summary and close
- If your research proposal does not show that your research topic is important and that you can do the research, the Postgraduate Committee will probably not approve your application.
- Keep your research proposal sufficiently simple for you to understand everything that you write.
- Make sure that you know what the university will require you to cover in your research proposal.