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How to Write a Research Proposal: Structure and Contents

A research proposal is a written document about some intriguing problem or issue you aspire to study and how you'll work your way through studying it.

A well-written research proposal, therefore, answers the following three questions:

1.      What do you aspire to study?

2.      Why is it worth studying?

3.      How do you want to study it?

The primary aim of writing a research proposal is to convince your possible supervisor or funding institution that the proposed study deserves their support.

The General Research Proposal Structure

Research proposal outlines vary slightly from one institution to the other. It’s advised you communicate with your institution or supervisor and get specific guidelines to ensure you write the proposal as they expect.

This article provides and explores a research proposal structure that various institutions generally accept. The bottom line is you don’t write a proposal in an arbitrary format. Instead, you follow a particular outline.

Here is the generally accepted research proposal outline or structure:

Table of Contents

Title page

Introductory section


   Background of the study

   Problem statement

   Research aim

   Research objectives

   Research questions

   Research rationale

Literature review section

   Theoretical literature review

    Empirical literature review

Methodology section

   Research paradigm

   Research approach

   Research design

   Target population and sampling

   Methods of data collection

   Methods of data analysis

   Ethical considerations

Proposed timetable




The Contents of Each Component

Title Page

On this page, you should present the research title of the proposed study.

Other details you can also present on the title page include:

·        the full name of the author,

·        the name of the institution,

·        the name of the program you’re studying

The Three Main Sections of a Research Proposal

The introductory, literature review and methodology sections remain the three main sections of a research proposal. The contents of each of these three sections should persuade the reader –your possible supervisor, or advisor – to support you go further in undertaking the proposed research study.

Section 1: Introductory Section

This section provides a window into the proposed research study as it contains critical components of the proposed study. See a breakdown of these components right below:

Introduction and Background of the Study

It’s advisable to integrate the introduction and background of the study in writing a research proposal. You can later split the two and expand your material when writing the final dissertation.

If, however, you decide to write these two sections separately, that’s okay too.

The introduction should:

·        introduce the research topic in broad terms,

·        highlight the main concepts or variables of the proposed study,

·        provide main details of the identified research problem or issue,

·        hint the main research question of the proposed study,

·        highlight the main goal and possible outcomes of the proposed study,

·        emphasize the anticipated contributions of the study

The background of the study should:

·        provide an overview of the research topic

·        provide the historical details of the identified research problem or issue,

·        explore prominent scholarly opinions regarding the identified problem,

·        provide statistical (where possible) information about the problem,

·        relate the problem to a specific institution, event or group of people

Overall, a well-written background of the study must provide enough context to the issue or problem you seek to study.

Statement of the Problem

A statement of the problem is a concise expression that summarizes the identified research problem and highlights the knowledge gaps surrounding the problem.

A good statement of the problem should answer at least three questions:

1.      Why is it a problem?

2.      How is a problem?

3.      What are the anticipated solutions to the problem?

Research Aim

The primary goal of conducting a research study is to examine and address the identified problem or issue. The research aim should, therefore, expresses the anticipated outcomes of the proposed study.

Research Objectives

Research objectives guide you to achieve the research aim and following them helps you avoid getting carried away along the way.

Set achievable objectives.

Research Questions

If it is known, then why do you research it?

Research questions intend to fetch answers about what we do not yet know – partially or holistically – regarding a particular problem or issue.

Therefore, the knowledge gaps (what we don’t know) surrounding the identified research problem inform the nature and direction of the research questions.

Contribution of the Study

In writing this section, ensure you address the following questions:

1.      Why is the proposed study important?

2.      To whom is the proposed study important?

3.      How can the proposed study make a difference?

A proposed study that offers no possible sound contributions is not worth approval or funding. Such a proposed study is just a waste of time because it doesn't enhance anything.

Yours should either:

·        expand the body of knowledge, or

·        improve practices or policies

Section 2: Literature Review Section

A literature review is a careful and critical analysis of different sources relevant to your research topic, particularly the problem or issue you pursue to examine. A literature review is not as complicated or tedious a process as you might assume.

The following tips help anyone write a good literature review in less time:

·        Consult with your possible supervisor. The supervisor is your senior academic colleague. Please, don't hesitate to discuss your research topic with them. They might’ve recommendations about publications suitable for your research topic. They can also share tips which make things a lot easier.

·        Use some criteria in searching sources. You don’t need to review every publication in your area of interest. Instead, search the most important ones using keywords, time period, names of the top-ranked scholars and methodologies used.

·        Read, read, read, and read again. Read the searched publications’ main sections such as the abstract, introduction, problem statement, research methods, results and conclusions more than once. These sections contain the information you’re looking for.

·        Trace and capture the main details. Trace the main ideas, concepts or issues that permeate through the main sources. Trace the major scholarly debates and conflicts as well. Capture all important details whilst reading.

·        Start writing. Always write analytically and avoid at all cost writing descriptively. Show how and why scholarly opinions and submissions relate or vary regarding the subject you seek to examine.

Section 3: Methodology Section

The methodology section is an indispensable section that tells the reader how exactly you’ll work your way through diagnosing the identified problem.

The research methodology has multiple components. Please see these components outlined under the general research proposal structure submitted above. Here, the focus is on sharing ideas on writing a sound research methodology.

Writing a Sound Research Methodology

You need to:

·        Consider the identified research problem. The nature of the identified research problem or issue usually determines the most appropriate research methodology to adopt.

·        Review the methodologies used in other similar studies. This helps you see if you need to adopt a different methodology or follow the popular ones.

·        Justify every component of the proposed methodology. It’s not enough to say this is the most appropriate methodology. Make a case for it. Use scholarly recommendations and opinions to explain why and how it would be the most suitable, valid and reliable methodology to adopt.

·        Highlight the weaknesses of the proposed methodology. Every research method has its flaws and shortcomings. Mention those weaknesses and how you plan to minimize them.

4.   Timetable

Break down the study into smaller components, such as chapters, and indicate how much time it will take you to complete each part.

The proposed timeline should be at least twenty-five percent less than the timeframe your institution gives students to complete their research studies. This helps you finish your research on time and use the remaining time for polishing your document.

Proposed timetables, however, are subject to changes, especially when considering the availability of your supervisor.

5.   Bibliography

Count all the sources cited throughout the text and list them here, following the recommended formatting style. You can also add any relevant sources you consulted to the list.

6.   Appendices

Some institutions require you to craft research instruments as part of the research proposal. Documents, such as a questionnaire, an interview guide and an ethical clearance checklist, must be attached only if required.

The information shared is quite crucial in helping you write a research proposal worth approval or funding. You’re reminded to consider all the shared tips in writing your proposal. As usual, all the best!


The author – Gift Chirairo – of this blog post is a veteran Academic Research Consultant who helps researchers of all levels (Undergraduate and Postgraduate) to work their way through research writing. Contact him here (alternatively, click the popping green WhatsApp icon) if you need any help in research writing.