A proposal is the first stage in the research process and a key document in the application process. Though a provisional statement of the project, it is also a foundational document: a well-developed proposal will provide a solid foundation for the first year of research leading to the confirmation panel.
A research proposal is about 2000 words in length (not counting the bibliography), but it needs to address the range of research elements necessary to the successful completion of a research project. A proposal, in other words, is not an essay; it is a formal overview of the project as a whole. Much of the knowledge needed to develop a strong proposal will not appear in the proposal itself. A strong proposal may take six to twelve weeks to develop, should go through multiple revisions, and be developed in conversation with a potential supervisor.
A research proposal might be understood as a tool which assists in developing an overview of a project, in refining its basic elements, and in presenting those with as much clarity and precision as possible. The final thesis, when submitted, will look very different from the initial proposal. Yet, the greater clarity regarding the research problem, the thesis, and methodology at the initial stage, the easier it will be to set defined limits on the research, to identify mistakes in direction, or to find rich veins to pursue.
The people who will read your proposal may not be expert in your particular field of study; nor do they need to be. Their interest lies in the project as a whole, its significance and its potential for completion: how well does the proposal identify a gap in knowledge (problem), indicate a lens through which to view the problem (methodology), and suggest a solution to the problem (thesis)? Do include footnotes indicating the key voices and ideas you will be working with, but do not overload the proposal—a proposal is not a literature review. Be sure also to follow style guide, avoid errors, and present the document in a clear, well organised manner.
The elements of a research proposal
A typical research proposal should be approximately 2000 words and contain:
Title (provisional thesis title)
This should provide the reader with some indication of the substance of the proposed research and the angle taken. Avoid where possible catchphrases. Remember: a research proposal intends to be a clear statement of the project as a whole. If you can present that in a short title you have already make significant progress.
Statement of the research problem
A research problem is not the simple indication of a topic: a broad area of study which might be limited by a range of qualifiers: geographical region (Australia), time frame (1800s), discipline (theology, philosophy), culture (Chagga), population group (over 50s). A research topic is a basic beginning point, but it needs to be narrowed for the purposes of developing a strong research proposal.
This narrowing occurs by identifying a research problem. A research problem identifies a specific issue, gap, blind-spot, or contradiction in a field of research. It is not something that can be answered using binary answers: yes or no. It should be something available to be examined using a variety of methods. The statement of a research problem will avoid value judgements (profound, excellent), generalisations, unevidenced assertions, and jargon. It should set the problem within its wider context, indicate its significance (give some rationale as to why it should be researched), and results in a clear research question.
A strong research question is one that is able to be investigated through the use of primary and secondary material in a way that will lead to an evidenced thesis, i.e., produces an answer that is based on the evidence presented through the project. The question should be answerable within the constraints of the research project: word limits, timeframe, skills (languages), availability of relevant data (capacity to travel to archives; HREC approval), funding.
A methodology names and discusses the broad philosophical underpinning or lens a researcher uses to identify, gather, read, and interpret the data basic to the project. Every researcher stands in a certain location and view research questions through a particular perspective. Methodology assists in the identification of potential biases, provides a range of conceptual tools for investigating the data, ensures a transparency regarding the perspective being applied to the research problem. It is possible to undertake an interdisciplinary research project. Such projects draw upon the findings of researchers across multiple disciplines and may require more than one methodology. But even here, less is more as the greater the methodological complexity the longer and more involved the project becomes. Any discussion of methodology would not ordinarily encompass more than two or three (and by default should focus on a single methodology). A methodology will suggest a ‘method’: a specific means by which data is identified and gathered.
A thesis is a proposed answer to the research question. The term thesis can be used in two ways: the first refers to the whole body of work (a PhD thesis); the second refers to the precise claim or argument being developed through the work. The thesis, in this second sense, should be:
- concise enough to be formulated as a thesis statement: a sentence or a paragraph which introduces the claim that will be argued for through the project;
- complex enough to be developed as a ‘sustained argument’ through the whole thesis.
The thesis will change over the course of the research, from the initial proposal until the final submission. But a clear thesis statement at the proposal stage is important because:
- the research problem, question, thesis and methodology belong together as part of a research nexus. They belong together and help in a process of mutual clarification: the better one understands the problem the clearer the thesis; the clearer the thesis the better one understands the question and its significance;
- a thesis functions as a lens for the project as a whole. The research process itself produces a whole range of interesting voices, ideas, directions—but not all of these necessarily help the particular question under examination. If we included all of the information we have discovered and find interesting, the project would soon balloon out of control. Focused attention to the singular claim being made, the singular argument directing the project, both gives us a structure (what do it need by way of heading/chapters to answer my question and prove my claim?), and the ability to set limits on the material/data the project uses.
Statement concerning both the significance and the originality of the research
The statement of the project’s significance may well appear in the section dealing with the research problem because it helps in justifying that problem as something requiring research. But a central component of a PhD is that the project makes a significant and original contribution to human knowledge. The proposal must indicate how this will be the case. Originality may comprise of a number of different factors, such as but not limited to:
- the application of new methods to a data analysis;
- a new analysis of a phenomenon or text;
- the discovery of new data;
- a modification of an existing theoretical framework.
Recognition of the skills needed to complete the thesis to a PhD standard, and your current level of qualification in these skills
Once you have your research nexus in place, it is necessary to account for the skills and the resources you will need to develop your thesis. For example, a study of the interaction between Syrian Christians and Hindus will require a knowledge of multiple languages and religious tradition. A project that investigates the spirituality of prisoners on death row will need expertise in social science methods and the processes of developing processes for HREC: Human Research Ethics Committees. Your project may require specialised software (NVIVO) or may require access to rare books or archival materials.
Chapter outline of and workplan for the project
The chapter outline is an important component flowing out of the research nexus. As the thesis establishes parameters for the project, and this itself suggests a structure: what do I need to address in order to evidence my thesis? Be cognisant of how each sub-section/section/chapter advances the argument and leads to a strong conclusion. The structure will no doubt change as the project develops, but a sense of the needed chapters at the proposal stage demonstrates the feasibly of the project. It is a common problem that once research begins in earnest the question is discovered to be much larger than originally thought. A proposal that included 5 chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, soon expands to include 8 chapters…and then 10. If the proposal already includes 8 chapters, it is already evident that the project requires significant narrowing to be successful. As a very general rule, a thesis should take the form of 5-6 main chapters and an introduction and conclusion.
The bibliography should only be representative, but it will indicate the key voices/authorities, the methodological direction, any interdisciplinary concern, the necessary languages, a balance in perspective. There should be no errors in the style.
Glossary of terms related to Higher Degrees by Research
Eligibility for admission
The admissions committee will consider the quality and feasibility of your proposal, as well as your previous qualifications.
To be eligible for admission you need to have completed:
- a Masters by research with a 75% average; or
- a Masters by coursework with a 75% average; or
- a Graduate Diploma with a 75% average; or
- a four year undergraduate degree with Honours with a 75% average.
- Completed a research essay or thesis of at least 12,000 words graded at or above 75%.
Sample Research Proposals
Samples of successful research proposals can be viewed below. These are intended as a guide only.
Research Proposal Sample 1
Research Proposal Sample 2
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