How to Write a Research Proposal | A Guide for Students

Academic Writing updated on  May 27, 2024 6 min read
With a bit of know-how and the right tools, you can write a convincing research proposal and progress your academic career. There's a lot that goes into writing research proposals, so let's dive right into the how-tos.

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is a short piece of academic writing that outlines the research a graduate student intends to carry out. It starts by explaining why the research will be helpful or necessary, then describes the steps of the potential research and how the research project would add further knowledge to the field of study. A student submits this as part of the application process for a graduate degree program.

If you’re thinking of pursuing a master’s or doctorate degree, you may need to learn more about how to write a research proposal that will get you into your desired program.

QuillBot is here to help—first, let’s look at why you might write a research proposal. Then we’ll cover the parts it should include, how long it should be, and the tools that can help you write a great one.

What is the purpose of a research proposal?

A student writes a research proposal to describe a research area where a question needs to be answered and to show that they can answer that question by adding new information to the field.

A research committee will read the proposals and decide whether each student will qualify for admittance to the graduate degree program.

To ensure that your proposal fulfils its purpose, take care to include all of the key parts.

What are the parts of a research proposal?

Every research proposal contains a few standard sections, and some include extra sections specific to the program. Below we list the components of most research proposals.

Many schools, like the University of Houston, provide a research proposal example for students. Check with your university to see if they can offer you a similar resource. It can help you understand which parts you’re required to have while writing about your proposed research.

Title page

Of course, you’ll need to come up with an effective title. Though a title is less substantial than a section, it makes the first impression on the research committee. It’s also the most concise representation of what you hope to accomplish with your research paper.

A good title conveys your research goal in enough detail to show uniqueness. However, it’s not so detailed that reading and understanding it is tedious. Aim for 10 to 12 words and avoid using abbreviations, such as the ampersand (&).


The introduction is your chance to get the research committee enthused about your proposed research. You’re excited about the topic; explain why they should be excited too.

The introduction of a research proposal usually includes a few essential components that are minor in length but major in importance:

  • Statement of the problem: a clear description of the gap in existing research that you want to address
  • Research questions: the questions you hope to answer by carrying out your study
  • Aims and objectives: goals for the research. Aims are big-picture goals: what are you trying to do? Objectives point to smaller goals within the larger ones: what steps will you take to accomplish your aims?
  • Rationale: why the research needs to be done
  • Significance: how the research will contribute to the field

While it’s common to include these in the introduction, some proposals devote a separate section to them. As you compose these small parts, word them concisely but thoroughly. They must be clear and cover all the most vital aspects of your proposed research.

By the time the research committee has finished reading your introduction, they should have a foundational grasp of why you need to conduct this proposed research, how you plan to do so, and what new ideas it will add to the field. But remember, give only a summary of your methods and new ideas—save the finer points for later sections.

Many writers struggle to write concisely, but it’s an indispensable skill when you’re working on an introduction. QuillBot’s Summarizer can help you condense your thoughts to the perfect length for the introduction.

Background or literature review

Now that you’ve finished the introductory parts of your research proposal, you can begin to go into more detail on your research design. The literature review is likely to be the largest portion of your paper.

The purpose of the background or literature review section is to show that you’re familiar with the existing body of knowledge on your topic. By describing the most pertinent studies related to your research questions, you show that there is truly a knowledge gap in the field and that your proposed research will help close it.

As you write the literature review, you’ll need to draw on other researchers' work. It's crucial that you cite all of your sources properly, or you'll be committing plagiarism.

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Method and design

In the next section, you have the chance to show the research committee that you have thought deeply about how to answer your proposed research questions.

Remember to draw on the studies you mentioned in your literature review, which often provide good models. How can you build on them? What theoretical framework(s) have they contributed that you can use to approach your problem effectively?

Based on what you’ve found in the existing literature, describe how you plan to conduct the research. Include the specific research methods you plan to use and how you will analyze any data you collect. Explain why and how these methods will help you achieve your aim and objectives, while other methods won’t.

Your research design should also define the scope of your study, which must fit the time frame of the degree program. A scope that’s too wide may make the research committee think you won’t go deep enough into your topic. Conversely, a scope that’s too narrow could leave you with too few resources to draw from. If the work you plan to do is not enough to fill the time, you could appear lazy or unmotivated, so consider the best way to cover your topic carefully.


After you’ve finished the main sections of your paper, you’ll need to be sure you’ve cited every source correctly. Create a reference list that includes all the sources you mentioned in your literature review and elsewhere.

It's helpful to keep a list and add to it as you're doing your research. That way you'll be sure not to miss a citation.

Need to cite sources used by you?
QuillBot's Citation Generator will enable you to quickly create citations in APA, MLA, Chicago, and other styles.

Other parts of a research proposal

Besides the standard sections above, some proposals also include the following parts:

  • An abstract to briefly summarize the proposal
  • A research budget section to break down what funding might be needed and where it might come from
  • A research schedule/timeline to show all the steps of the research to be completed and when they will be done
  • A conclusion section

If you include a separate conclusion section in your proposal, you may find QuillBot’s Paraphraser convenient for restating your ideas in different words.

Need to restate your ideas in different words?
QuillBot's Paraphrasing Tool will let you do that in many different ways

How long should a research proposal be?

A research proposal is typically not very long—just a few thousand words. It’s not meant to be exhaustive; rather, it's just to show that you’ve put significant thought into the research you want to do and that you can realistically complete it.

Because your research proposal will be so short, you’ll want to put high priority on making every word count. Remember to ask your university for a research proposal example before you begin.

Take advantage of QuillBot’s writing tools to meet all of your proposal goals and write more efficiently. Before you submit it, give it a good once-over with our Grammar Checker and Punctuation Checker to make sure it accurately reflects the quality of your work.

Good luck with your proposal! And when it’s approved, don’t forget that QuillBot can also help you with other forms of academic writing, such as your thesis or dissertation.

What are the 3 chapters of a research proposal?

A research proposal has three main parts: the introduction, the literature review, and the methods section.

What are some major mistakes to avoid when writing a research proposal?

  1. Failing to connect your potential research to previous studies, from the research question to the contribution your research will make.
  2. Failing to maintain a clear and cohesive focus on the research topic throughout your research questions, aims, objectives, and methods.
  3. Failing to determine realistic research steps and explain them clearly enough.


Hannah Skaggs

Along with Paige Pfeifer

Hannah, a writer and editor since 2017, specializes in clear and concise academic and business writing. She has mentored countless scholars and companies in writing authoritative and engaging content.

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