Steps in Developing a Research Proposal

Writing based on research takes time, thought, and effort. Although such work is challenging, it is manageable. Focusing on one step at a time will help you conduct thorough, valid research and write a thoughtful, convincing composition based on that research.

Because planning makes for better research and better writing, students are often called upon to write a research proposal – a formal composition in which a researcher defines a topic and explains his or her plans for researching that topic. Such a proposal is used not only to create a coherent plan but also to convince a teacher or reviewer that you have developed a relevant, focused, and interesting topic and that your plans to research that topic will work.

There are a number of basic steps a researcher will take to develop a research plan. Each of these steps constitute information that is included in the research proposal:

  1. Developing and defining a topic.
  2. Exploring your purpose and audience for your research.
  3. Conducting preliminary research.
  4. Formulating a research question (and additional questions).
  5. Creating a research plan.

1. Developing and Defining a Topic

When you develop a topic for research, you are making a major commitment. Your choice will help determine whether you enjoy the lengthy process of research and writing—and whether your final paper fulfills the assignment requirements. If you choose your topic hastily, you may later find it difficult to work with your topic. By taking your time and choosing carefully, you can ensure that this assignment is not only challenging but also rewarding.

Writers understand the importance of choosing a topic that not only fulfills the assignment requirements but also fits their own interests and priorities. Choosing a topic that interests you is crucial. You instructor may provide a list of suggested topics or ask that you develop a topic on your own. In either case, try to identify topics that genuinely interest you. This interest is sometimes called exigence – the personal concerns and interests that drive a researcher to investigate a specific topic.

The writing you do based on your research, though, is not only for yourself. Since you will be writing, based on that research, for others, your topic also needs to be current and relevant to others. The outcome of your research should matter here and now to others. This is often called kairos – the concerns and interests beyond yourself that make this topic relevant now.

After identifying potential topic ideas, you will need to evaluate your ideas and choose one topic to pursue. Will you be able to find enough information about the topic? Can you develop a composition about this topic that presents and supports views you developed after conducting and reviewing your research? Is the topic too broad or too narrow for the scope of the assignment? If so, can you modify it so it is more manageable? You will ask these questions during this preliminary phase of the research process.

Identifying Potential Topics

Sometimes, an instructor may provide a list of suggested topics. If so, you may benefit from identifying several possibilities before committing to one idea. Other times, an instructor leaves lets students decide where to begin when picking a topic. It is important,, the, to know how to narrow down your ideas into a concise, manageable thesis. Discussing your ideas with your instructor will help ensure that you choose a manageable topic that fits the requirements of the assignment.

In this chapter, you will follow a writer named Jorge, who is studying health care administration, as he prepares a research paper. Jorge was assigned to write a research paper on health and the media for an introductory course in health care. Although a general topic was selected for the students, Jorge had to decide which specific issues interested him. He brainstormed a list of possibilities.

Possible topics

  1. Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) in the news
  2. Sexual education programs
  3. Hollywood and eating disorders
  4. Americans’ access to public health information
  5. Media portrayal of the health care reform bill
  6. Depictions of drugs on television
  7. The effect of the Internet on mental health
  8. Popularized diets (such as low-carbohydrate diets)
  9. Fear of pandemics (bird flu, H1N1, SARS)
  10. Electronic entertainment and obesity
  11. Advertisements for prescription drugs
  12. Public education and disease prevention

From there, he will still need to investigate these topic ideas further to find a topic he can use.

Below are a couple common approaches to developing and narrowing a topic.

Starting with Brainstorming

One very common approach to developing a topic is through various forms of brainstorming. this is the approach that Jorge used, above. In this approach, a student may set aside a specific amount of time simply to list or map possible ideas or topic they are interested in. For each topic, they may briefly describe their exigence (why they are personally interested in the topic) and kairos (why this is a relevant and timely topic for others) as well as writing down their own current understanding of each topic. After this, the student can use what they wrote to strike out ideas they seem less interested in, eliminating options until they find the one that both they and others may find most interesting.

Although this can be a good way to find a topic you are interested in, students can find it challenging narrow such a topic sufficiently before beginning research. If, after brainstorming, you are ending up with broad categories such as Abortion, Capital Punishment, Cell Phone use, Child Abuse, Eating Disorders, etc., you will need to continue to do more brainstorming to figure out specific aspects of one of these topics that you want to investigate. For instance, if a student tries to research the general topic of Capital Punishment, they will find that there is far too much ground to cover. But if the student starts breaking down that general topic, looking at it from different vantage points, they may find a narrower topic that is much  more manageable. For instance, instead of Capital Punishment in general, a researcher may decide to examine legal decisions about capital punishment as “cruel and unusual punishment,” or racial bias in of capital punishment sentences, or differences in the frequency of executions in the states where capital punishment is legal or even the exploration of whether capital punishment should be legal in one’s own state.

Starting with Research

Another effective way to select a topic is to begin with research. Rather than select a broad topic and try to narrow down, a researcher will begin with a very specific problem, issue, or incident reported on in a news article or study, and then expand from that problem or issue to develop an interesting and engaging research topic.

This approach works well for a couple of reasons. One, when one conducts research and writes about that research, they are participating in a sort of conversation with other researchers and writers. And just like any conversation, it is helpful to “listen in” on what is being talked about in previously published sources before figuring your own topic idea and deciding how you want to contribute to the academic discourse on that issue or problem. Two, it helps to make sure your topic is sufficiently narrow, and thus manageable, to begin with. When students pick a broad topic and must narrow it down, they often fail to narrow it down sufficiently. This approach avoids that problem by starting out looking at something very specific and then expanding the research topic from there.

When using this approach, it is helpful to write about the article you found in a systematic way, generating thoughts about what interest you about the article and thus the topics related to the article that you care about. Here are some specific ideas to speculate about as you are taking notes on such an article:

  • Explore Topics: In a few sentences, describe broader topics or issues the article touches on. Beyond the specific incident or event described in the article, what larger social problems or debates does the the article relate to? (EX: If I am reading an article on a specific mass shooting, topics might include mass shootings, gun control, mental illness, public safety, gun rights, etc.)
  • Explore Exigence: In a few sentences, explain why you are personally interested in or curious about the incident reported in the article. If possible, connect it to your own personal experience. Based on this, what topics do you think you’d like to research?
  • Explore Kairos: In a few sentences, identify the groups of people this incident or problem matters to (beyond yourself) and why it matters to them now, thinking not only of those involved in the incident itself but other people or entities or institutions in society that might have a concern regarding this incident or incidents like it. Based on what matters most about this incident, what topics related to it might be worthy of research?
  • Explore Controversies: In a few sentences, explain what differences of opinion or debates may exist about this incident or event and you think those differences of opinion might exist? Based on this, which of these controversies might be worthy of research?

Narrowing Your Topic

Once you have developed potential topics, you will need to choose one as the focus of your research. You will also need to narrow your topic. Especially if brainstorming was used, most writers find that the topics they listed during brainstorming are broad—too broad for the scope of the assignment. Working with an overly broad topic, such as sexual education programs or popularized diets, can be frustrating and overwhelming. Each topic has so many facets that it would be impossible to cover them all. However, more specific choices, such as the pros and cons of sexual education in kids’ television programs or the physical effects of the South Beach diet, are specific enough to write about without being too narrow.

A good research paper provides focused, in-depth information and analysis. If your topic is too broad, you will find it difficult to do more than skim the surface when you research it and write about it. Narrowing your focus is essential to making your topic manageable. To narrow your focus, explore your topic in writing, conduct preliminary research, and discuss both the topic and the research with others.

2. Exploring Your Purpose and Audience for your Research

Any good research proposal will also discuss the purposes and potential audiences for the research one is conducting. Often, this begins with the researcher exigence and the topic’s kairos, and from there extends to what the research hopes to accomplish and who he hopes to inform and persuade with this research. This is generally done through free writing.

Jorge knew that he was especially interested in the topic of diet fads, but he also knew that it was much too broad for his assignment. He used free writing to explore his thoughts so he could narrow his topic. Read Jorge’s ideas.

Our instructors are always saying that accurate, up-to-date information is crucial in encouraging people to make better choices about their health.  I don’t think the media does a very good job of providing that, though.  Every time I go on the Internet, I see tons of ads for the latest “miracle food.” One week it’s acai berries, the next week it’s green tea, and then six months later I see a news story saying all the fabulous claims about acai berries and green tea are overblown! Advice about weight loss is even worse. Think about all the diet books that are out there! Some say that a low-fat diet is best; some say you should cut down on carbs; and some make bizarre recommendations like eating half a grapefruit with every meal. I don’t know how anyone is supposed to make an informed decision about what to eat when there’s so much confusing, contradictory information. I bet even doctors, nurses, and dieticians have trouble figuring out what information is reliable and what is just the latest hype.

Because of this, I would like to use my research to inform and persuade readers about how to accurately inform themselves about healthful food choices. I think this research is especially important for new high school and college graduates – individuals who are just leaving school and are just becoming independent adult consumers of food and health products. This is a perfect opportunity for them to inform themselves and change old assumptions and habits.

3. Conducting Preliminary Research

To prepare for a research proposal, a researcher also needs to conduct some preliminary research. Partly, this is to ensure that there are some viable sources and possibilities available for the topic idea you’ve generated. But as well, you will need some information and insights about your topic in order to define that topic in your research proposal and to develop a valid research question. This preliminary research can help you understand important history, concepts, and terminology about your topic. It can also help you find out what people are saying about your topic and the opinions that exist about it. This research can be conducted using your college’s library or by searching online.

Jorge’s free writing  helped him realize that the assigned topic of health and the media intersected with a few of his interests—diet, nutrition, and obesity. Preliminary online research strengthened his impression that many people are confused or misled by media coverage of these subjects and started him exploring different kinds of solutions for this problem.

Jorge decided to focus his paper on a topic that had garnered a great deal of media attention—low-carbohydrate diets. He wanted to find out whether low-carbohydrate diets were as effective as their proponents claimed.

4. Formulating a Research Question

A research question is a central question you will ask yourself in order to focus your research and develop your research composition. As you conduct research, you will seek sources that help you answer your research question. Then later, you will write your research composition in order to answer that question.

In forming a research question, you are setting a goal for your research. Your main research question should be substantial enough to form the guiding principle of your research—but focused enough to also actually guide your research. A strong research question requires you not only to find information but also to put together different pieces of information, interpret and analyze them, and figure out what you think. As you consider potential research questions, ask yourself whether they would be too hard or too easy to answer.

To determine your research question, review the free writing about your topic. Skim through your preliminary research and list the questions you have. You can include simple, factual questions but as you continue you should push yourself toward more complex questions that would require research, analysis, and interpretation. From there, determine your main research question—the primary focus of your research and the composition you will write based on it. You can also develop some supporting questions that help you may attention to specific facts or details you need to learn about your topic.

Here are the research questions Jorge will use to focus his research. Notice that his main research question has no obvious, straightforward answer. Jorge will also need to research his supporting questions, which address narrower aspects of his topic. Even still, Jorge will need to come to his own conclusions about his research question. He will need to analyze his research carefully, interpret that data and consider how it relates to his research question, and finally develop his own view and argue in support of that view using evidence from his research.

Topic: Low-carbohydrate diets

Main question: Are low-carbohydrate diets as effective as they have been portrayed to be by media sources and how can consumers be sure about the effectiveness of these kinds of diets?


Who can benefit from following a low-carbohydrate diet?

What are the supposed advantages of following a low-carbohydrate diet?

When did low-carb diets become a “hot” topic in the media?

Where do average consumers get information about diet and nutrition?

Why has the low-carb approach received so much media attention?

How do low-carb diets work?

5. A Plan for Research

Your free writing, preliminary research, and research question have helped you choose a focused, manageable topic for your research. To work with your topic successfully, you will need to determine what exactly you want to learn about it—and later, what you want to say about it.

Take some time, then, to make a plan for your research:

  • Plan for conducting secondary research. What kinds of information will you need to answer your research question and supporting questions? What kinds of secondary sources will you find them in? Which of these sources should be found using online or physical library resources and which are best found on the open web? What search words will you use to search for your sources, whether you do this using library resources or go online?
  • Plan for conducting primary research. Will your research include primary research? If so, will you conduct observations, interviews, surveys, or some other kind of primary research? Who will you interview or survey or what will you observe? What materials will you need to gather to conduct your primary research?
  • Plan for time. How much time will you give yourself to complete each part of your research agenda? Which days (or time of day) will you complete each leg of your research? How much research is realistic, given your deadline?

Creating a Research Proposal

A research proposal can be long (several pages) or short (1-2 pages) depending on the goals and specificity of your research proposal assignment. Be sure to check your instructor’s assignment description to determine the length and depth of the research proposal assigned. In any case, your purpose your research proposal is to define your topic and formalize your plan for research. This proposal will help to convince your instructor of your research ideas and will help your instructor give you feedback on your topic and research plans. In your research proposal, you will define your topic, discuss the importance of this topic both to you and to others, present your main research question and supporting questions, and offer a plan for research.

When Jorge began drafting his research proposal, he realized that he had already created most of the pieces he needed. However, he knew he also had to explain how his research would be relevant to other food consumers. In addition, he wanted to form a general plan for doing the research and identifying potentially useful sources. Read Jorge’s research proposal.

Jorge Ramirez

March 28, 2011

Health Care 101

Professor Habib

The Health Claims of Low-Carb Diets: A Research Proposal

In recent years, topics related to diet, nutrition, and weight loss have been covered extensively in the popular media. Different experts recommend various, often conflicting strategies for maintaining a healthy weight. One highly recommended approach, which forms the basis of many popular diet plans, is to limit consumption of carbohydrates. Yet experts disagree on the effectiveness and health benefits of this approach. What information should consumers consider when evaluating diet plans?

This issue concerns me because I have known a number of people in my family who have attempted a low-carb diet, sometime with the guidance of a self-help book and sometimes on their own. Some of them have lost weight and some have not. I wonder, though, how well they understand about nutritional eating and even what constitutes low-carb vs. high-carb food. I am also concerned that they may be doing harm to their health even as they are trying to lose weight. The same concern can be extended to other food consumers. How effective and healthy are these diet plans? How can we, as consumers, be better informed about them?

In my research, I will explore the claims made by proponents of the “low-carbohydrate lifestyle.” My primary research question is: Are low-carbohydrate diets as effective for maintaining a healthy weight as they are portrayed to be  and how can consumers be sure about the effectiveness of these kinds of diets? My secondary research questions are:

  • Who can benefit from following a low-carbohydrate diet?
  • What are the supposed advantages to following a low-carb diet?
  • When did low-carb diets become a “hot” topic in the media?
  • Where do average consumers get information about diet and nutrition?
  • Why has the low-carb approach received so much media attention?
  • How do low-carb diets work?

To conduct my research, I’d like to find and read a couple popular self-help diet books that promote low-carb diets. In those books, I will examine their health claims and their explanations for why a low-carb diet helps lose weight and how healthy they are. I will also use library databases and, if needed, the open web to examine counter-claims about the effectiveness of low-carb diets on health and weight loss. Studying these sources, I hope to develop an understanding of how food consumers can become better informed about these diets.

I also want a more personal perspective of how these diets affect people. So I am going to interview a couple of my family members who have tried low-carb diets and see what they experienced, how they think it affected their health, and whether they thought the diet was effective.