First time writing a research proposal: what to start with
What is a research proposal?
A research proposal is a formal document often constructed by students and researchers to provide the details of a proposed research project to an academic research committee or other approving body (this also includes businesses and non profit or government organizations). A research proposal mirrors a research paper in many respects but differs in that it is written in anticipation of a project being approved and works to convince the approval committee of the necessity and merit of the proposed research.
What are you trying to accomplish?
Research proposals, both for students and scientist/researchers are written to prove that a particular research project is valuable to the field and worth researching. Businesses and organizations need to approve research ideas as they are the ones providing the highly-sought after grants and funding to support the project. And likewise academic committees must approve proposals for funding and for general requirements that allow students to move forward in their post-graduate studies.
After reading a well-structured research proposal a researcher should plainly know WHAT you are studying, WHY it is important and HOW you will find your answer. Your approval committee wants to see that you not only have a good research question to fulfill but that it can also be answered properly, in realistic timeframe and that your findings will be beneficial.
What's the difference between a research proposal and a scientific report?
This is an excellent question as in many cases the formatting of the two are almost identical. The first obvious difference is that you are predicting what you think will happen rather than explaining what already occurred. Therefore you may want to bring to surface possible problems that you feel you may run into during your research and how you will overcome them. Also since you are seeking financial approval the methods section of your paper should include specific details to inform the committee of what materials are needed to complete your objective, the cost, quantity etc.
The main components of your proposal such as the Abstract, Introduction, Literature Review, Methods, Results, and Discussion are all similar to what is found in most scientific research papers. Though some things, such as the discussion section, may differ in your research proposal because rather than analyzing actual results you'll be trying to explain to the reviewer why the anticipated findings will be significant and impactful.
Also since you haven't actually conducted the research as of yet you can afford to and should limit your discussion in some areas. The introduction for example may not need to provide as much elaboration and detail on your topic as you would in the beginning of your actual research paper.
For the proposal your audience is very limited so in your introduction you want to simply and efficiently convince them into accepting your project. This can be achieved by (a) clearly and explicitly detailing your research objective as well as subcategories and major points (b) providing sufficient background information on the subject to provide a 'framework' for your research question (c) and explaining why your research is meaningful and worth studying.
Where to start?
Review your departments particular proposal deadlines and requirements and discuss them with an advisor if unsure of some information
Before you embark on this arduous journey of proposal writing you want to check that you have all your cards in order. Make sure that you know the department requirements well (maybe even memorize them) and that the proposal is realistic and attainable. Advisors and other professors are great to seek out in these situations as well because they've likely been in similar situations, and can assist you in going over the review process, what to expect, and how best to succeed.
If writing for other than academic reasons, the same rules apply. You should be very familiar with the particular organization or corporation that is requesting proposals and know their process inside and out.
Choose a topic that you feel comfortable with
A topic that comes naturally to you and that you've been exposed to for quite sometime will undoubtedly fare better than a topic that requires more time and effort in identifying key elements. If you know a topic well you may be able to easily identify (a) the patterns and trends in the literature (b) 'hot' topics or popular concepts and developments (c) the major contributors or researchers in the field (d) and the areas that would benefit most from your research.
Complete a comprehensive literature review
A thorough literature review demonstrates to your reviewers that you are well-versed in the subject matter and are an authority on the topic. Its necessary to find out what has been tried and tested in the field as well as to eliminate improbable research questions and topics that have already been studied.
Also remember that you want to show the approval committee that you can get the job done, and that its a job done that needs to be completed. How else can you adequately demonstrate that without an efficient literature review? You want them to have the background information required to properly understand the importance of your research question and prove to them that you are capable and qualified to answer that question.
Finalize your research objective/question
You should definitely have a research objective in mind early on but it may be difficult to actually formulate a final statement until you've read a lot of material on the topic. The more you study previous research the better you are able to construct a unique research question that covers a precise objective and all the relevant off-shoots of that question.
Create an outline
Outlines are priceless. A solid outline requires nothing more than filling in the blanks to formulate your first draft. You can begin by simply jotting down the main points that you identified in your research question and then add support details and statements for each point based on the sections of your proposal. Always keeping in mind that this is a proposal and not a research report.
For example, if in your research question you mentioned that Method 1 includes sampling 15 senior citizens then in your outline under Method 1 you should indicate details as to how you will obtain that sample. In the Results section of the paper you would explain why the results you obtain from that sample will aide you in accomplishing your research objective.
Get to work!
Now that you have all your jumpstart task completed you can begin forming your first draft. During this process you may ask yourself, why so much work before the actual research is even done? Well the reality is that many research proposals are submitted all the time and quite a few fail miserably. So remember that it is definitely worth it for you to put in the time and effort required to ensure that your proposal will receive the green light from the committee and not be another one gone to waste.
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