A research proposal informs the reader (your advisor) about the scope and scale of the issue or idea that you wish to explore in your project. Your proposal should include the following sections:
1. THE PROBLEM: provide a succinct statement (one paragraph)
Research is not a summary of what is available on a given topic but an original analysis of a specific problem. A research problem is distinct from a topic in that it is more specific and orients research toward an analysis or solution.
Research questions have to be complex. If you already know the answer to the question, or if it can be obtained through a few simple inquiries, it is not an adequate research problem. It should be a puzzle, a mystery that you want to solve. It should also require you to look at multiple sources. In introducing your problem in a research proposal, you should provide a succinct statement which will help you to remain focused on the issue that you are addressing and how the information you will be discussing is related to that issue.
2. BACKGROUND: create a common ground of understanding
In order for the reader to understand the issue you are presenting, it is necessary to provide a context. In a proposal, that section provides a brief overview of the larger issues and ideas of your topic, and how this specific research problem relates to these larger issues. Whatever you choose to highlight, the reader should be convinced that your research will contribute to our understanding of broader social, historical or cultural issues.
3. LITERATURE REVIEW: enter into the scholarly conversation
A research project should be original, rather than reproducing existing literature on the topic. Yet it is helpful to consider any current research as part of a scholarly conversation. The literature review section of your proposal is an opportunity to begin that conversation by reviewing the research to date, indicating what aspects of it your project will build upon and the ways that your proposed research differs from what has already been done. You should be able to identify themes that emerge from the existing research as well as its shortcomings. Or, you may find that what exists on the topic is truly excellent, but that it doesn’t account for the specific problem you have identified. In this section, you should also clarify the theoretical orientation of your project and identify specific sources from which you will draw.
4. OBJECTIVES: preliminary arguments
In order to build an argument, you must begin to lay out for the reader the claims you are making and the basis on which you are making them. You should also indicate, even in a preliminary fashion, the “solution” or interpretation you anticipate will result from your analysis of the problem. It’s likely (perhaps inevitable) that once you’ve completed your research and are writing your final paper, your “solution” will be rather different than you anticipated. That, in fact, may become a useful point for you to discuss in the conclusion to your work. But having some sense of the result you expect will help keep your work focused on the relevant issues and will keep you alert to information which may lead to conclusions other than what you expected.
Keep in mind that this is an initial proposal for your research. You have not fully worked out the argument you intend to present. The objectives you are presenting in the proposal are based on your initial research into the problem. Experienced researchers understand that the objectives of their problem get refined as their work progresses. Yours will, too.
5. METHODS: how the research will be conducted
Once you have provided a context for your research, you should be able to outline for the reader the specific steps you will take to address the problem you have identified. This will include a discussion of research methods. In this section, it is important to be clear about how each step, or how each specific method you will employ, will help you get at the problem that guides the research. In other words, if you say you will be doing focus groups, provide a rationale. Why is a focus group a better way to collect data for your research than a few in-depth interviews?
You should include a timetable for your research in this section. This is not set in stone, but can be helpful as your work progresses.
This is similar to the conclusion of any written piece. You should restate the gist of the problem, its relationship to larger issues, the information you will use to address this issue and what you anticipate you will discover.