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Research proposals

A guide to writing graduate level research proposals 

 The intent of this guide is to outline the potential uses and major sections of research proposals. This page is aimed at graduate students early in their studies who do not have experience writing proposals at the graduate level. The supervisor’s preferences and requirements should always be considered first, in conjunction with requirements and deadlines for theses and projects or papers in the School of Graduate and Postgraduate Studies. A research proposal is a proposed plan for conducting a research project which is used to ensure the focus and viability. Writing out the details of our ideas in a proposal requires planning the major steps involved. 

Situations when a research proposal is used

  • A proposal is frequently used as a preliminary assignment for a term paper. It helps the professor make sure the plan and resources are appropriate, so that the paper has a good possibility of being successfully completed.
  • During the process of approaching potential Master’s or PhD supervisors and committee members, a research proposal is presented to give them an idea of the project so they can determine whether it aligns with their research interests.
  • If you are already working with a supervisor or committee members, they can review the proposal and offer extremely valuable feedback. For this reason, graduate students are required to write a research proposal and have it reviewed and approved by their supervisor and readers or committee members prior to starting a major research project (MRP) Master's project or major paper or a master’s thesis Master's thesis
  • Later in the process, a formal research proposal is required in preparation for the PhD candidacy exam. This should be done according to the guidelines on PhD thesis and candidacy, the supervisor and committee members’ requirements.
  • Research ethics approval is required prior to conducting research involving humans. A research proposal is included in a research ethics application. Ontario Tech University has a well-developed Research Ethics Board (REB) website with all the necessary information on the ethics approval process. 
  • Research proposals are frequently used in writing scholarship or grant applications, such as graduate student external awards. Many external award applications require a research proposal which is used to evaluate the proposed research project for funding.  

Including a rationale

A research proposal communicates the topic under investigation, how it will be undertaken, steps and resources needed, and potential outcomes. More specifically, it should include a rationale for the choice of methodological approach. The rationale should be based on books and peer-reviewed articles by current authors. Another option is to propose two distinct methodological approaches, so that the supervisory committee can provide feedback about which approach they find the most suitable. 

Finally, writing the proposal helps the researcher deepen their knowledge of the subject through writing and develop their argument. A research proposal should be convincing and persuasive. It should make readers think your proposal is worth supervising, approving, funding, and carrying out. 

Dr. Cecile Badenhorst, professor in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland, explains the purpose of a research proposal in this video

Detailed outline of a research proposal 

Sections to include

The research proposal should contain the following sections in sequential order (Badenhorst; 2019d; Reid et al., 2017): 

  1. Introduction to the problem and background of the problem
  2. Problem/purpose statement and questions
  3. Literature review
  4. Methodology, data analysis and limitations
  5. Research strategy (data collection)
  6. Conclusion

Dr. Cecile Badenhorst, a professor in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland, explains the elements of a research proposal in this video.

Major sections in a research proposal

The following paragraphs describe each of the major sections in a research proposal in American Psychological Association APA referencing style. The specific formatting guidelines that are appropriate to your discipline (that is, science, engineering, social sciences, education, or other) should be adhered to. Supervisors may also provide direction on the format style. The Ontario Tech Library provides guidance on citation according to different styles. 

Title page

Project working title and institution 

Name of principal investigator and/or student researcher

Names of members of the research team or supervisory committee


After the title page, insert a page break in your document.


Abstracts should be 75 to 150 words.

In the abstract, include a summary of the research proposal. Describe the goal of the project. Describe the anticipated participants. Describe the anticipated methodology and data collection methods. Explain how the data will be analyzed. Explain the potential implications of the potential results of the research project. Explain the importance of this project. 

Key words: Include several key words which might be useful in searching for this research project in future.

After the abstract, insert a page break in your document.


The role of the introduction is to introduce the topic and purpose of the research. Explain the focus of the research and the motivation/rationale for the research. The researcher’s goals and orientation to the research should be explained. 

The introduction section should answer questions such as: Why should this research be conducted? Why should this research be conducted now? Why are you appropriate as the researcher? What will be accomplished with this research? What expectations do you have about this research? The introduction concludes with the inclusion of one or more working research questions and potential subquestions. 

Literature review

The literature review section should provide the theoretical and research background to your topic. This section should illustrate what is known about this area and what the cornerstone authors have to say about this topic. The following clip explains the Purpose of the review of literature in the research proposal (Badenhorst, 2019b). Below, Dr. Cecile Badenhorst, professor in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland, explains common components of the literature review in the research proposal (Badenhorst, 2019b). 

The topic of the review of literature should be divided into themes or chronological periods, as applicable. The themes are the subheadings in the main section of the review of literature. The following video clip about planning a literature review (Laurier Library, 2019) explains the process of finding themes and gaps in the literature, as well as strategies for undertaking the review of literature. Beneath each theme subheading, tell the story of that theme in your own words with frequent in-text citation for summary or paraphrase (Purdue Online Writing Lab, 2021). First, very briefly summarize the major studies, including the goal of the study, the participants (as applicable), the methodological approach or data collection method, the findings, and the implications. Next, present a synthesis of the findings. Discuss the findings of studies with similar findings while referring to the authors in an in-text citation by using two or more works in the same parentheses (Purdue Online Writing Lab, 2021). After that, critique any shortcomings or aspects of the research that may have been missed. 

In the final section of the review of literature, the gap in the research should be clearly indicated. Overtly state any aspects of the research topic that have been missed in the articles read for the review of literature. The following video clip from the UCLA library (2019) about Identifying research gaps in the literature. Follow these techniques to identify the area(s) with insufficient studies and highlight this in your proposal. 

Finally, in the following video, Dr. Cecile Badenhorst, professor in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland, gives a more detailed explanation of how to write the literature review section in a research proposal


In the methodology section, the writer details the approach to the research and the data collection. The headings and subheadings in the methodology section are explicitly stated. Clear rationales for the methodological approach and data collection choices are given. The following points should be explained sequentially, using headings and subheadings, as appropriate to the subject. 


The paradigm section is used only in the Faculties of Social Science and Humanities and Education. State the proposed paradigm and how it supports the proposed research question(s). Integrate references to sources discussing your paradigm here. 

The role of the researcher

This is a statement explaining the researcher’s positionality. This subsection is for qualitative research only. 

Proposed participants

In this section, the researcher describes in detail the participants who will be recruited for the study, including information such as age range, gender, occupation. The researcher should consult the guidelines of the Ontario Tech REB regarding eligible participants.

Inclusion and exclusion criteria

Here, the researcher explains the criteria for inclusion as a participant in the study, for example, age or occupation. 

Recruitment strategies

Here, the researcher explains the strategies that will be used to recruit the participants in the study. Will posters be used? Will word of mouth be used? Will ads be placed in a publication?

Target number of participants

In this subsection, the researcher explains the number of participants they will ideally recruit for the study and includes a rationale. 

Data collection procedures

This section includes a rationale for the data collection procedures drawing on current literature in the field and methodological sources. Also included in this section are the number of times data is collected, the format used, as well as specifically when, where, and how the data collection will occur. The researcher should consult the guidelines of the Ontario Tech REB regarding data collection (University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2022).

Data management 

This section explains in detail the procedures to be followed for storing and analyzing the data collected. The researcher should consult the guidelines of the Ontario Tech REB regarding data storage (University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2022).


In this video, Dr. Cecile Badenhorst, professor in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland, explains how to write the methodology section in the research proposal

Ethical considerations

In this section, clearly address any ethical considerations that have arisen in this proposed research project and explain how they will be dealt with. The following ethical considerations should be addressed sequentially, with clear rationales given: 

  1. Are you doing research with humans? 
  2. If yes, have you contacted the Ontario Tech REB  about making an application for ethics approval (University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2022)? 
  3. The research proposal includes ethical procedures in accordance with the Ontario Tech REB requirements (University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2022). 

Findings, discussion and limitations

It is not necessary to include the sections titled Findings, discussion and limitations as the study has not yet been conducted.


In the conclusion section, the researcher should explain why the proposed research would be valuable to the academic community. One could potentially mention the different communities it could positively affect.


In the references section, include a list of cornerstone works in this field. These works will have been discussed in the other sections. The references listed in the research proposal are the beginning of the reading list for the thesis or research project. The citation style specified by the supervisor should be followed, with APA, IEEE, Vancouver being the most common. If the researcher does not know how to reference a source, it is completely acceptable to ask questions of the supervisor or to make an appointment with a writing specialist on the Student Life Portal

It is very important to use citation management software to keep your many sources organized and to facilitate citation and referencing.  The Ontario Tech Library has information available about citation management tools (University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2022b). You can also make an appointment with a Subject Librarian in your area to discuss this further. 


The appendices should include a draft of the timeline for project completion and graduation, and a budget, if applicable. Include any instruments, software, equipment, or books needed to complete the project. For example, if the project entails using specialized software that is not known to the potential audience of the proposal, include information about it here. Finally, ethics approval documents (consent forms, information letters, recruitment posters, recruitment emails) should be included in an appendix. Samples are available on the Ontario Tech Research Ethics Board site Resources (University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2022).



Badenhorst, C. (2019a, February 11). Writing the methodology sections in a research proposal [Video]. YouTube. 

Badenhorst, C. (2019b, February 13). Writing the literature review for a research proposal [Video]. YouTube. 

Badenhorst, C. (2019c, February 28). What is the purpose of a research proposal? [Video]. YouTube. 

Badenhorst, C. (2019d, February 28). What goes into a research proposal [Video]. YouTube.

Creswell, J. W. (2014). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (4th edition). Sage.

Laurier Library. (2019, March 29). Planning a literature review [video]. YouTube. 

Purdue Online Writing Lab. (2021). In-text citations: The basics. Purdue University. 

Purdue Online Writing Lab. (2021). In-Text Citations: Author/Authors. Purdue University. 

Reid, C., Greaves, L., & Kirby, S. (2017). Experience, research, social change: Critical methods (3rd edition). University of Toronto Press.

UCLA Library. (2019, October 15). Identifying research gaps [video]. YouTube. 

University of Ontario Institute of Technology. (2022). Welcome to the Ontario Tech Research Ethics Board. Research Ethics Board. 

University of Ontario Institute of Technology. (2022b, March 10). Citation management tools. Citation Management. 



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