Structure Of A Research Paper Proposal Outline

Beginning the Proposal Process

As with writing a regular academic paper, research proposals are generally organized the same way throughout most social science disciplines. Proposals vary between ten and twenty-five pages in length. However, before you begin, read the assignment carefully and, if anything seems unclear, ask your professor whether there are any specific requirements for organizing and writing the proposal.

A good place to begin is to ask yourself a series of questions:

  • What do I want to study?
  • Why is the topic important?
  • How is it significant within the subject areas covered in my class?
  • What problems will it help solve?
  • How does it build upon [and hopefully go beyond] research already conducted on the topic?
  • What exactly should I plan to do, and can I get it done in the time available?

In general, a compelling research proposal should document your knowledge of the topic and demonstrate your enthusiasm for conducting the study. Approach it with the intention of leaving your readers feeling like--"Wow, that's an exciting idea and I can’t wait to see how it turns out!"


In general your proposal should include the following sections:

I.  Introduction

In the real world of higher education, a research proposal is most often written by scholars seeking grant funding for a research project or it's the first step in getting approval to write a doctoral dissertation. Even if this is just a course assignment, treat your introduction as the initial pitch of an idea or a thorough examination of the significance of a research problem. After reading the introduction, your readers should not only have an understanding of what you want to do, but they should also be able to gain a sense of your passion for the topic and be excited about the study's possible outcomes. Note that most proposals do not include an abstract [summary] before the introduction.

Think about your introduction as a narrative written in one to three paragraphs that succinctly answers the following four questions:

  1. What is the central research problem?
  2. What is the topic of study related to that problem?
  3. What methods should be used to analyze the research problem?
  4. Why is this important research, what is its significance, and why should someone reading the proposal care about the outcomes of the proposed study?

II.  Background and Significance

This section can be melded into your introduction or you can create a separate section to help with the organization and narrative flow of your proposal. This is where you explain the context of your proposal and describe in detail why it's important. Approach writing this section with the thought that you can’t assume your readers will know as much about the research problem as you do. Note that this section is not an essay going over everything you have learned about the topic; instead, you must choose what is relevant to help explain the goals for your study.

To that end, while there are no hard and fast rules, you should attempt to address some or all of the following key points:

  • State the research problem and give a more detailed explanation about the purpose of the study than what you stated in the introduction. This is particularly important if the problem is complex or multifaceted.
  • Present the rationale of your proposed study and clearly indicate why it is worth doing. Answer the "So What? question [i.e., why should anyone care].
  • Describe the major issues or problems to be addressed by your research. Be sure to note how your proposed study builds on previous assumptions about the research problem.
  • Explain how you plan to go about conducting your research. Clearly identify the key sources you intend to use and explain how they will contribute to your analysis of the topic.
  • Set the boundaries of your proposed research in order to provide a clear focus. Where appropriate, state not only what you will study, but what is excluded from the study.
  • If necessary, provide definitions of key concepts or terms.

III.  Literature Review

Connected to the background and significance of your study is a section of your proposal devoted to a more deliberate review and synthesis of prior studies related to the research problem under investigation. The purpose here is to place your project within the larger whole of what is currently being explored, while demonstrating to your readers that your work is original and innovative. Think about what questions other researchers have asked, what methods they have used, and what is your understanding of their findings and, where stated, their recommendations. Do not be afraid to challenge the conclusions of prior research. Assess what you believe is missing and state how previous research has failed to adequately examine the issue that your study addresses. For more information on writing literature reviews, GO HERE.

Since a literature review is information dense, it is crucial that this section is intelligently structured to enable a reader to grasp the key arguments underpinning your study in relation to that of other researchers. A good strategy is to break the literature into "conceptual categories" [themes] rather than systematically describing groups of materials one at a time. Note that conceptual categories generally reveal themselves after you have read most of the pertinent literature on your topic so adding new categories is an on-going process of discovery as you read more studies. How do you know you've covered the key conceptual categories underlying the research literature? Generally, you can have confidence that all of the significant conceptual categories have been identified if you start to see repetition in the conclusions or recommendations that are being made.

To help frame your proposal's literature review, here are the "five C’s" of writing a literature review:

  1. Cite, so as to keep the primary focus on the literature pertinent to your research problem.
  2. Compare the various arguments, theories, methodologies, and findings expressed in the literature: what do the authors agree on? Who applies similar approaches to analyzing the research problem?
  3. Contrast the various arguments, themes, methodologies, approaches, and controversies expressed in the literature: what are the major areas of disagreement, controversy, or debate?
  4. Critique the literature: Which arguments are more persuasive, and why? Which approaches, findings, methodologies seem most reliable, valid, or appropriate, and why? Pay attention to the verbs you use to describe what an author says/does [e.g., asserts, demonstrates, argues, etc.].
  5. Connect the literature to your own area of research and investigation: how does your own work draw upon, depart from, synthesize, or add a new perspective to what has been said in the literature?

IV.  Research Design and Methods

This section must be well-written and logically organized because you are not actually doing the research, yet, your reader has to have confidence that it is worth pursuing. The reader will never have a study outcome from which to evaluate whether your methodological choices were the correct ones. Thus, the objective here is to convince the reader that your overall research design and methods of analysis will correctly address the problem and that the methods will provide the means to effectively interpret the potential results. Your design and methods should be unmistakably tied to the specific aims of your study.

Describe the overall research design by building upon and drawing examples from your review of the literature. Consider not only methods that other researchers have used but methods of data gathering that have not been used but perhaps could be. Be specific about the methodological approaches you plan to undertake to obtain information, the techniques you would use to analyze the data, and the tests of external validity to which you commit yourself [i.e., the trustworthiness by which you can generalize from your study to other people, places, events, and/or periods of time].

When describing the methods you will use, be sure to cover the following:

  • Specify the research operations you will undertake and the way you will interpret the results of these operations in relation to the research problem. Don't just describe what you intend to achieve from applying the methods you choose, but state how you will spend your time while applying these methods [e.g., coding text from interviews to find statements about the need to change school curriculum; running a regression to determine if there is a relationship between campaign advertising on social media sites and election outcomes in Europe].
  • Keep in mind that a methodology is not just a list of tasks; it is an argument as to why these tasks add up to the best way to investigate the research problem. This is an important point because the mere listing of tasks to be performed does not demonstrate that, collectively, they effectively address the research problem. Be sure you explain this.
  • Anticipate and acknowledge any potential barriers and pitfalls in carrying out your research design and explain how you plan to address them. No method is perfect so you need to describe where you believe challenges may exist in obtaining data or accessing information. It's always better to acknowledge this than to have it brought up by your reader.

V.  Preliminary Suppositions and Implications

Just because you don't have to actually conduct the study and analyze the results, it doesn't mean you can skip talking about the analytical process and potential implications. The purpose of this section is to argue how and in what ways you believe your research will refine, revise, or extend existing knowledge in the subject area under investigation. Depending on the aims and objectives of your study, describe how the anticipated results will impact future scholarly research, theory, practice, forms of interventions, or policymaking. Note that such discussions may have either substantive [a potential new policy], theoretical [a potential new understanding], or methodological [a potential new way of analyzing] significance.
 
When thinking about the potential implications of your study, ask the following questions:

  • What might the results mean in regards to the theoretical framework that underpins the study?
  • What suggestions for subsequent research could arise from the potential outcomes of the study?
  • What will the results mean to practitioners in the natural settings of their workplace?
  • Will the results influence programs, methods, and/or forms of intervention?
  • How might the results contribute to the solution of social, economic, or other types of problems?
  • Will the results influence policy decisions?
  • In what way do individuals or groups benefit should your study be pursued?
  • What will be improved or changed as a result of the proposed research?
  • How will the results of the study be implemented, and what innovations will come about?

NOTE:  This section should not delve into idle speculation, opinion, or be formulated on the basis of unclear evidence. The purpose is to reflect upon gaps or understudied areas of the current literature and describe how your proposed research contributes to a new understanding of the research problem should the study be implemented as designed.


VI.  Conclusion

The conclusion reiterates the importance or significance of your proposal and provides a brief summary of the entire study. This section should be only one or two paragraphs long, emphasizing why the research problem is worth investigating, why your research study is unique, and how it should advance existing knowledge.

Someone reading this section should come away with an understanding of:

  • Why the study should be done,
  • The specific purpose of the study and the research questions it attempts to answer,
  • The decision to why the research design and methods used where chosen over other options,
  • The potential implications emerging from your proposed study of the research problem, and
  • A sense of how your study fits within the broader scholarship about the research problem.

VII.  Citations

As with any scholarly research paper, you must cite the sources you used in composing your proposal. In a standard research proposal, this section can take two forms, so consult with your professor about which one is preferred.

  1. References -- lists only the literature that you actually used or cited in your proposal.
  2. Bibliography -- lists everything you used or cited in your proposal, with additional citations to any key sources relevant to understanding the research problem.

In either case, this section should testify to the fact that you did enough preparatory work to make sure the project will complement and not duplicate the efforts of other researchers. Start a new page and use the heading "References" or "Bibliography" centered at the top of the page. Cited works should always use a standard format that follows the writing style advised by the discipline of your course [i.e., education=APA; history=Chicago, etc] or that is preferred by your professor. This section normally does not count towards the total page length of your research proposal.


Develop a Research Proposal: Writing the Proposal. Office of Library Information Services. Baltimore County Public Schools; Heath, M. Teresa Pereira and Caroline Tynan. “Crafting a Research Proposal.” The Marketing Review 10 (Summer 2010): 147-168; Jones, Mark. “Writing a Research Proposal.” In MasterClass in Geography Education: Transforming Teaching and Learning. Graham Butt, editor. (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), pp. 113-127; Krathwohl, David R. How to Prepare a Dissertation Proposal: Suggestions for Students in Education and the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005; Procter, Margaret. The Academic Proposal. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Punch, Keith and Wayne McGowan. "Developing and Writing a Research Proposal." In From Postgraduate to Social Scientist: A Guide to Key Skills. Nigel Gilbert, ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006), 59-81; Sanford, Keith. Information for Students: Writing a Research Proposal. Baylor University; Wong, Paul T. P. How to Write a Research Proposal. International Network on Personal Meaning. Trinity Western University; Writing Academic Proposals: Conferences, Articles, and Books. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Writing a Research Proposal. University Library. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Research Papers

Social science research papers combine the presentation of both argument and evidence in response to a core question. It is common for such papers to have a literature review that considers the work others have done to address the core subject.

Generic Research Paper Outline Example

There are many ways to structure a research paper. This is just one.

I. Introduction

State the core question; Tell the reader the significance of the question; Provide a brief version of your answer to the question; Provide an overview of the rest of the paper.

II. Theoretical Framework/Literature Review

Provide an overview of the possible explanations for your question. Include consideration of the broader literature that addresses your subject. Address your method for approaching the question.

III. Case Study (or Case Studies)

Apply the theoretical framework to one or more cases. This could involve multiple separate major sections of a research paper.

[IV.] Conclusion

Return to your core question. Summarize your core argument and findings. Discuss the broader implications or prospects for future research.

Policy Papers

One purpose of a policy paper is to make a prescription for future policies. The following is an example of how to structure such a paper.

Generic Policy Paper Outline Example

I. Introduction

State the core question; Tell the reader the significance of the question; Provide a brief version of your answer to the question; Provide an overview of the rest of the paper.

II. Criteria and Goals for the Policy

Provide clear and measurable criteria for assessing the success of a policy choice.

III…  Policy Choices

State specific policy choices. Apply all identified criteria to each policy choice.

[IV.] Conclusion

Return to your core question. Summarize your policy recommendation and findings. Discuss the broader implications or prospects for future research.

Theses and Long Projects

It goes without saying that there is no simple formula on how to optimally structure your work. Different analyses demand different frames of presentation, and the wealth of the structure types available are limited only by how creative a writer can be with his or her analytical and writing style. Still, there are a couple of key tenets that can (and probably should) be considered when addressing this crucial step to producing your research work.

First, you should always remember that when it comes to structure, the central consideration should be answering the question of: What is the best and most effective way of getting my reader to know exactly what is going on, or to buy what I’m trying to say?

Second, give some thought to the kind of analysis you’re doing. A study chasing a trend throughout history would probably do well by divvying chapters up according to time periods, or yaers. An analysis comparing and contrasting a controlled event throughout various geographic locations could benefit from having chapters go by regions. Your organization could also be more atypical than that: chapters can be broken down based on concepts (with countries or time periods being held constant), or divided according to key individuals and organizations.

Third, a chapter should capture and put forward one complete overarching component of your argument, as each section within the chapter covers a smaller potion of that overaching component. It’s more or less a follow-through on the basic idea of arguments, in that each argument can be broken down into smaller pieces which are integral or concretely supportive of the whole. Think about it as somewhat equivalent to the biological levels of organization of living things:

A collection of cells is a tissue. A collection of tissues is an organ. A collection of organs is an organ system. A collection of organ systems is an organism.

The composition of an argument – especially when we think of it in terms of an extended written arugment – very much echo these biological levels of organization. When considering how the table of contents of your thesis is going to look like, perhaps think of it this way.

Examples

The following are some examples of theses organizations, represented by central arguments and table of contents:

“Stemming the Nuclear Tide: Coercive Diplomacy and US Nonproliferation Efforts, 1964-Present.”

By: Nicholas LeSuer Miller, Class of 2009.

Thesis: “By examining the universe of cases since the Chinese test where the U.S. has made an effort to halt a state’s nuclear weapons program, and analyzing these cases within the broader theory of coercive diplomacy, this work seeks to explain why the U.S. has succeeded in certain non-proliferation efforts and failed in others.” (p. 6)

Table of Contents:

    1. Introduction
    2. Pakistan: Looking the Other Way
    3. South Korea: Coercing a Cold War Ally
    4. Israel: Half-Hearted Diplomacy
    5. Taiwan: Persistence Pays Off
    6. South Africa: Too Little Too Late
    7. Libya: Unsolicited Success
    8. India: Nonproliferation Policy Paralysis
    9. North Korea: Failure at Every Turn
    10. Findings and Implications.

This thesis has a very straightforward and clear approach; because this writer’s analysis focuses on country-specific differences regarding a common controlled event/concept (in this case, American non-proliferation efforts), it makes perfect structural and argumentative sense to manage chapters by countries.

The same principle can be applied to temporal comparisons or between concepts and events – essentially anything that has a clear and definitive conceptual quality.

“Organizing African Unity: a Pan-African Project.”

By: Kathryn Hana Cragg, Class of 2008.

Thesis: “This paper examines the history of continental cooperation, focusing on a comparative analysis of the OAU and the AU. It will argue that a particular set of domestic and international factors interplayed to create the OAU in 1963. As a result of historical divisions from the colonial age, the paper contends that the OAU suffered from regional and historic divisions from its inception.” (p. 5)

Table of Contents:

    1. Introduction
    2. Chapter 1 – Explaining African Alignment
      • Introduction
      • Part I – Traditional International Relations Perspectives
      • Part II -African Cooperation: A Unique Experience
      • Part III – New Outlooks on Third World Alignment
      • Conclusion
    3. Chapter 2 – The Beginnings of Cooperation – A Newly Independent Africa
      • Nkrumah’s Beginnings
      • The Conferences of Independent African States
      • The Brazzaville-Casablanca Split
      • Congolese Civil War
      • The Monrovia Block
      • Unity Revisited
    4. Chapter 3 – The Organization of African Unity
      • Conference at Addis Ababa
      • The Charter of OAU
      • Structure of OAU
      • Responsibilities of the OAU
      • Factors in the Formation of the OAU
      • History and Downfall of the OAU
      • Conclusion
    5. Chapter 4 – The Birth of the African Union
      • Introduction
      • OAU Legacy and a Culture of Change
      • South African Foreign Policy: The African Renaissance and NEPAD
      • Obasanjo’s Reform Package and the Creation of the AU
      • Colonel Muammer Gaddafi and Libyan Integration
      • Objective and Principles of the CA
      • Structure of the AU
      • The AU – A Security Community?
    6. Conclusion.

This thesis follows a slightly more complex strategy. The writer began by laying a conceptual foundation with her initial chapter – a solid idea if one is tackling a particularly conceptually messy phenomena (that is, of course, not to say that nuclear non-proliferation efforts are not conceptually messy). The analysis then progressed on a somewhat temporal route, breaking down large sections according to “eras” linearly along the time-line. Notice, however, the fact while the writer divided the sections by time-line, she wrote the subsections by mixing both particular events and theoretical discussions. Once again, go with what best and most effectively presents your argument.

“Rethinking Repression: Exploring the Effectiveness of Counterterrorism in Spain.”

By: Evan James Perkoski.

Thesis: “I argue that legal, nonviolent forms of counterterrorism are the most effectiveat reducing the frequency of terrorist attacks.” (p. 4)  “The goal of this thesis is to provide a quantitative assessment of the relative ability of counterterrorist tactics to reduce the likelihood of terrorist incidents.” (p. 5)

Table of Contents:

    1. Chapter 1: Introduction
      • Central Question
      • Significant of the Study
      • Research Design
      • Why Spain?
      • The First Step: Defining Terrorism
      • Implications of the Study
      • Thesis Layout
    2. Chapter 2: Literature Review and Extant Findings
      • What defines effective counterterrorism?
      • Understanding Counterterrorism
      • The Options: What do Government have to choose from?
      • Repressive Policies
      • Conciliatory Policies
      • Legal Reform and Restriction
      • Indiscriminate vs. Discriminate Actions
      • Additional Policy Concerns: Group Motivations, Structural Factors, Institutional Restrains, and Information Asymmetries.
      • Problems with previous studies of counterterrorism
    3. Chapter 3: Spanish Counterterrorist Policies, 1970-2004.
      • Research Design
      • Introduction to Series Hazard Modeling
      • Results
      • Conclusions
      • Study Limitations and Further Research
    4. Chapter 4: Spanish Counterterrorist Tactics, 1988-1992.
      • Rationale for Choosing 1988-1992
      • Event Data and TABARI
      • Research Design
      • Results
      • Conclusions
      • Study Limitations
    5. Chapter Five: Overall Findings and Conclusions
      • Using Politics to Deter Political Violence
      • Violence: A Viable Option to Fight Terrorism?
      • Restricting Terrorists to Deter Terrorism
      • Effectiveness of Policy Combinations
      • Discriminate vs. Indiscriminate Actions
      • Theoretical Contributions and Policy Implications
      • Conclusion
    6. References

As opposed to the earlier two examples, this thesis specifically raises and examines the effectiveness of a self-conceived (or observed) theory. To this end, the writer looks first at presenting and arguing for all aspects of the theory, which can be seen with the first chapter. It is worth noting that many qualifications goes into his discussion, explaining just about every major choice he makes with respect to his model.

This work also has the added complication of being a predominantly quantitative analysis. As such, it is proper that a good number of sections were dedicated to exposition, analysis, and discussion of the techniques that he used, including even the software involved.

The meat of the research here lies in the third and fourth chapters, which examines policies and tactics respectively. In similar theses, these would be the case study analysis sections, where the theory proposed earlier is applied and interacted with studied events or occurrences.

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