Structuring your research proposal

What you need to include in your doctorate research proposal, including structure, methodology and ethical considerations.

Research proposal structure

1. A summary or abstract

One or two paragraphs that summarise what you will do in the research project and how you will do it.

2. Problem, question or hypothesis

The key details, approaches or framings the research project will focus on. If hypotheses are appropriate they should be stated along with a rationale. If a hypothesis isn’t appropriate, the research problems or questions should be clearly stated and examined.

3. Importance of the research topic

Your thesis must make an original contribution to knowledge. Thus, you must show how your proposed research is important enough to justify your efforts (and the efforts of anyone else involved in your research). You should should also include a statement about how the solution to the problem, or the answer to the question, can influence educational theory or practice.

4. Significant prior research

This should comprehensively demonstrate that you are aware of the major relevant sources of information in your chosen area. Most research projects arise out of considerable prior research, which should be summarised. You also need to show the relationship between your question or problem and this prior research.

5. Research methodology

The methodology section is one of the most important sections of your proposal. It demonstrates your understanding of the steps and skills necessary to undertake your intended research. It should be as explicit as possible, detailing how you will collect, analyse and present your data or research.

Examples of methodologies include:

  • Quantitative or qualitative research
  • Experimental methods in psychological research
  • A specialised approach to analysing concepts in philosophical research

Your choice of methodology should be justified by your research questions. For example if you are examining the relationship between two or more phenomena, a correlational methodology would be appropriate. Alternatively, a case study methodology would be appropriate for researching complex phenomena in their natural setting.

Be sure to describe your intended data collection and analysis techniques with as much detail as possible. They might change as you conduct your research, but you must still demonstrate that you have given a lot of thought into the practicalities of your research at this early stage. You should also note any major questions yet to be decided upon.

If you are gathering a sample of people or documents, you should outline your procedures for choosing this sample.

If you intend on giving interviews or handing out questionnaires, you should provide examples of the types of questions you will ask.

If you intend on using experimental situations to collect data, you should describe as many of its elements as possible. This could include:

  • Your chosen subject types (age, school level, quantity)
  • Types of materials to be used
  • What will be measured (achievement, attitudes, beliefs, etc)
  • Data collection methods (self-reporting, observation, clinical diagnosis)

6. Ethical considerations

All university research is expected to conform to acceptable ethical standards and proposals. Research involving human participants must also be approved before the research commences by the University of Auckland Human Subjects Ethics Committee.

Ethical concerns can arise in how research is conducted and the ways these research findings may later be used. You must take into account any areas of responsibility towards your research subjects at the planning stage, and provide strategies for addressing them in the methodology.

Examples of areas of responsibility could include:

  • The securing of informed consent
  • Confidentiality
  • Preservation of anonymity
  • Avoidance of deception or adverse effects

A research proposal involving Māori and minority groups/communities should demonstrate that the researcher has had adequate background preparation for working in that area. It should also outline the extent to which members of that group/community will be involved or consulted in the overall supervision of the project and the dissemination of the research findings.

To read the University’s ethics guidelines and submit an application, visit the Human Participants Ethics Committee page.

7. Analysis of information

How you intend to analyse your gathered information is a vital part of the assessment of your research proposal. You should clearly describe how you can answer your research questions based on the information you have gathered. In other words, "How will you figure out what it all means?"

Be explicit. For example, if you plan to collect evidence by a questionnaire and subsequent statistical analysis, you should describe the likely method of analysis and possible outcomes.

In another example, if you plan to use a case study approach, describe how you plan to identify the key themes and patterns in your data and the procedures you will use to check the validity of your analysis.

Sample analysis description

"The analysis of variance procedure will be used to determine whether the total score on the questionnaire is greater for experienced teachers, as expected than, for teachers in training.

“If, however, teachers in training are found to have a higher score this would mean that…"  

8. Limitations and key assumptions

This section should contain a paragraph or two that defines the limits of your research. It’s common for students to try to do too much. This section is useful in defining how much you will undertake and the key assumptions that you will follow in building your arguments, models, or experiments.

Again be specific. Make statements such as, "This argument assumes that…", and "This research will not…".

9. References or bibliography

This final section details the major readings cited in your proposal, or the literature that contextualises your proposed research.