How to write a research project proposal

I started this series by introducing research projects but for the majority of students and probably anyone involved in projects (and project management) the starting point will be the creation of a project proposal. Today’s post will take you through the steps involved in writing your proposal while introducing you to sound project management skills to support you through your working life.

Project management skills are important for many people, not just students; so even if you’re not a student I urge you to read on. Even as a blogger, planning your posts, you may find something of benefit here.

What is the project proposal

The project proposal provides information to the people that you need to convince of the merits of your project so that they will approve your proposal and give you the go ahead to carry out the work.

I should point out that this post (and the series being produced) focuses on guidance in the fields of business/management and while there be some overlap with other academic disciplines, this may not be the case in all areas.

Your proposal will provide:

  • The business case – how will what you are proposing benefit society, academic research or organisations – if you’re basing your research on a particular organisation you will need to explain how this work will impact on it. 
  • information about your primary and secondary research methods (where you’re going to get the information and data from to provide your analysis.
    • you should provide a mini-literature review or in the least, a reading list
    • a primary research strategy – whether you will produce and distribute questionnaires, conduct interviews etc and why. 
  • Details about the resources (financial and non-financial) that you will need
  • What barriers or obstacles you may encounter and how you will overcome these
  • Information about how you will present your findings
  • Timetable for completion of the project

The more detailed you can make your proposal the easier it will be for your board to review and approve your proposal. They want to see whether you have thought through everything thoroughly and to assess the feasibility of the proposed project. Also the more work you put in here, there are some aspects that you will be able to carry into your main work – the literature review and research strategy for example.

Literature Review 

A major part of the proposal is the literature review. You will also provide a literature review in your main work, so its worth spending time investigating the literature at this stage. How much work you can do at this point will be determined by any word count set for the proposal, check with your own institution.

You are starting out by establishing whether sufficient literature exists on your topic for you to be able to complete the project. Your academic board may not let you proceed if there is not enough written on the topic, or they may have a chat about how you would get around this problem. At this stage its likely you won’t have a supervisor appointed as many Universities appoint them once they have the proposals and can see the areas of interest covered in the work. Certainly if you are worried there might not be enough literature, have a think about any other resources you could use – and you should probably also include this in the barriers section below. When I did my Masters in HRM I had a problem with little research in the specific area I was looking at, but working with my supervisor, we were able to identify associated areas where there was crossover, so I was still able to complete my work.

Once you have established there is enough literature you should ideally produce a brief literature review highlighting the key findings from the literature which supports your project. Some institutes will accept a reading list of the sources you have identified, but conducting a literature review allows you to develop your understanding of the field(s) you’re investigating. Additionally, you will probably be able to transfer most if not all of any literature review into your project, so this is also a good way of managing your time. 

Identify your research questions

Having worked with the literature, you should be able to come up with a working title for your project and some research questions – what are you trying to find out? Are you investigating why turnover is high in your organisation? Are you going to test some hypotheses? Are you going to investigate to what extent hybrid working is affecting turnover within your organisation? These are some examples of the types of questions you might ask if you were studying HRM. 

Your questions are not set in stone, but they should point you in the right direction and as you work on your project you may refine or change them depending on what your research throws up.


Once you’ve identified the questions you’re seeking to answer, the methodology section allows you to get the answers. However, its important to be organised so you have the best chance of getting good data for analysis. 

Your literature review should have given you some idea of research that has already been carried out in the field and how it was carried out. Has most research been done using questionnaires, interviews etc? Do they explain why they chose these methods? Would they be appropriate for you too? In addition to thinking about what other researchers did, you should also be aware of what the research methodology literature says about each of the different research methods, and what’s going to be appropriate for your situation. Many years ago I had a student who, from her reading, knew she should use interviews as they would produce the most indepth and detailed answers however because her participants would be working in an environment where this was impossible, she had to use questionnaires but recognised the limitations this may have on her findings.

You don’t need to provide too much detail in this section for your proposal, but I’d be looking for an indication of whether you’re going to use questionnaires, interviews, observations etc and why. I’d also like you to give me information about your sample size (how many people will fill in your questionnaire etc).

You should think about triangulation – that means using more than one type of primary research. This will add to the validity and reliability of your research if you get the same/similar results from the different sources but if there are differences, you should pick up on this in your analysis. Again, you don’t have to do all this analysis in the proposal, but you should show that you’ve considered triangulation. 

You’ll definitely need to look at ethical considerations in your project when you’re writing up your methodology section, but it might be worth thinking about how you will maintain confidentiality of your respondents when writing up this section for your proposal. It shows you’ve given everything consideration and you’re taking your work seriously.

I’ve talked about limitations with the research above in my example. This might fall under the barriers section below, but you should think about anything that could interfere with your research. For example, if your research is looking at the working conditions of nurses, could the industrial action in the UK delay your research. Again, a previous student of mine was looking into absence management within her company; she had done a lot of work and was just about ready to send out her questionnaires when management announced redundancies and her research was put on hold. My student had to wait a year before she could complete her studies. My advice would be don’t get too stressed, things like this happen sometimes and supervisors will be able to work with you to identify solutions.

Remember this is just for your proposal – its what you think you will do. I’ve found, over the years, that students will often need to adjust their plans as they work on the project. As I said above, what you put in your proposal is your thinking at the time, but as you gain knowledge, you may adapt and change this.

Resources Required

Usually students will simply list the costs, or the resources that require financial investment but you need to be broader. Generally, resources should include:

  • Time – yours, the time of others
  • Support of others – line managers, supervisor, respondents/interviewees – some people may be resistant, or wary – so getting buy-in from people is important
  • Top Management approval
  • Access to people, to equipment (internet, computer, printer, online databases etc)
  • Access to company data (I’ve seen this become a problem sometimes)
  • I’m sure there will be other resources required; but take time to think through everything you may need to do.


Sometimes students think this is the barriers they have in terms of finding the time to work on the project if they’re studying while holding down a job, family etc. This is not the case, you need to think about the barriers to completing the project successfully.

Barriers could be a lack of literature; not getting access to all the data; events interfering with your progress (strikes, changing circumstances – like the redundancies etc); people being suspicious of your intentions or of how you will use the data. There will be many other barriers or obstacles and each will be unique to your own circumstances but you need to keep focused on barriers or obstacles to carrying out the research. Once you’ve identified the barriers, you should consider how you will deal with them.

Its impossible to anticipate everything that could occur, but those approving your proposal will want to see that you’ve considered your obstacles and how you will overcome them.

Presentation of findings

As well as thinking about how you will present your final work, you should also think about how you will present this proposal although obviously that won’t be included in your proposal.

What are you told about the requirements? Do you need to make an oral presentation? If yes, think about how you put the information on the slides. You don’t want to cause information overload and you certainly don’t want to commit death by powerpoint.

Usually you will require to put something in writing – whether its a dissertation or thesis, or in the case of my students, a management report. When putting a lot of information in text be mindful of how that can look on the page/screen. Imagine what this lengthy post would look like if there were absolutely no headings. It would be difficult to read. Also, think about the size of your paragraphs. I’ve written elsewhere about writing style etc, so I’d suggest looking at them.

Since you will have been doing primary research I would expect you to present an analysis of your data, some of which will be in statisticial format. I would suggest that you consider using graphs, charts and tables etc rather than producing paragraphs full of numbers. Diagrams will have more impact, makes it easier to read and follow, and allows for better management of your word count.

Finally consider your target audience. Who are you presenting to? What kind of information will they be looking for (a Finance Director will be interested in numbers and costings) and what kind of language would be appropriate. Will they understand your jargon, or is it better to explain the terminology – or better still, avoid jargon completely.


During the project you may find that there are several things happening at the same time, the work is not purely linear (you don’t just work on one part at a time – you may be jumping back and forth) so its really important to create a detailed timeline so that you can see at a glance what you should be doing when, and to make sure you’re on track. It will also be used by your Supervisor to ensure you are being realistic about your timings.

Your timetable should provide details about when you will carry out the various tasks – researching and reading the literature, writing up the literature, composing questionnaires, sending them out (do they need to be approved first), setting up interviews … you need to go through the process and identify everything you need to do and then put it all together in some sort of planning timetable. Gantt charts are popular as a project management tool. As indicated, the key thing is that you are as detailed and as realistic as possible with whatever format you use to present your timetable.

In Conclusion

The research proposal is giving you the opportunity to do a lot of the ground work for your project and the timeline should make it easier for you to manage your time and ensure you keep on track.

Here are some links to additional posts which I hope you might find helpful:

If you have any questions or comments, I look forward to reading and responding to them in the Comments section.

I hope you have found this guide to writing project proposals useful and that you will find the complete series helpful. Sign up to my blog to ensure you don’t miss any future posts in the series.


  1. Oh goodness…were you peeking at me yesterday, Brenda? 😎 I’m working with a few doctoral students right now and without sharing more than I should…your reminder that a healthy literature review…which will guide the way to compelling research questions…cannot be overstated as a critical step in the process. I know you can expand on each of the points you make in great detail – and have – but your straightforward summary in this post is advice students should listen to. Big thumbs up from me, for what it’s worth! 😊

    • That is worth sooooo much coming from you Vicki 😁😘
      I’ll be taking my research project unit at the end of June, so im getting all my ducks in a row … ready 😁
      I will have posts for each bit in more detail over the weeks to come, but its a starting point

      Good luck with your doctoral students. Must admit I was never tempted to go beyond my Masters

      • It’s not for everyone (doctoral stuff, that is) and it’s not just about skill. Not everyone needs to accumulate degrees…look at all that you’re doing and have done. I think the trick is to get the education you need/want so you can turn around and help others and that’s exactly what you’re doing so well! 🥰

      • Thats it. I love what I’m doing and I can learn and develop further through doing 😁
        Mind you, I think I’m already accumulating … I think I have 5 degrees

  2. I took a class in “inquiry” in college as part of my teaching degree, and I don’t think it was laid out to me this clearly. I researched home schooling, interviewing families who did it successfully and those who had tried it and stopped for whatever reason. I created a questionnaire/self test for people considering home schooling, to determine BEFOREHAND whether it would be a good fit for their families. Everything I had read up to that point was either anti home schooling (bad for everyone) or pro (“If you love your kids, you’ll home school.”)

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. I think it’s important to try and help students understand what’s required, but its difficult sometimes to gwt it across in a short lecture and when you’ve limited time. That’s why I hope that my posts can provide some additional insight.

  3. Brenda, I’m so been enjoying your research educational series. It is amazing to me how few problem solving skills most people have. It should really be a mandatory 100 level class at all colleges and universities. Personally, I love research (yes I am a loser) and spend many a day in archives, yes it is historical but research skill are universal. It amazes me how many colleagues I’ve had to sit down adn walk them through researching a problem, an idea, etc. Some feel like it is condescending. Can;t help everyone. All the best.

    • I love that you are so engaged with research. Its the root of learning 😌 either you’re not a loser or there are a lot of us here 😁

  4. Good blog post Brenda. This topic took me down memory lane as a Student at University. Oh, I remember very clearly the module “Introduction to Research” or something like that, I barely remember though but after reading this blog, my mind was rewinding the days when I did assignments or projects like these , the methodology , the project , the research questions and finally presenting the work at the last week or submission day.

    This blog is well detailed and it is a guideline to follow as someone who wants to write a research project proposal or the literature review. The work here is mentally draining I know but if you want the project to be triumphant , there is no way but to do the work until project is complete. This applies to all personnel such as Bloggers, Copywriters, Editors, Students, Employees, Teachers and etc…💯

    • Thank you for your input and sharing your experience for others too. It can be exhausting, but it is also rewarding 😁

Leave a Reply