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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Writing a Research Proposal

This guide will help you understand what a research proposal is, how to write one, and will show you the proper resources to perfect your proposal.

Primary Components of a Research Proposal

Proposals for sponsored activities generally follow a similar format; variations depend upon whether the proposer is seeking support for a research grant, a training grant, or a conference or curriculum development project. The following outline covers the primary components of a research proposal. Your proposal will be a variation on this basic theme.

  1. Title Page: Most sponsoring agencies specify the format for the title page, and some provide special forms to summarize basic administrative and fiscal data for the project. Titles are brief but comprehensive enough to indicate the nature of the proposed work.
  2. Abstract: The funder may use the abstract to make preliminary decisions about the proposal. Therefore, an effective summary states the problem addressed by the applicant, identifies the solution, and specifies the objectives and methods of the project. This summary should also outline funding requirements and describe the applicant’s ability.
  3. Table of Contents: Brief proposals with few sections usually do not need a table of contents. Long and detailed proposals may require, in addition to a table of contents, a list of illustrations (or figures) and a list of tables. If all of these sections are included, they should follow the order mentioned, and each should be numbered with lower-case Roman numerals. The table of contents lists all major parts and divisions, including the abstract.
  4. Introduction (including Statement of Problem, Purpose of Research, and Significance of Research): The introduction of a proposal begins with a capsule statement and then proceeds to introduce the subject to a stranger. It should give enough background to enable an informed lay person to place your particular research problem in a context of common knowledge and should show how its solution will advance the field or be important for some other work. The statement describes the significance of the problem(s), referring to appropriate studies or statistics. 
  5. Background (including Literature Survey): Be sure to (1) make clear what the research problem is and exactly what has been accomplished; (2) to give evidence of your own competence in the field; and (3) to show why the previous work needs to be continued. The literature review should be selective and critical. Discussions of work done by others should lead the reader to a clear idea of how you will build upon past research and also how your work differs from theirs. 
  6. Description of Proposed Research (including Method or Approach): The comprehensive explanation of the proposed research is addressed to other specialists in your field. This section is the heart of the proposal and is the primary concern of the technical reviewers. Remember as you lay out the research design to:
  • Be realistic about what can be accomplished.
  • Be explicit about any assumptions or hypotheses the research method rests upon.
  • Be clear about the focus of the research.
  • Be as detailed as possible about the schedule of the proposed work.
  • Be specific about the means of evaluating the data or the conclusions.
  • Be certain that the connection between the research objectives and the research method is evident.
  • Spell out preliminary work developing an analytical method or laying groundwork as Phase 1.

At the end of this phase you will be able to report that you have accomplished something and are ready to undertake Phase 2.

  1. Description of Relevant Institutional Resources: Generally this section details the resources available to the proposed project and, if possible, shows why the sponsor should select this University and this investigator for this particular research. Some relevant points may be:
  • the institution's demonstrated skill in the related research area
  • its abundance of experts in related areas that may indirectly benefit the project
  • its supportive services that will directly benefit the project
  • and the institution's unique or unusual research facilities or resources available to the project
  1. List of References: The style of the bibliographical item itself depends on the disciplinary field. The main consideration is consistency; whatever style is chosen should be followed carefully throughout the proposal. 
  2. Personnel: This section usually consists of two parts: (1) an explanation of the proposed personnel arrangements and (2) the biographical data sheets for each of the main contributors to the project. The explanation should specify how many persons at what percentage of time and in what academic categories will be participating in the project. If the program is complex and involves people from other departments or colleges, make clear the organization of the staff and the lines of responsibility. Any student participation, paid or unpaid, should be mentioned, and the nature of the proposed contribution detailed. If any persons must be hired for the project, say so, and explain why, unless the need for persons not already available within the University is self-evident.
  3. Budget: Sponsors customarily specify how budgets should be presented and what costs are allowable. The budget lays out the costs to be met by the funding source, including personnel, non-personnel, administrative, and overhead expenses. The budget also specifies items paid for by other funding sources. Includes explanations for requested expenses.