What is a Research Proposal?

The research proposal is used to introduce an experiment and justify the need to study the problem. A proposal is simply a method of communicating what you are doing and why it is important. The ultimate purpose of a research proposal is to convince the reader (who may be a supervisor, or even a laboratory in which you wish to research) that your research is important and should take place as you have identified it.

You may have been tasked to write a research (or project) proposal for a class, or to participate in undergraduate research here at UVM. It’s good to get experience now, as this document is a very important part of graduate programs and beyond.

The Research Proposal

  • The background section of a proposal is similar to a literature review, because you must show that you have extensively researched this topic and your research will benefit the scientific community by filling a gap.
    • A literature review synthesizes current research on a topic by grouping peer-reviewed journal articles by topic and explaining the results of the studies. It is important to include a shortened version of a lit review in your proposal so the reader knows what has already been done in this field, and how your proposed research will fit in and further expand the knowledge base.
  • After the background, the specific project you are working on should be discussed. How does this background information connect to your research? How will your research answer a question posed in the background?
    • Try to fully explain what the main goal is, why you wish to reach this goal, and how you are going to reach this goal. It should be very clear, so that someone without knowledge of the specific topic can understand why your experiment should take place.

Annotated Example

This is an annotated example of a BIOL 098 proposal (new tab) required to enroll in the undergraduate research course at UVM. It is an abbreviated version of a more professional proposal, but this is the level of professional writing that undergraduates are expected to attain.

The main sections of this proposal are the background, discussion of the specific problem, list of skills that will be developed, and literature used in the background. The background here serves as a short literature review, showing that prior research has been completed on this topic. The list of skills to be developed is unique to educational programs, and would not usually be included in a professional research proposal because the researcher should already have all necessary skills. I have omitted some details from this proposal, as they are not important to understanding how to write a research proposal. Omitted sections will be signaled with “…[omitted]…” in place of the original text.