Research proposal guidelines

Purpose of research proposal

The idea of 'originality' is integral to research, and is also reflected in University guidelines and examination procedures for research degrees. In order to contribute to research it is necessary to do so in a way that is current or new. Research must be new in the sense that it is up to date with, and contributes something to existing research in the discipline on the topic area. For this reason, PhDs, Masters and Professional Doctorates by research are granted on the basis that the research makes 'an original contribution to knowledge' in a discipline. The research proposal process is designed to enable the University to ensure that the proposed research will fulfil the expected requirements of the degree and fall within its mission statement.

The research proposal process also serves to ensure that research is conducted in an efficient manner. The research proposal is used to:

  • generate useful feedback before the research commences, thereby avoiding problems and delays down the track;
  • ensure that you and your supervisors are clear about the proposed research;
  • enable the university to determine that the research can be completed within the given time frame and resource limitations;
  • inform ethics clearance, and to introduce your research to others within your local area and at conferences or other contexts.

At the University of South Australia, research students write a research proposal in the first six months of full-time candidature or in the first 12 months of part-time candidature. Professional Doctorate by Research students write their research proposal before the commencement of the research component of the degree. Successful completion of the research proposal is necessary in order to move from 'provisional' to 'confirmed' candidature status.

The proposal outlines the research as it is envisaged at the beginning of the research process. The research project may change shape somewhat as you progress your ideas, and it is not expected that the final thesis will conform exactly to what was proposed in the first six months of candidature.

Evaluation criteria

The Academic Regulations for PhD and Masters outline the evaluation criteria by which examiners assess the final research thesis:

  • demonstration of critical analysis and original thought in all aspects of the study;
  • demonstration of comprehensive and detailed knowledge of the literature and theory relevant to the field of study;
  • appropriate research methodologies;
  • the extent to which the thesis offers a significant original contribution to knowledge and/or to the application of knowledge within the field of study;
  • quality of the presentation of the thesis, including;
    • clarity of expression,
    • accuracy and appropriateness of presentation of results,
    • quality and relevance of illustrative material (such as graphs, tables, illustrations),
    • relevance and accuracy of citations, references,
    • development of a coherent argument;
  • worthiness of the thesis for publication.

In order to ensure that the proposed research will meet these requirements, reviewers evaluate research proposals with four key questions in their minds:

  1. Does the research pertain to an important problem, question, issue or concern?
  2. Will the research contribute something new to existing discipline knowledge about this problem?
  3. Does the research design support the research aims?
  4. Is the research do-able within the given time and resource constraints? Are there any special considerations that might affect the feasibility of the research?

Structure of the research proposal

The content and structure of the research proposal is designed to answer the key questions of reviewers:

  • What problem, issue or concern does the research address?
  • How will the research contribute to existing knowledge?
  • How will the research achieve its stated objectives?
  • Is the research do-able within the given time and resource constraints? Are there any special considerations that affect the feasibility of the research?

Good research proposals address these questions by showing that the research:

  • addresses a problem, issue, concern or conundrum;
  • provides new knowledge that will contribute to existing understandings;
  • adopts a method and methodology appropriate to the research question;
  • can be successfully completed within the given time, resource and other research constraints.

Reviewer concerns are typically addressed in research proposals in the following sections which also accord with the key questions introduced above: introduction, literature review, research design, and additional information.

  • Introduction─includes statement of the 'problem' or contextual background, definition of key terminology, description of the field of literature, as well as a summary of the gap in the literature, a statement of the aims, and a summary of the research design.
  • Literature review─reviews previous research to highlight what is 'significant' about your research, or outlines the contribution the research will make to a body of literature.
  • Methods and methodology─explains how the research design will fulfill the aims of the research or answer the research question, and addresses any ethical considerations or non-standard resource implications arising within the research process.
  • Additional information─a proposed time line for the research, budget, references, bibliography, and appendices which may contain protocols, information sheets and other information to support the proposal.

In general, research proposals are organised into the following sections:

  • introduction (sometimes also called 'background', 'context', or 'project description'),
  • literature (and artefact) review (or heading that reflects content of the review, for example: 'sociological studies of play'),
  • methodology and methods, 'research design', creative practice (or heading that reflects the research approach, for example: 'Auto-ethnography and palliative care'),
  • proposed timeline,
  • references (works cited),
  • bibliography (list of all relevant sources),
  • appendices.

University guidelines suggest that the research proposal contain the following elements.

Statement of the research topic and rationale for the research including:

  • explanation of why the topic is important,
  • proposed thesis title,
  • review of relevant research and theory,
  • explanation of why the literature and artefacts cited are important to the research,
  • research hypothesis or topic (clear indication of the focus of the research).

Research methodology including:

  • information about the theoretical or conceptual framework that will be employed,
  • analytical techniques and research design,
  • timetable or project plan,
  • ethical considerations,
  • trial table of contents (one or two pages),
  • brief bibliography.

Word limit

Word limits are designed to discipline the researcher to write with focus and clarity. Many research proposal guidelines allocate word limits to the sections of the proposal, with the majority going in the literature review and methodology sections. At the University of South Australia the word limit for the research proposal is between 10 and 20 pages in length. As a rough guide, a Masters level research proposal is around 3000 words and a PhD 4500 words. You might break down the word limit into the following sections: introduction─500; literature review─1000; methods─1000; other elements of the proposal─500. As you can see, this makes each section quite small requiring that you prioritise the information and present it in as clear and concise a manner as possible.

Review process

The process for reviewing research proposals differs according to the level of formality, the institutional context and the involvement of particular people or groups of people. A review may include some combination of the following:

  • an oral presentation at a seminar or colloquia,
  • a presentation to reviewer/s,
  • discussion with a review panel,
  • an independent reviewer,
  • a scored assessment,
  • a written assessment.

At the University of South Australia, review processes vary across local areas. It is therefore important to consult web sites, your supervisor, and the Research Education Portfolio Leader (REPL) in your local area for more information about what is expected.

There are however some common features within the review process at the University.

Deadlines for research proposals at the University are set early in the candidature and are recorded in the Statement of Agreement. If the deadline cannot be met, you may receive an extension of up to three months, as long as this is requested one month in advance of the submission deadline.

The supervisor must approve the proposal before it is lodged with the REPL in your local area.

The proposal is then reviewed by a panel to determine whether the proposal:

  • has been accepted,
  • requires amendments before it can be accepted and the candidature can be confirmed,
  • should not be accepted and the student should be suspended (this is rare!).

Following the review process, the panel makes a recommendation to the Dean of Graduate Studies who will write to let you know of the outcome. If the proposal requires amendments, the candidate and supervisor work together to revise the proposal in light of the panel's comments. A new deadline is set within which this must occur. If the proposal is rejected, you can apply for readmission to the degree.

Feedback on all proposals is usually provided in written form. Generally, feedback relates to the extent to which a proposal meets the requirements outlined above, and the clarity with which the elements of the proposal have been explained. Even where the proposal is accepted, changes are often suggested that will strengthen the research and these will need to be incorporated into the proposal and the research thesis.

The research proposal can be thought of as a working document which will be redrafted to form the introduction of the research thesis.

Content of the research proposal


The introduction contains:

  • a succinct statement of the topic (opening sentence);
  • an explanation of the problem or issue motivating the research;
  • reference to the field or fields of study the research grows out of and aims to contribute to (in terms that are widely recognised both within and beyond the field, for example, 'early childhood education');
  • a summary overview statement of the focus or approach of previous literature and research in the field of study;
  • a concise description of the 'gap' within the literature (this will then be repeated at the end of the literature review section of the proposal);
  • a concise statement of one of the following─research hypothesis, question, aim or objectives;
  • a concise description of the methods and methodology or approach to creative practice (similar to what is provided in the introduction of the method and methodology section of the proposal);
  • concise definitions of any specialist terms used throughout the proposal.

Literature review

The literature review section contains:

  • an introduction to the central concerns or questions in the literature;
  • a discussion of existing knowledge and approaches in the field to date;
  • a description of similarities and differences in approaches within the literature;
  • an argument for a 'gap', an unresolved question, controversy or issue within the literature;
  • a statement of what the proposed research aims to offer to the existing field of literature.

Research design

The research design contains, depending on the nature of the research, information about:

  • underlying research rationale or methodology;
  • definition of terminology specific to the research design;
  • description of the methods used;
  • description of the research phases and the relationship between the research phases;
  • key concepts, themes related to art/literary work;
  • creative process and narrative structure/materials/symbolism/use of space for creative work;
  • study setting─naturalistic or contrived;
  • time horizon─snapshot, longitudinal, retrospective, multiple points in time;
  • pilot project information and results that shaped the research design;
  • selection criteria for research participants/organisations/texts (sample selection, criteria for inclusions and exclusions);
  • limitations of the research (generalisability, experimental skews, definitional and purpose limitations);
  • information about the selection process (means by which information sources will be negotiated and accessed);
  • any equipment, special techniques, measures, measurement scales;
  • information about how data will be analysed;
  • non-standard ethical considerations arising from the research, if any (potential for exploitation, harm or coercion of research subjects or of the researcher, undue pain or distress to animals, use of hazardous substances);
  • non-standard resource requirements.

Additional information

If there are any factors that could influence on-time completion of the research, these must be identified and discussed in the research design or within an additional section of the research proposal following the research design. Factors affecting the feasibility of the research could include:

  • access to non-standard resources and equipment (travel, expensive items, specialised technical facilities and expertise);
  • special features such as joint research, (specify the names, titles and organizations of co-researchers, the precise nature of their commitment to the project, and how the research relates to the larger project);
  • special needs of the researcher, for example needs arising from a disability (specify equipment needed, and other implications for the conduct of the research).


Following the research design section, all research proposals should include a succinct, provisional outline of what you propose to have produced or achieved every six months.

When developing a timeline it is useful to work backwards. The first thing to do is to set and record the submission date with your supervisor. It is safest to choose the earliest possible date. Although you might have cause to apply for an extension later down the track, you should not start your research with this assumption.

The next step is to work out what needs to be done during this time. On top of actually devising and doing the research, and gathering and analysing literature and data, you will probably need to write at least three complete drafts of your thesis. The first one will take the longest, and the second a little less. The third draft is quicker, involving filling in gaps, improving the flow of the story line, and finalising formatting and editing changes.

Some tips in determining timelines:

  • Most people underestimate the time it takes to write by about 30%. If you have allowed six months, it will probably take eight.
  • Do not assume that everything will run smoothly─build in contingency time (extensions are generally granted for extraordinary circumstances that affect the research process only).
  • Be careful not to over-estimate your concentration span. Some research projects go for two or three years full-time, twice that if part-time. This is a long time to maintain focus. The best idea is to build in some ‘time-out’ for yourself. Full-time candidates are entitled to four weeks recreation leave, as well as to sick leave and some other leave entitlements. Be sure to allow time for recreation leave in your work plan.

Chronological Timeline

Below is an example of a timeline for a quantitative research project.

March─August 1999

Write research proposal
Commence literature search
Research degrees candidates annual seminar

September 1999─February 2000

Submit Ethics application
Draft introduction
Commence thesis literature review
Recruit subjects

March 2000─October 2000

Data collection and analysis
Continue writing literature review

November 2000─March 2001

Complete data collection
Complete data entry
Complete data analysis

April 2001─October 2001

Submit abstract for conference
Attend conference
Write up results
Write up discussion

November 2001─March 2002

Edit thesis
Submit thesis
Final review

References and appendices

Don't forget to include:

  • a trial table of contents;
  • reference list in appropriate style for your discipline area (if in doubt, use the referencing style of the leading journal in your area);
  • a bibliography─optional (includes other major works in the field that will be drawn upon);
  • appendices, attached in the order in which they appear in the proposal, with the same label in the appendix and in the body of the writing (appendices can include chapter outlines and thesis structure, research instruments, information sheets, consent forms, letters and email drafts for recruiting research participants).


In essence, the research proposal is designed to ensure the success of the University's mission, to produce research and scholarship that improves our understanding of important concerns, as well as the candidate's progress through the higher degree to successful completion. Reviewer/s want to be reassured that:

  • the research will fulfil the degree requirements (the research is important, new in a well-defined discipline area and appropriately conceived);
  • the necessary resources are available;
  • the research will be finished on time.

The resources in this series provide information about how to write each of the major sections of the research proposal: the introduction, the literature review and the research design.

This resource was developed by Wendy Bastalich and Deb King.

Last modified: Friday, 2 October 2020, 6:12 PM