How to write your research proposal?

At a certain stage of your university degree, you must write a research proposal. Once approved, you have to do the research, solve a problem, and present the results.

In this post, I’ll show the elements you should add to your proposal, as well as the order of those elements.

Let’s get into it.

Table of Contents

The title page

The first page of your proposal should be the title page. Different universities have different formats, for instance, you might be asked to have a title page, and then the rest. Also, you might be asked to not use a whole page as the title page.

With disregard of the specific format required by your university or supervisor, the following elements should be present before you start writing the next section:

  • Title of your research project. This should be descriptive of what you are planning to do. A tip here is to not use a process as the title. This is a mistake that most students make. Instead of the process, use the result as the title. For instance, if you are creating a software, do not use as title “Development of a software for …”, instead, use “Software for …”.
  • What is this proposal for? For instance, “A research proposal submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of X”.
  • Your full name.
  • Your supervisor (and co-supervisor if any) name and affiliation.
  • The date.

1. Introduction

 Here you will give an introduction to the proposal.

Some students don’t write anything between two section titles. This section is one of them.

It is not a good practice to write two section titles without text in between. This usually means that one of the two titles is unnecessary.

1.1 Background of the study

In this section, you will give context to your research. You will describe a current situation that shows a gap in a certain knowledge or tools.

This section introduces the reader to the area where the problem you want to solve lies.

It is important you use references in this section to support your affirmations.

I wrote a full article with a detailed explanation of how to write the background of the study. You can find it here.

1.2 Statement of the problem

The statement of the problem section is for you to write the problem you want to solve. The problem should be concise and straight to the point.

Some points to consider while writing the problem statement are:

  • It is a social need, expressed or coming from the society.
  • It should represent a contradiction between theory and practice.
  • The answer to the problem cannot be yes or no or be trivial.
  • It should be specific, as opposed to too general.
  • It must be feasible to find a solution.
  • The solution cannot be part of the problem statement.

Pay special attention to the last point. Most students like to write what they think is the solution as part of the problem formulation.

You can find a detailed explanation with examples about how to write a problem statement in this link.

1.3 Objectives of the study

In this section, you will write the objectives of the research. These are usually divided into two: Main Objective and sub-objectives.

The main objective is closely related to the title of your research. It should state the final result you want to achieve.

The sub-objectives are objectives (“of less size”) that you need to achieve, to accomplish the main objective.

One mistake to avoid is to write the main objective also as a sub-objective.Find a guide here about how to write research objectives for a research proposal.

1.4 Hypotheses of the study

In some cases, you can write a hypothesis for your research. The hypothesis is a statement that shows the impact of your solution on the problem you want to solve.

You should have a hypothesis in your research whenever is possible. In Computer Science, the hypothesis can have the following structure:

  • If “I achieve my main objective”, then “The problem will be solved”.

You should substitute “I achieve my main objective” with the main objective of your research and “The problem will be solved” with the negation of the problem you stated.

See an example below for Computer Science students:

  • Main objective: Define a location-based heuristic to reduce the time complexity of shortest path search algorithms
  • Problem: The Dijkstra algorithm is not scalable when the graph is big. Because of this, it cannot be used in environments that are time-sensitive when the graph to consider is big.

Possible hypothesis:

Using a location-based heuristic to calculate shortest paths in big graphs, can make shortest path search algorithms scalable and therefore, can be used in time-sensitive environments.

When you use a hypothesis in your research design, the validation of your research is to prove that your hypothesis is true.

1.5 Significance of the study

This section is straightforward, here you just explain why your study is important. Considering the previous problem-objective-hypothesis, you can say the importance of this study is the contribution to shortest path searches in time-sensitive environments. Then, you can show an example: imagine an ambulance is transporting a patient to a hospital with a serious illness, it should arrive as fast as possible and because your solution will be very fast, it can contribute to saving human lives.

1.6 Limitation of the study

In this section you should write what are the limitations that you will face, that can affect the result of your research.

Notice that these are not your limitations as a researcher, but logistic limitations, or things that are not under your control. For instance, if you want to create a machine learning model for a specific task, you shouldn’t add as a limitation the lack of data on the training dataset. Because without a proper dataset, you won’t be able to prove that you solved the problem.

1.7 Delimitation of the study

Here you will define the scope of your study. Let’s say the problem you identify affects the whole world, you can limit the scope of the study to your country, or even your city if you can show that there are conditions that are different in the scope you choose, and therefore, you are not planning to solve the problem for the whole world, but for the area you choose.

The previous one is an example, there are more ways to define the scope of your research.

An example closer to Computer Science students is this, imagine you are creating a database migration tool. In this case, you can limit the scope of your research to a specific type of database, or even a specific Database Management System, because you understand that the solutions will vary when you move outside of the scope you chose.

2. Literature Review and where applicable, the theoretical framework

This is probably one of the most important sections of your research and/or research proposal.

With this section, you have to prove that the research you intend to do is worth doing it.

You should review several scientific publications that address the problem (or a similar one) you want to solve. Also, an important part is to criticize those solutions if you cannot use them to solve your problem.

If you cannot criticize them, it means you can just use those solutions to solve your problem. Therefore, you don’t really have a problem to solve, because it was already solved. In this case, you just need to apply that solution in your environment, which might not be enough for a research project.

I wrote an article for you explaining how to write a literature review. In the previous link, you will find a detailed explanation of the elements you need to consider.

3. Research Methodology

The research methodology section of a research proposal is a compulsory one. The methodology is important because is the process that makes valid the results you will obtain. In other words, before you start the research, you should have a clear idea of what methodology and methods you should follow.

Computer Science students usually need to use two methodologies. One is the research methodology, the one that guides the research process and makes your results valid from a scientific point of view. The second one is the software development methodology. Notice that is common for Computer Science students to develop a software as part of their research.

For not to make this post too large, I wrote another post completely about how to write the Research Methodology. It also differentiates between research methodology and research methods, an aspect that is not clear to students.

4. Research Ethics

We always have to consider ethical factors regarding our research. Remember, we have social and ethical responsibilities with everything we create.

If the research you want to conduct can have some ethical dilemmas, you should write how you are going to address them.

For instance, you need people’s private information to do your research, you need to consider how will you handle the data to keep privacy.

5. References

References are an important part of the research. It shows to the public that we are not creating something 100% new, but we are using the knowledge that is already discovered, applying, modifying, expanding it, to solve a problem.

References acknowledge that you are using someone else’s discoveries and working on top of it, adding new knowledge or using it to solve a particular problem.

There are several references and citations styles. For instance, APA, IEEE Chicago, etc.

If you use a reference manager, you won’t have to worry if your references are in a certain style. The reference manager will do it for you.

You can find a better explanation on how to manage references in your research document in this post I wrote.

Checklist to use before submitting your proposal

Checklists are a powerful tool in many areas. Many professionals use them, such as pilots, medical doctors, etc.

The advantage of using them is that you won’t miss any important aspects.

See below a checklist I propose you use, according to more than 20 years of supervising research students. There are more things you can check, but I want to keep the list manageable and as short as possible.


  • The title of your research is not a process, but a product or result and it shows exactly what intent to do/achieve with your research.
  • The background section gives context to the reader on what area your problem is, and the current situation.
  • The problem statement shows a contradiction that needs to be solved.
  • The answer to the problem is not trivial and it cannot be answered with yes or no.
  • The solution you intend to give to the problem is not part of the problem statement.
  • All your objectives are SMART.
  • The main objective reflects what you want to achieve, and it is in line with the title of your research.
  • The achievement of your sub-objectives leads to the achievement of the main objective.
  • The main objective is not repeated as a sub-objective.
  • The literature review is critical in essence.
  • The literature review shows that the problem statement is a current problem.
  • The literature review shows that there is a need for you to carry out the research you are proposing.
  • You specified the research method you are going to use for each of your research objectives.
  • You evaluated the ethical implications of your research (if any) and clearly wrote how you are going to address them.
  • More than 60% of your references are from the last 5 years.
  • You used a reference manager.
  • Every reference has all the information that is supposed to have according to its type: journal paper, book, conference proceedings, etc.

The order in which research is really carried on

Every research methodology book explains the topics in almost the same order. The order you found in this article.

However, this is not necessarily the order in which we conduct research. Even though you must write your proposal in the order I showed you above, the parts of the proposal are written in a different order. See below the order:

  1. First, you should have an idea of what you would like to do. For instance, “I want to create a software to help Computer Science students to learn better the subject OOP”.
  2. The second step is to do a literature review. Here, you must search about what has been done in that area: software to support OOP teaching. Then you will see what has been done in the last years in that area, and hopefully, you will be able to identify improvements that can be made or other approaches that can give a better result.
  3. Now, you have a better understanding of what your problem is. So, you write the problem statement.
  4. You can now write the objectives of your research. The literature review gives you an idea of what can be done and what techniques or approaches you can apply. This gives you a good idea of what you can do to solve the problem you just wrote about.
  5. The background of the study now will give the readers context. So, after they read it, they will fully understand the problem statement and why the objectives of your research are the ones that you wrote.
  6. At this stage, you can follow the sequence of the sections as it should be in the final document: Significance of the study, Limitation, Delimitation, etc.
  7. Notice that even though the references section is at the end of the document, you will use it throughout the whole document.
  8. The last step is, now that you have everything in your document, the title of your research. This means at the beginning you don’t have to spend too much time on the title. The reason is that sometimes the problem changes, or some objectives changes. If they change, the title will probably change, so you write the title at the end.

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