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A Guide to Research Proposals

Created for PO 200 Approaches to Political Science. Useful for anyone needing to write a research proposal in the Social Sciences.

The Story of Research 

If you have ever read a news article online where it included the phrase "In a recent study..." you got a small glimpse of a parallel world. Out in this world, scholars and scientists are putting the scientific method to good use. Unless you know to look for it, you wouldn't know it was there.

Think about where you get your information on a daily basis. It's probably the internet, tv, social media, and from your friends and family. There are other sources of information that you might have never encountered (directly) before coming to SHU. As you enter college, you meet your professors who are here to teach you, yes, but they have other responsibilities too. Outside of their teaching duties, your professors must continue their research which means publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals, chapters in books, or even entire books.

Before diving into a research project, scholars (including your professors) often have to write research proposals. Even experts need to prove that their research is important and valuable. Research proposals are required when applying for grant money from different organizations, so scholars need to make a good argument that proves their project deserves to be funded. Sometimes there is fierce competition for limited funds. Even a good research project (because, let's be honest, some are bad) needs a good research proposal to help it be completed.   

Your Research Proposal

You might be thinking to yourself, "I am not applying for a grant, why is my professor making me do a research proposal?"

A research proposal is a great way to introduce you to research without making you write a long research paper (sounds nice, no?). It is preparing you for future classes where you might have to write a paper whether you research the same topic or not. If you do research the same topic, a research proposal gives you a huge head start because you end up having done a lot of prep work for the final project. This makes the entire process less stressful for you. If you don't use the same topic, you still have a better idea of how the process works for a new research project.

Research proposals force you to think about why the topic matters, not just to yourself, but to a wider audience. You get to learn about the scholarly conversation already going on and how you might be able to contribute to it with your own research.

Picking a Topic

The first thing you need to do is figure out what you want to research. This is probably going to be the hardest part.

Where do you even start?

You'll be spending some time on this project and you don't want to get bored by it. There are a few places to look when you are stuck on finding an interesting research topic. 

  • Your professor probably left some suggestions for you in the syllabus or on the handout for the assignment.
  • If you want to come up with something on your own, there are a few questions to ask yourself:
    • Are there any examples from class that have stuck with you? Or from another one of your classes?
    • Have you read anything in the news, seen something on tv or on social media that seemed like something you wanted to research?

Other things to think about when choosing a topic...

  • There is such a thing as being too broad and too specific about a topic. If you are finding too many sources and are getting overwhelmed by the options, you need to narrow it down. If you are not finding anything about it, it is too specific and you need to take a step back.
  • If you are having an emotional (anger, happiness) response to a particular topic, ask yourself why. You can still research the topic, but be conscious of your strong reactions and/or opinion. You might be inadvertently only looking at the side of the issue with which you agree.  

Writing an Abstract

An Abstract is a concise summary of a research paper or article. It is a 150-250 word paragraph that provides a quick overview of your work and explains how it is organized. It should express your thesis or main idea and your key points. It should also suggest any implications of the research you discuss. 

An abstract describes the work. 

It begins with a brief statement of the research problem or question, followed by a description of the research method and design.

Anatomy of a Research Proposal

Below are three main sections you should have in a Research Proposal.

NOTE: Always refer to the assignment prompt from your class or syllabus. Your professor likely has specified a few things that you need to include in your Research Proposal. 


  • What is your question? Provide a clear description of the question or problem. Explain the purpose of the research. Why is the issue important and to whom? Is there a specific audience that will want or need to know your findings?

Literature Review/Background information

  • A literature review is where you discuss what other people have written about the topic (or a similar one). This means you need to find that research and read it and then be able to explain it briefly.
  • You are also looking for something that they are missing/already know that they are missing. You are trying to fill that gap with the research you are proposing.
  • The number of articles depends on the assignment your professor gave you. In a situation where you are applying for funding, you would want to find as much research as possible to have a complete literature review. For a class assignment, you might not need to find everything ever written. Double-check the assignment. You want to find the most relevant and most recent literature on the subject to help you with your proposal.

Methodology/Investigatory Procedures

  • What methods will you use? Qualitative, quantitative, mixed-methods? You have been learning about the different methods for research throughout the semester, so it is up to you to decide which is best for your topic. For an overview of the methods, and definitions for other terms, see the Glossary of Research.

Research Proposal Length

Again, this depends on your professor. It can be as short as 4 pages or as long as 20. 


This always depends on the subject you are studying. In the Social Sciences, you will probably need to use APA or Chicago Style (Author-Date). 


Here are some examples of research proposals to give you a little inspiration. Just consider the examples and follow format on above.

For more information about research proposal writing, read through the book Research Proposals: A practical Guide. Click on the link below to access the eBook.