Skip to Main Content

Dissertations: Research Proposal

Writing a research proposal

In this guide, you will explore the structure and key components of a research proposal. However, before you can begin to write your research proposal, make sure you have a clear research topic and research questions. If you have not done so yet, have a look at our Choosing a Research Topic guide.

Structure & Key Components

Contents of a typical research proposal

The structure of a research proposal may vary depending on the specific requirements of the intended audience or the course for which the proposal is intended, but in general, it typically includes the following components:

Component    Description
Title  Summarises in a few words the topic of the study
Background / Literature Review Provides context and background to the study, summarises what has been done in that particular area, and highlights any gaps or limitations that the study intends to address. Follow this link for more information on writing literature reviews.
Research Aims and Question(s) /Hypotheses   The aim of the research and the questions that the study will answer or the hypotheses that will be tested.
Research Design and Methods An overview of the research approach and methods of data collection and analysis, including research design, participants, measures and data analysis techniques.
Implications and Contribution to Knowledge   A discussion of the potential contributions and implications of the proposed research.
Ethical Considerations The potential ethical issues and concerns related to the proposed study.
Proposed Schedule   A detailed schedule of the proposed research activities and timeline for completion.
References   A list of relevant sources cited in the proposal.
Appendices (if needed)    Any additional supporting documents or materials, such as informed consent forms or research instruments.

Adapted from: Paltridge, B. and Starfield, S. (2020). Thesis and Dissertation Writing in a Second Language: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors. 2nd edn. Routledge.

1. Research aim – What do you want to achieve?

A research aim describes the main goal or the overarching purpose of your research project (i.e. What do you want to do?). Aims are statements of intent and are generally written in the infinitive form. For example:

  • The aim of this study is to determine
  • This project aims to explore

Here is a list of common verbs used for writing research aims and objectives, depending on their main purpose:

To explore or describe a phenomenon  To identify or establish relationships between variables To develop or create something new  To explain or understand a phenomenon  To assess or evaluate something
2. Research objectives - How are you going to achieve it?

Research objectives specify the steps that you will take to achieve your aim(s). For example: 

Aim: Assess the maturity delivery techniques, and the potential benefits and limitations of using IPD for infrastructure projects in developing countries, using India as a case study. 


  • to evaluate and assess the current literature on project delivery techniques and integrated project delivery to gain a better understanding of the approach's principles, characteristics, benefits, and shortcomings;  

  • to examine the existing practices for construction project delivery in India and to evaluate their effectiveness in delivering projects successfully within the project parameters;  

  • to discover the challenges and contextual setbacks for IPD implementation in India;  

  • to determine the potential benefits of IPD implementation for infrastructure projects in India; and  

  • to examine the integration of revolutionary ICTs and BIM for successful delivery with an IPD approach.  

Adapted from: 


3. SMART Research Objectives 

A SMART objective is one that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. 

Tips for writing research objectives  

  1. Limit your objectives to 3 to 5 at most. Trying to achieve too many objectives makes your project unwieldy, and you could get overwhelmed. 

  1. Start each objective with an action verb. Think of strong action verbs to start each objective with. This makes your proposal look actionable and dynamic.  

Tip: Verbs like use, understand, or study are vague and weak. Instead, choose words like calculate, compare, and assess. 

  1. Use specific language so readers know what your goals are. They should have enough detail that readers know exactly what you’re studying. 

Tip:  Ask someone else to read your proposal and see if they understand the objectives. If they’re confused, then you need to be more specific. 

  1. State your objectives as outcomes rather than a process. For example: 

Don’t say: “Measure the influence of the project manager on project success.” 

Instead say: “Determine the influence of project manager leadership competencies on project success” 

Research question (s) – What do you want to answer?

One of the most critical elements of a research proposal is the research question(s). A research question is a clear and concise statement that identifies the specific information that the research aims to uncover. It is an essential component of the proposal because it guides the entire research process and provides a clear focus for the study. For example:

The aim of this study is to investigate the effects of mindfulness meditation on stress levels among college students. The research questions are as follows:
RQ1. What are the specific benefits of mindfulness meditation in reducing stress levels among college students?
RQ2. How do individual factors such as age, gender, or previous experience with mindfulness meditation impact its effectiveness in reducing stress levels among college students?

As it can be seen in the example above, the research question(s) should be directly related to the research aim. When developing research questions, it is important to consider the scope and feasibility of the study, as well as any potential ethical considerations. The research question(s) should also be tailored to the research design, methods, and data analysis techniques that will be used in the study.


Common types of research questions 




What are the characteristics of X? 


What are the differences and similarities between X and Y? 


What is the relationship between variable X and variable Y? 


What are the main factors in X? What is the role of Y in Z? 


Does X have an effect on Y? What is the impact of Y on Z? What are the causes of X? 


What are the advantages and disadvantages of X? How well does Y work? How effective or desirable is Z? 


How can X be achieved? What are the most effective strategies to improve Y? 

Tip: Notice that research questions commonly start with words such as ‘What’ and ‘How’, instead of 'Why'.


Dos and don'ts of research questions

All research questions should be: Research questions should NOT:
  • Focused on a single problem or issue 

  • Researchable using primary and/or secondary sources 

  • Feasible to answer within the timeframe and practical constraints 

  • Specific enough to answer thoroughly 

  • Complex enough to develop the answer over the space of a paper or thesis 

  • Relevant to your field of study and/or society more broadly 

Ask for a subjective value judgement.

For example: 

Instead of: Is X or Y a better policy? 

Ask: How effective are X and Y policies at reducing rates of Z? 


Ask why.

For example: 

Instead of: Why does X occur? 

Ask: What are the main factors contributing to X? 


Use unspecific concepts.

For example: 

Instead of: What effect does social media have on people’s minds? 

Ask: What effect does daily use of Twitter have on the attention span of under-16s? 


Ask for a conclusive solution, policy or course of action.

For example: 

Instead of: What should the government do about low voter turnout? 

Ask: What are the most effective communication strategies for increasing voter turnout among under-30s? 


Be answered with yes or no.

For example: 

Instead of: Has there been an increase in homelessness in the UK in the past ten years? 

Ask: How have economic and political factors affected patterns of homelessness in the UK over the past ten years? 


When developing this section, it is important to clearly explain the research approach that will be used to answer the research questions, as well as the methods of data collection that will be employed to collect and analyse the data.

Step 1. Explain your research approach

Begin by introducing your overall approach to the research. What problem or question will you investigate, and what kind of data did you need to answer it? Some common research approaches include quantitative, qualitative, mixed-methods, and action research. Again, this depends on your aim and research question(s). 
•    Quantitative methods (e.g. surveys) are best for measuring, ranking, categorising, identifying patterns and making generalisations.
•    Qualitative methods (e.g. interviews) are best for describing, interpreting, contextualising, and gaining in-depth insight into specific concepts or phenomena.
•    Mixed methods allow for a combination of numerical measurement and in-depth exploration.

Step 2. Describe your methods of data collection

Once the research approach has been established, it is important to describe the specific methods of data collection that will be used. This can include methods such as surveys, interviews, focus groups, observation, or experiments. In this section, it is also important to explain how the data will be collected, stored, and analysed.

[Adapted from: Creswell & Plano Clark (2018) Designing and Conducting Mixed Methods Research]

A well-planned timeline can help ensure that the research project is completed in a timely manner and that all aspects of the study are properly executed. When developing a timeline, it is important to identify specific milestones and deadlines for each phase of the research process. This can include tasks such as literature review, data collection, data analysis, and report writing. A Gantt chart is a useful tool for visualizing a research timeline, as it provides a clear and organized overview of the project timeline and progress. Here is an example Gantt chart that shows a simplified timeline for a research project:

image of a gantt chart

Creating dissertation timelines in Gantt charts

STEP 1. Think of all the tasks that you'll have to complete during your dissertation/thesis and make a list.  

STEP 2. Arrange the list according to deadlines (considering the final deadline, breaks, supervisor holidays, etc.) 

Tip: In your work plan you will need to allow sufficient time for: 

  • drafting and re-drafting each draft section/chapter 
  • seeking comments from your supervisors on each draft section/chapter 
  • revising each draft section/chapter in light of your supervisor’s comments 
  • preparing a complete final draft 
  • seeking comments from your supervisors on your complete final draft 
  • revising your complete final draft in light of your supervisor’s comments 

STEP 3. Build your Gantt chart! 

You can use Excel or any free online Gantt chart makers such as Tomsplanner 

The title of your dissertation should provide the reader with an understanding of the core principles and focus of your research. Titles are commonly short statements, often containing 12 words or less. Although there are various elements that could be incorporated into a dissertation title, you should only select those that best reflect the essence of your research. Typically, the title comprises two main sections: the purpose of your research, and the outcomes that the researcher wishes to highlight.

  • PURPOSE: Your area of interest (broader topic) + the focus of your research (particular angle or aspect of that topic)
  • OUTCOMES: The outcomes of your research

Here is an example of a student’s dissertation title and its main components:
Development and application of an integrated air quality modelling system for traffic related pollution in urban areas.

Some dissertation titles might also highlight the research methodology employed and/or the location and participants of the study. For example:
Implementation of Deming's style of quality management: An action research in a plastics company.
An analysis of urban public space in three European cities: London, Dublin and Amsterdam.


Further Reading

Journal of Suffolk Student Research

The Journal of Suffolk Student Research is an online academic journal, dedicated to the publication of high-quality undergraduate and postgraduate student research undertaken by University of Suffolk students. The journal will showcase the most outstanding student research undertaken at the University of Suffolk. It aims to promote and recognise this outstanding student research by offering valuable early experience of academic publishing and the peer review process. 

Find out more here