Dec 26, 2022

What are the Sections of a Research Proposal?

Wordvice HJ

Research proposals that are written by graduate students or academic researchers typically follow a similar format consisting of headings and sections that explain the purpose of the research, specify the scope and scale of the study, and argue for its importance in contributing to the scientific literature. Knowing how to write a research proposal checklist is crucial to getting your dissertation or thesis project accepted.

Although the research proposal sections may vary depending on whether it is a grant, doctoral dissertation, conference paper, or professional project, there are certainly some sections in common. This article will cover sections you will often see in research proposals, explain their purpose, and provide a sample research proposal template.

What are the sections of a research proposal?

Let’s take a look at each section of a research proposal:

  • Title
  • Summary
  • Overall purpose
  • Background literature
  • Research question
  • Definitions of terms and nomenclature
  • Research methodology
  • Problems and limitations
  • Required resources and budget
  • Ethical considerations
  • Proposed timetable
  • References
  • Appendix

What is the purpose of each research proposal section?

The research proposal sections and headings above resemble a fully edited and published academic journal article, which you probably can recognize if you are a new PhD or master’s graduate student who is just starting out reading peer-reviewed academic journal articles. 

However, the purpose of each heading in a research proposal is quite different from that of a final article. 


Purpose: To explain briefly, in a few words, what the research will be about.

What you should do: Give your research proposal a concise and accurate title. Include the name of your faculty mentor (and his/her academic department).

Note: Title pages for research proposals are generally standardized or specified and provide or summarize basic administrative information‌, such as the university or research institution. Titles should be concise and brief enough to inform the reader of the purpose and nature of the research.

Related Article: How to choose the best title for your research manuscript


Purpose: To provide an overview of the study, which you will expand on in detail in later sections of the research proposal.

What you should do: Provide a brief overview of your project. Include the goals of your research proposal and clearly specify the research questions you want to address. Explain the hypotheses you want to test.

Note: A good summary should emphasize the problems the applicant intends to solve, identify the solution to the problems, and specify the objectives and design‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌research. It should also describe the applicant’s qualifications and budget requirements.

Check out a webinar on how to write an effective research introduction

Overall Purpose

Purpose: To state the overall goal of the work in a clear, concise manner.

What you should do: Summarize your problem for someone who is scientifically knowledgeable but potentially uninformed regarding your specific research topic.

Note: The aim or purpose of a research proposal should be results-oriented as opposed to process-oriented. For example, the result of a research study may be “To determine the enzyme involved in X” while the process is “to perform a protein electrophoresis study on mice expressing Y gene.” There should be at least three objectives per proposal. 

Background Literature Review

Purpose: To demonstrate the relationship between the goals of the proposed study and what has already been established in the relevant field of study.

What you should do: Selectively and critically analyze the literature. Explain other researchers’ work so that your professor or project manager has a clear understanding of how you will address past research and progress the literature.

Note: One of the most effective ways to support your research’s purpose and importance is to address gaps in the literature, controversies in your research field, and current trends in research. This will put into context how your dissertation or study will contribute to general scientific knowledge. Learn how to write a literature review before writing this section.

Research Question or Hypothesis

Purpose: To state precisely what the study will investigate or falsify.

What you should do: Clearly distinguish the dependent and independent variables and be certain the reader understands them. Make sure you use your terms consistently. Whenever possible, use the same nomenclature.

Note: A research question presents the relationship between two or more variables in the form of a question, whereas a hypothesis is a declarative statement of the relationship between two or more variables. Knowing where to put the research question in a science paper is also crucial to writing a strong Introduction section.

Definition of Terms

Purpose: To define the meanings of the key terms used in the research.

What you should do: Align your term and nomenclature usage throughout your entire research proposal. Clearly define abbreviations and make sure they are understandable to scientists from other disciplines.

Note: Different scientific fields of study often use different terms for the same thing. Further, there are language consistency issues that should be considered. In organic chemistry, there are international standards for naming compounds, but common names are still regularly used, e.g., acetic acid versus ethanoic acid.

Research Methodology

Purpose: To break down the steps of your research proposal.

What you should do:  Explain how you will achieve‌ ‌your research goals ‌specified‌ ‌earlier using terms that a general reader can understand. Explain your approach, design, and methods.

Note: Your research proposal should explain the broad scope of your research to other researchers‌ ‌in‌ ‌your‌ ‌field. This section represents the most important part of a research proposal and is therefore ‌the‌ ‌primary‌ ‌concern‌ ‌of‌ ‌reviewers. Knowing how to explain research methodology for reproducibility is important to explaining your methodology to dissertation or thesis advisors and committees. 

Problems and Limitations

Purpose: To demonstrate awareness of any study limitations, potential problems, and barriers to answering the research question, and how to deal with them

What you should do: Thoroughly head off any criticisms before they can torpedo your research proposal. Explain that any limitations or potential conflicts will only delay your research or alter/narrow its scope; they will not fundamentally degrade the importance of your research.

Note: Any research proposal or scientific study will have limitations in its scope and execution. Sometimes it may be a key procedure that is problematic or a material you cannot readily obtain. Discussing limitations is key to demonstrating you are an adept and experienced researcher worth approving.

Related Article: How to present study limitations and alternatives

Required Resources and Budget

Purpose: To list what resources your research may require and what costs and timelines may affect your completion.

What you should do: Think as a businessperson. Breakdown what resources are available at your institution or university as well as the required resources you still need. These can be materials, machinery, lab equipment, and computers. Resources can also be human: expertise to perform a procedure and other kinds of collaboration. 

Note: This section underscores why your funding institution or academic committee should fund your university, laboratory team, or yourself for this particular research. 

Ethical Considerations

Purpose: To state how participants will be advised of

the overall nature and purpose of the study and how informed consent will

be obtained.

What you should do: Consult with your academic institution, PhD advisor, and laboratory colleagues. Do not gloss over this part since it has legal consequences.

Note: Often, these types of legal disclaimers are well established and readily available in template format from your research institution or university. Just obtain the proper clearance and permission and have the legal authority at your institution check it over.

Read about how conflicts of interest should be disclosed in research proposals

Proposed Timeline

Purpose: To give a projected timeline for planning, completing, verifying, and reporting your research.

What you should do: Approach this part with a project management style. In an organized fashion, set out a specific timeline for how long each part of your research will take. Identify bottlenecks and specify them.

Note: Savvy time management is something that comes with lots of research experience. Ask your professor or colleagues if you have questions about how long certain procedures will take.


Purpose: To provide detailed bibliographic and reference citations.

What you should do: Use an online citation machine (APA citation machine, MLA citation machine, Chicago citation machine, Vancouver citation machine) that can instantly organize your references in any format. Make sure you do this as you go, not saving it for the last when you have lost track.

Note: The bibliographic format used varies according to the research discipline. Consistency is the main consideration; whichever style is chosen should be followed carefully throughout the entire paper. 

Related Article: How many references to include in a research proposal?


Purpose: To include any extra materials or information.

What you should do: Add letters of endorsement or collaboration and reprints of relevant articles if they are not available electronically. In addition to the above, you may want to include data tables, surveys, questionnaires, data collection procedures, clinical protocols, and informed consent documents.

Notes: Many writers tend to attach supporting documents to support their research proposal. But remember, more is not always better. Be sure to only include information that strengthens your case, not simply make it longer.

Note: Savvy time management is something that comes with lots of research experience. Ask your professor or colleagues if you have questions about how long certain procedures will take.

The Bottom Line

Whether your research is academic (PhD or master’s graduate student) or professional (competing for government or private funding), how you organize your research proposal sections is one of the first things evaluators will notice. Many academic reviewers will simply scan and check for key section headings. If any headings are missing or strangely written, they may instantly give the reviewer a bad impression of your proposal. 

One tip before submitting or even writing your research proposal is to search for the best journal to publish your research in and follow the guidelines in the Guide for Authors section, as well as read as many articles from that journal as possible to gain an understanding of the appropriate style and formatting.

Preparing Your Research Proposal for Publication

So make sure to use some of our resources, such as our FREE APA citation generator and research proposal checklist, or contact us to ask about professional proofreading services, including academic editing and manuscript editing for academic documents.

And check our guide on the editing process to learn more about how language editing for manuscripts can enhance your writing and increase your chances of publication.

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