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How to Write a Research Proposal

When applying for a postdoc position, fellowship, or grant you will often be asked to submit a research proposal as part of your application. A good proposal will demonstrate that you have a thorough understanding of the subject matter and a feasible research plan that will yield significant findings.

The requirements and length of a research proposal can vary widely depending on the field and institution you are applying to. While the following information is pertinent for most proposals, you should read each application’s guidelines carefully and include all the requested information.

Abstract

Most proposals begin with an abstract. The abstract is a short summary (no more than a couple hundred words) of the entire proposal. It gives a brief overview of the key points of the proposal as well as the conclusions.

Main Text

The main body of your research proposal should answer these four questions: Why is the research important? What is your goal? How you will do it? What are the expected outcomes?

Why Is the Research Important?

This section will cover the current state of research on your topic and any recent major findings by other researchers. You should then move onto your own proposed project, explaining the problem it will solve or gap it will fill in the current knowledge. Define the scope of the project and any theoretical approaches you will be using. It is key that you contextualize this project and explain how it will contribute to the field.

What Is Your Goal?

Once you have identified your research problem, you must clearly state your key research questions and the objectives of your project. This can take the form of a succinct hypothesis or a more open-ended line of inquiry.

How Will You Do It?

This question is answered by the methods section, which should be the longest section of your proposal. This section shows the reader that you have a realistic plan to answer your research questions. The exact approach you take will depend on your field, but broadly you should explain how you will collect your evidence and how you will analyze it. More specifically, this section will include some combination of what experiments you will conduct, techniques you will use, sources you will consult, evidence you will use, any ethical considerations, research strategies, controls, statistical analysis, data collection methods. Be sure to explain why you have chosen to use these research methods rather than others.

Immediately after the methodology, you will need to include an estimated research timetable that goes through what you will work on month by month and when you expect to complete each step of the project. This also includes publishing your results. Make sure to also include what book manuscripts and journal articles you will complete during the research proposal, as well as any conferences you plan to submit abstracts to about the project.

What Are the Expected Outcomes?

This next section covers the expected results and output of the research project. Understandably, you haven’t done the work yet so you don’t know what the exact outcomes will be. However, based on your previous research and this project’s literature review, you should be able to make some fairly accurate predictions. Then it’s time to zoom out and extrapolate the impact your results will have on the field as a whole.

The Big Picture

When put all together, a postdoc research proposal includes a table of contents, an abstract, an introduction, a problem statement and hypothesis/objectives, a literature review, the research methods, a timetable, the expected results, appendices (if necessary), and references.

Make sure that you get feedback early and often from your mentors and colleagues while working on your proposal. If possible, make an outline for them to review first so you don’t spend valuable time working on an underdeveloped idea. Once you have finished the proposal, spend some time carefully editing it so that there are no typos or grammatical errors. If the research proposal if for a grant application, ask someone familiar with that grant’s application format to look over your formatting. Ensure your proposal conforms to the formatting conventions since the application will be judged both on content and format.

One last piece of advice: Remember that your research proposal is not a binding document. It’s a proposal that can (and probably will) change during the course of the postdoc.

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