Writing your research proposal

Writing the ‘what’ of your proposed research

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The purpose of this part of your research proposal is to generally describe what your research is about.

The ‘what’ part establishes how your research is situated within your discipline or field. It provides fundamental information, such as:

  • the context for the research, which can be:
    • the key ideas, theories and concepts
    • the major issues and debates
    • the key players and seminal texts or key artists, and
    • the questions that have been asked around this topic.
  • your research questions, problems or hypotheses
  • the scope of the proposed research (i.e. what you will and what you won’t do).

The ‘what’ part of your research proposal may also include:

  • the aims and/or objectives of your research
  • an introduction to the theoretical framework within which your research sits
  • a statement of the problem grounded in the context or theoretical framework and a resulting argument for your research to be conducted
  • the timeliness of your proposed research (i.e. why should it be done right now?)
  • definitions if needed.

Writing the ‘why’ of your proposed research

A key requirement of your research proposal is to justify that your research is worth doing. Your review panel will be looking for a succinct and convincing argument about what sets your proposed research apart from others, and why not doing this research leaves an important problem unaddressed.

Ways of justifying your research include showing that your project will make a significant and substantial contribution in terms of:

  1. how it fits within an existing body of scholarship/literature/practice
  2. how it builds on and adds to this body of knowledge
  3. what the value of your research is and for whom (e.g. a particular community, industry, etc.).


Think about how you might go about justifying your research.

  • What key literature is your proposed research situated within?
  • How will your research build on this?
  • Who will benefit from your research and how?

Critical engagement with the literature is crucial in order to justify your research. You must demonstrate that you understand:

  • the main concepts and themes, underlying principles, and established theories related to your research
  • areas of controversy and contention
  • the key scholars and seminal research related to your topic.

In some disciplines, discussion of the above points is located in the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’ section of your research proposal. In fact, you will almost certainly cover some of these points when you’re describing and contextualising your research. Often this is done in a general way in the ‘what’ section and in a more critical, in-depth way in the ‘why’ section. A rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether this information is contextualising or justifying your research.

Writing the ‘how’ of your proposed research

This part of your research proposal involves describing how you plan to find answers to your research questions or resolve the research problems. In other words, it entails describing the design of your research.

A difficulty you may have in this section is in providing the right amount of information – not too little nor too much. You need to give as much information as is needed to argue to the review panel that the research is do-able and to justify the components of your research design.



Which of these questions will you need to answer in your research design (i.e. the ‘how’ section of your research proposal)?

  • What is your chosen research design and rationale?
  • What theories, concepts or models inform your research design?
  • What are the step-by-step methods or process used?
  • What constitutes your creative practice?
  • How will you engage with your creative practice (e.g. reflection, testing, theorising)?
  • What type of data will be collected?
  • What are your sources of data?
  • Where and how will the data be collected?
  • How will the data be analysed?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of your methodology?
  • What resources are required (equipment, other)?
  • How reliable and valid are your methods?
  • What ethical issues relate to your research methods, and how will you address these?
  • Can you complete your research within the official timeframe (demonstrated on a Gantt chart)?

Learn More

To learn more about writing a research proposal, watch this webinar from the Library.

RMIT webinar on writing a research proposal (23:59)

Writing a research proposal (23:59 min) by RMIT University LIbrary (YouTube).

Further resources

The Manchester Academic Phrase Bank provides a list of ‘starter phrases’ which can be very helpful for writing different sections of your research proposal.  The Bank’s Introducing Work and Referring to Sources sections may be particularly useful for the ‘what’ and ‘why’ parts of the proposal while Describing Sources would be useful for the ‘how’ part.

For some RMIT discipline-based guidelines for research proposals illustrating the ‘what’, ‘why’, and ‘how sections, consult: Discipline- based guidelines (DOCX, 1 page).


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Research and Writing Skills for Academic and Graduate Researchers Copyright © 2022 by RMIT University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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