How to Write a Proposal for a Research Paper

Now that you know what makes a good research paper topic, you also know the main points to include in a proposal. It should briefly explain why it is interesting and how you are going to manage it.

Different departments have different rules for research paper proposals, saying when they are due (usually near the end of junior year or the beginning of senior year) and how long they should be (usually a page or two). You can find out the specifics from a departmental administrator or perhaps from the department’s Web site. It’s essential to know these administrative details, and you should find them out now. But they are separate from the intellectual issues we cover here.

Whatever the department regulations, all research paper proposals need to contain a few key points about what you intend to do. In clear, concise language, your proposal should explain:

  • What your main question or topic is
  • Why it matters
  • How you plan to approach the analysis

The proposal should briefly state your topic, its importance to your field, and the way you intend to analyze it. The trick is to be brief without being vague.

What you need not do is answer the hard questions you pose. That’s not the job of the proposal. That’s the job of the thesis itself. If you can already answer the main questions you pose, then they are probably the wrong ones. You should pose other, more challenging questions. Your research paper proposal should outline your topic, its importance, and your approach to studying it. It should pose one or two major questions, but it does not need to answer them. The thesis itself will do that.

One way to explain your topic’s importance is to describe current debates surrounding it and how leading scholars treat it. Are there major disputes among theorists or practitioners? What is at stake in these debates? If your topic is not particularly prominent, then you should say why it deserves more attention. What’s wrong with just ignoring it? In some fields, such as medical ethics, environmental regulation, or educational policy, you should also underscore the topic’s practical significance. Does it affect many people or perhaps affect a few with great intensity?

Once you have identified an important question and stated it clearly, you need to say how you will examine it. Again, you are not trying to answer the question. You are saying how you intend to find the answer. You need to show that the investigation is a manageable task and is likely to yield answers. You may wish to illustrate your approach with a little preliminary analysis, probably only a paragraph or two.

In the social sciences, you should also mention what data you will use. Do you plan to use case studies, interviews, large databases, original documents, or some combination of these? Will this be more a quantitative study or a qualitative one?

In the humanities and less quantitative social sciences, you should say which primary texts you will study, such as Wordsworth’s early poems or Abigail Adams’s letters. Will you be studying particular drawings by Leonardo or particular movies by Tarantino? If you plan to rely on (or contend with) some major secondary works, such as several major books about Wordsworth, mention that and explain how they fit into your research paper.

Normally, a research paper proposal does not mention your academic background or special skills unless they directly affect your planned research. For instance, you would not mention that you have taken advanced statistics courses, but you might mention the techniques you plan to use for data analysis. For a research paper on World War II in the Pacific, you might say that you will rely on important documents in the original Japanese. If these documents have never been translated, be sure to mention it. It shows the excitement and originality of your paper. In discussing these skills, your goal is never to show off. It is to show what you will study and how you will study it.

How to Revise a Research Paper Proposal

Getting your professor or instructor to approve your research paper proposal is often seen as just a bureaucratic hurdle, yet another dull requirement among so many you have to meet in college. In fact, it can be much more useful to you. A good proposal would be worth doing even if it were not required, because it will start your research on the right path.

That’s also why it is valuable to revise your proposal, to make sure it lays out the research questions intelligently and explains how you intend to study them. Few departments require these revisions, but they are still worth doing to make certain the research paper is well conceived at the outset.

You can learn a great deal from drafting a proposal, discussing it, and revising it in response to faculty comments. Trying to explain your project will help you understand it better. Discussing it with faculty will help, too, because your instructor’s suggestions and clarifications come at a critical moment, while you are still framing your focal questions and your basic approach.

That is why, if you have time, you should do more than ask for your instructor’s approval and signature. You should meet to discuss a first draft of your research paper proposal and incorporate the comments in a revised version. Then return to discuss it before moving on to more focused research. The draft proposal and its revisions will point you in the right direction.

This is a perfect time to think about the research paper as a whole and how you will approach it. Your revised proposal should reflect your reappraisal, putting you in a much stronger position to launch your research. That is why revisions are standard operating procedures for much larger papers such as dissertation proposals. They can aid your research paper for exactly the same reasons. By treating your proposal thoughtfully, you are doing more than simply clearing another bureaucratic hurdle. You are molding and improving your paper at its most pliable moment.

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