Guide to writing a research proposal – Part 1 of 2

Published on: July 28, 2014

Filed Under: preparing your application

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In this post, MURI alum, Saba Vayani-Lai, explores the critical components of the research proposal for 2014 MURI applicants.

While the prospect of completing a research proposal can be daunting, it is helpful to think of it as a planning tool for your project – something that is as much of a help to yourself as it is to those overviewing your application.

When applying for the MURI internship, it is important to keep in mind that it is a 6-month long internship, with a draft paper required at the half-way point (see the MURI guidelines for more details). If you’re anything like me, your mind will probably have been working overtime coming up with a dazzling array of potential research projects. However, you might have to bring it back to earth!

NYC #9 by Thomas Leuthard
“NYC #9″ by Thomas Leuthard

The purpose of your research proposal is to demonstrate not only the need for, but also the feasibility, of your proposed project. Is your topic of investigation clear and well-defined? Do you have an idea of how you will be collecting and analysing data? Does your timeframe for getting everything done align with the length of the internship? These are all questions which you have to answer as part of your research proposal, but they are also questions which you will have to consider as part of the natural process of planning and developing a research project.

Therefore, if you’re feeling intimidated at the idea of writing a research proposal, or feel like you don’t know where to start, remember that the research proposal is, itself, a tool you can use to help you figure out the details of your project. It’s okay to not have all of the answers immediately – it will take time and some research. You can also consult with your Academic Sponsor to iron out the details of your project.

Before writing your research proposal, you may only have a vague idea of certain parts of your project. I remember that when I was writing my own research proposal, I was forced to consider aspects of my project which I hadn’t thought about in great detail before, such as whether I would need to apply for ethics approval, and the impact that might have on the time I would take to complete my project. In completing my research proposal, I had the chance to consider these elements in more detail.

hand on mouse and keyboard


In the guide below, you will find some links to some resources to help you on your proposal-writing journey.


Choosing a topic to research

What drives you? What excites you? Ideally, the topic around which you decide to centre your research project is something which does both. After all, you will be devoting quite a lot of time to this area of research!
pen and paper
It can be helpful to start out with a particularly broad area of interest – for example, with my own research project, that area was Big History. Hopefully, you will be familiar enough with this area of interest to have done some background reading, perhaps as part of a previous unit. As a budding researcher, you might have noticed in your background reading that there was a gap or shortcoming in the literature – that is to say, a particular issue or topic not directly or sufficiently addressed. This gap is where you can begin to look when you are deciding on a topic to research.

At this stage, you might be feeling intimidated and that you are can’t possibly identify a clear gap in the literature. However, even if a particular issue has already been addressed, it might not have been addressed in detail or might benefit from a different perspective/means of research.

If you’re looking for more guidance on how to do this, be sure to check out these resources:

Once you have identified a gap in the literature and decided upon a particular issue or topic to research, it can be a good idea to try and write out this research topic in a succinct and direct question or statement. Pretend that you are a professor setting an assessment task for your students. This is a crucial step to prepare you for writing your research proposal, as you are essentially trying to narrow down exactly what you are trying to achieve with your research project. I know that when I was deciding on a topic to research, I was overwhelmed by many different ideas. Narrowing down my research project in this manner gave me a sense of focus, as well as a key question around which to plan my project.

… which, conveniently, brings us to the first part of the MURI Research Proposal.

Bootcamp Business Model Canvas Game, June 5-7 2013 in Amsterdam“Bootcamp Business Model Canvas the Game, June 5-7 2013 in Amsterdam” by Sebastiaan ter Burg

(i) of the Research Proposal – stating the issue / question to be investigated
Key questions to be addressed, hypothesis/es, problem which requires a solution

In this part of the Research Proposal, you should aim to be succinct and clear.  Keep it simple. Break your proposed research project down to the bare bones – exactly what is the key issue with which you are dealing? What are you setting out to achieve?

For me, personally, I found that this section was one of the last I composed as part of my research proposal. I began planning my project with a clear issue in mind to explore. However, it was only after exploring the background of the issue I was hoping to investigate that I was able to reformulate a clear question to be investigated. In this way, don’t be alarmed if your first attempts at writing this section come across as unclear. After you attempt to complete the other parts of the research proposal, you may find yourself returning to this section with a greater sense of purpose and clarity.

For more information on how to narrow down a description of your project to the basics, check out this guide:


(ii) of the Research Proposal – providing a background of the issue
Set the scene using selected studies relevant, important and current to your research question(s), and clearly show the gap in the field which your research will address.

Research is basically about filling in the gaps and extending our current repertoire of knowledge. As a researcher, you are not setting out to build anything from scratch; rather, you are aiming to add a small piece to a greater puzzle, to broaden the current understanding of a particular subject matter and thus add to the academic conversation.

puzzleby John Hritz

This is why it is so important to provide the background of the issue which you are proposing to research. In this part of the research proposal, you are trying to show that you understand the current research relating to your chosen topic of research. You want to make it clear that  you’ve done some reading and thinking and know something about the subject matter you are proposing to research further. This section also helps to lend credence to your proposal, because it makes it clear that it is grounded in the existing body academic work.

This doesn’t mean that you should discuss every single article or resource relating to your chosen issues. Rather, you should set the scene for your proposed project by discussing what you feel are the most relevant and important studies. Your aim is to identify an area where the current literature is insufficient in addressing a particular issue.

In this part of the Research Proposal, you should introduce the area which you are researching. Start with a broad scope before making it clear that there is a gap where the academic literature doesn’t deal with a particular issue directly or sufficiently. This will then set the scene for you to introduce your topic of research.

by IOE London

When I was completing this section of my research proposal, I was able to draw upon articles which I had read as part of a previous unit of study. Through exploring the footnotes/references of these articles, I found other articles which were more relevant to the area of interest around which I was basing my research project. In this way, I slowly built up a collection of articles which provided background for the issue I was exploring.

When it came time to write this section, I drew upon this pool of resources in order to ask myself some key questions, such as:

  • If I were directing someone completely unfamiliar to the subject matter to an article or resource, which ones would I direct them to first to give them an understanding of the key issues at hand?
  • Which resources are crucial in understanding the issue or problem at hand in greater detail?
  • Which of these relevant resources are the most current and up-to-date?

These types of questions helped me to figure out which articles were more relevant and should be included in my discussion of the background of the issue.

If you’re looking for more guidance on how to do this, be sure to check out these resources:


Stay tuned for Part 2 later this week. Remember, MURI applications are due Monday 11 August 2014.

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