Wednesday, 13 May 2015

How to write a Research Proposal

There are a number of agencies which encourage research and give funds to do it. In India, examples of such agencies are: the University Grants Commission, the Indian Council for Social Science Research, Government of India’s Department of Science & Technology, etc. Besides, each ministry of the central government has funds to encourage research. In few cases, the state governments also do funding for research. While applying for such funding the applicant has to submit a well thought out proposal. Almost all agencies have guidelines for submitting such proposals and in many cases they also list their priority areas on which they would prefer funding currently. Find out all these before drafting any proposal. The proposal should be crisp, clear and each word used carefully because before the approval is given by the funding agency, it is examined by its experts and the research committee.
While each funding agency has its own guidelines for submitting the research proposal, the following are some of the key points which most of the research proposals contain.  


On the title page, the applicant has to give his or her personal information, like name, academic title (if applicable), position at his her own university/college, e.g. Asstt. Professor (if applicable), date of birth, nationality and his or her work and private address with mobile/telephone and e-mail or any other information asked for. If a proposal also has one or more investigators, then the applicant will be designated as Principal Investigator and other investigators as Co-investigators. If so, similar information needs to be given about all Co-investigators. If a proposal has involvement of more than applicant’s organization, then it must be clarified, such as, single institutional or multi institutional. In later case, it must be clarified to which institution the funding agency shall release the sanction letter.
On the title page, the applicant should also give the title of his her proposed study. Remember that at this stage, the title can only be a working title. Nevertheless, all words in the title should be chosen with great care and their association with one another must be carefully managed. While the title should be brief, it should be accurate, descriptive and comprehensive, clearly indicating the subject of the investigation and the universe of applicant’s work. For example, “EMPOWERMENT OF WOMEN AT THE LOCAL LEVEL AFTER THE SEVENTY-THIRD & AND SEVENTY-FOURTH AMENDMENTS IN THE INDIAN CONSTITUTION: A STUDY OF UTTAR PRADESH.”  Note that he or she will only be ready to devise a title when he or she  is clear about the focus of the study.

The applicant has to state the general area followed by special area and nature of study. For example: 
General Area- Political Science.
Specific Area- Indian Constitution
Study Nature- R & D, action-oriented, as the case may be.
The abstract is a brief summary of the entire proposal, typically ranging from 150 to 250 words. Therefore, the abstract should outline the proposal’s major headings: the research question, theoretical framework, research design, sampling method, instrumentation and data and analysis procedures. A good abstract accurately reflects the content of the proposal, while at the same time being coherent, readable and concise. The applicant should not add any information in the abstract that is not contained in the detailed proposal. Because it highlights the entire proposal, it would be wise to wait and write the abstract in the last. This way, one merely has to reword information that was previously written.


When applying for a research grant or a study scholarship/fellowship, the funding agency expects the applicant to hand in a "detailed and precise description of study or research proposal as well as information on any previous study or research projects of particular relevance to the proposal." 
What does that mean precisely?               
The intention of the funding agency is to ensure that the applicant has done sufficient preliminary reading/research in the area of his choice, he or she has thought about the issues involved and is able to provide more than a broad description of the topic which he plans to investigate.
The proposal is of course not a fixed blueprint. One cannot predict one's findings beforehand or mechanically stick to an argument since the research will inevitably alter or even unseat one's initial expectations. However, the applicant has to convince the experts in the funding agency that he or she has identified the problem as well as a theoretical background and has a method to solve it within a realistic framework of time, staff (if required) and expenses. The applicant’s research should be able to add a new aspect to the problem in question or its fresh interpretation.
The applicant’s research proposal should have an agreeable layout, as laid by the funding agency. While brevity is appreciated, the proposal should be clear and should not create any confusion. It should introduce the problem, purpose and significance of a study as well as the applicant’s research questions, objectives and hypotheses. It must also give a brief explanation of the theory guiding the study, a review of relevant literature pertaining to the theory and the procedure or methodology for doing the work. 


The “Statement of the Problem” is an imperative part of the proposal, for in order for research to be conducted, one must notice a problem in the existing literature. For this section, the following questions should be answered: Why does this research study need to be conducted? What specific issues does this study raise that have not been observed in other literature pertaining to the topic? Answering these questions will allow experts in the funding agency to understand why this particular proposal is important and how the study will attempt to answer new, never-before asked questions or reinterpret what has been said or found till now.
Give a short summary of the research problem that the applicant has identified. Remember, the most important aspect of a research proposal is clarity on the research problem. The applicant should choose a topic which can be investigated through appropriate and valid methods and for which research material is available. The applicant’s most difficult problem might be narrowing the topic. This often occurs with topics that are still relatively unfamiliar. The applicant is advised to do a lot of general reading, and, if possible, consult his or her peers and other academics.     

It is appropriate to close the “Statement of the Problem” to include a sentence saying “The purpose of this study is…” or “Hence the study proposes” under this section. The applicant should clearly identify the goal of the study in one precise sentence. For example, the sentence could look like this: “The purpose of this study is to determine whether the 73rd & 74th constitutional amendments have really empowered women at the local level” or “Hence the study proposes whether the 73rd & 74th constitutional amendments have really empowered women at the local level.” Why is this an important area of study? Answer this question under this section. 


Here the applicant should give a short and precise overview of the present state of research that is broadly connected with his or her own research project. The proposal needs to show that the applicant is fully conversant with the ideas. The literature review provides the background for the research problem and illustrates to the reader (expert) that the researcher is knowledgeable about the scope of the theory. For this the applicant should research as many studies pertaining to the theory as possible and summarize them in a succinct manner. His or her research review should indicate an open problem which then will be the motive for his or her project. The applicant should clearly state how his or her own research will contribute to the existing research.
When writing the literature review, it is wise to separate the various studies one finds into different categories. Choose one evident theme or that became apparent when researching the theory. Briefly share the results of the various studies, including the most pertinent information, such as, the studies’ hypotheses, population, methodology, and results. Relate the study to an ongoing dialogue of the literature pertaining to the research topic. This means that each study one lists should relate to new, proposed study in some way. Report the studies sequentially, if possible, building upon the findings of prior studies. Remember to separate each category of studies with a new sub-heading. For example, International Status- one sub-heading- and National Status- second sub-heading. The applicant should do this as many times as needed.
The applicant should summarise, separately, the most important results of his or her own work on the topic done so far, if applicable. This the applicant should do by listing his or her own publications that might be seen in connection with his or his proposed research project.  


Before these terms are defined, it may be pertinent to note that some funding agencies ask for any one of these or for any two or all three of them. Objectives state what are the purposes of the proposed study, the research questions ask what relationships exist between the different variables in the study, while the hypotheses predict the relationship between variables. The applicant should list all the objectives, research questions and hypotheses for the study. He or she should format this section as given below.
For the purpose of this study, the following can be the objective:
  1. List the research objective here. For example, to find the extent the women have been empowered at the local level by the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments.
  2. As for purpose of this study, the following can be the research question:
  3. List the research question here. For example, how far the women have been empowered at the local level by the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments?
  4. As part of this study, the investigation included one research hypothesis:
  5. List the study’s hypothesis here: For example, the women have been empowered at the local level by the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments. 


In making a proposal, it is essential that one defines the central ideas or concepts of the study or difficult terms. Therefore, the applicant should carefully define each idea/concept/term that will be used in the study, citing other research studies, if needed. He or she should list each idea/concept/term, italicize it, and use a hyphen to define the term as seen below:
  1. Empowerment- Empowerment, in the context of proposed study, would mean not only  the increased number of women elected at the local level but also how far they have become independent in their working at the local level and are still not or less dependent on the their families’ or other male members of the society.
  2. 73rd & 74th constitutional amendments- These amendments in the Indian Constitution reserved one-third of the total seats in the urban and rural local bodies in favour of women, which, in some states, has been increased to fifty percent. Prior to these amendments, only a few women used to be members of these bodies.           


This section in a proposal details the theory that is guiding the proposed study. From this theory, the applicant is able to inform the statement of the problem, the purpose of the study, the questions and hypotheses, the choice of instruments and methodology of the study. In this section, he or she should explain the major tenets of the theory as well as how the theory relates to the proposed study. Remember that the eventual findings of the study will be discussed in terms of how they relate to the theory. It should be a brief explanation of the theory, as the details of particular study have already been discussed in the “Research Literature Review.”


This section is the most important section in the entire proposal, as it explains each step the applicant will take in order to conduct his or her research. This section discusses what measures the applicant will take in order to test the study’s objectives/research questions/hypotheses. Here he or she should give detailed information about his or her intended research procedure during the given time. Anyone who reads the applicant’s proposal will want to know the sources and quality of evidence that the applicant will consult, the analytical technique he or she will employ and the timetable he or she will follow. Depending on the topic, suitable research strategies should be defined to ensure that enough and adequate empirical data will be gathered for a successful research project. The applicant should describe the intended methods of data gathering, the controls he or she will introduce, the statistical methods to be used, the type of literature or documentary analysis to be followed and so on.
In this section, it is vital to include the following sub-headings while expanding on them in as much detail as possible.
Research Design: Include the proposed research design of the study, whether it is a survey, experiment, observation, secondary data of analysis, etc. Then, explain how this design will derive results. Briefly discuss how the data will be administered and collected, including how the respondents will participate in the study. Also, briefly discuss which theoretical model will guide this study and what the model predicts will be the results of the study. 
Sampling: This section should include an expanded discussion of the sample. First, discuss the population under consideration. From where will respondents be selected? Second, give the sampling method to be used. Which specific sampling method will be used to select respondents? Lastly, list the elements that will be characteristic of the sample, such as sex, age, etc.
Instrumentation: In this paragraph, briefly outline the instruments (tools), such as questionnaires, interview schedules and/or interview guides, that will be used in the study, including any and all surveys, interviews, or observation grids. Discuss how the instruments will measure the study’s independent and dependent variables. Each instrument should be discussed  in more detail under separate sub-headings. The details could include what will and how will be covered in each instrument. For this paragraph in particular, include why the instrument is considered to be valid and/or reliable as well as how it will be useful for the proposed study. 
Data Collection and Analysis Procedures
Explain the general plan for how the data will be collected. Include any survey, interview, or observation procedures and identify any incentives for respondents, if any, participating in the study. Also, include what statistics or analytical tools will be used for analyzing the data, such as ANOVA, SPSS, or SAS statistics, if applicable.


The applicant should give a concise and clear outline of the academic (possibly also non-academic, e.g. social and political) aims that he or she wants to achieve through the project. The proposal needs to show why the intended research is important and to justify the effort of doing the research. Here the applicant should outline the significance (theoretical or practical) or relevance of the topic.
Such justification may either be of an empirical nature (the applicant hopes to add to, or extend an existing body of knowledge) or of a theoretical nature (the applicant hopes to elucidate contentious areas in a body of knowledge or to provide new conceptual insights into such knowledge). All research is part of a larger scholarly enterprise and applicants should be able to argue for the value and positioning of their work.


The applicant needs to give information about his or her estimated time table, indicating the sequence of research phases and the time that he or she will probably need for each phase. Take into account that at this stage, it can only be estimated, but make clear that he or she has an idea about the time span that will be needed for each step. The applicant should give a realistic time frame in which he or she plans to complete his or her project and its division into each stage of work. For example,

1. Preliminary work………………………………………………………....………  01 month
2. Framing of tools………….......………………………………………………    02 months
3. Pilot study…………………………………………………………………......…… 02 months
4. Field work for the collection of data……………………… …………..12 months
5. Data tabulation and Analysis………………………………………….………03 months
6. Reaching the findings & conclusions…………...……………………...03 months
7. Writing of report…………………………………………………………....…...05 months
8. Typing of report & its submission……………………….........……… 02 months
                            TOTAL  30 months
Preliminary work means after the letter for sanction of funding is received what steps are to be taken. For example, sending an acceptance letter to the funding agency, entering into a contract, opening a bank account, etc. Framing of tools involves making of questionnaire, interview schedule and/or interview guide, as may be required, for the proposed study. Pilot study is done to test the tool to see if it is clear to the respondents and is able to ensure the answers of the questions raised are keeping in mind the focus of the study. Pilot study should be done on respondents who are not going to be tested when the actual data collection is done. Data collection takes a lot of time because on its results will depend how accurately it is collected. Here the applicant or his research team visits the field to collect the primary data as laid down in the proposal. This may also include visit to libraries and other sources where secondary data is available. After data has been collected, it is carefully edited to remove any discrepancies. It is then tabulated. These days it is all done on the computer. Data tabulation orders the entire data into groups and sub-groups. It is then analysed to find out what it says about the objectives/research questions/hypotheses proposed in the study. On its basis, the next phase of the project proceeds, that is, to make final findings and the reasons for these findings and what conclusions it reaches. The report writing is presentation of the work done into various sections or chapters, such as, executive summary, introduction, research design and methodology, presentation of data, findings and conclusions, shortcomings encountered and suggestions for future research. The presentation of data will be descriptive but to make attractive one can and should also use tables, maps, graphs, diagrams, pie charts, etc. The report may end with required annexures and, if required, a bibliography. At times, the report may also include its limitations and suggestions for future research and how its conclusions shall be implemented. Once finalized, the report is typed, as neatly as possible with no typographical errors, it is bound in as many copies as may be required by the funding agency. One may keep some copies for himself or herself. These days almost all funding agencies review the report and suggest if any changes are required in it which the applicant has to do. 


Depending upon the guidelines set by the funding agency, the applicant can ask for research staff, such as, Advisor, Consultant, Facilitator, Research Investigators and others to carry out the study. Note that one cannot ask for office staff under this head. Each position, its qualifications, emoluments and the period for which the appointment shall be made has to be specified and justified.


The implementation of the project needs funds to be provided by the sanctioning agency. The broad heads are recurring and non-recurring. While non-recurring are those items on which funds are spent only once during the life time of a project, usually in the beginning, recurring expenditures are made at different phases of the project. An example of the budget proposed is given below:
Non-recurring, like instruments, computers, machines, books and journals, etc.
Recurring may include headings, like salaries of research staff, travel, secretarial assistance, computer assistance, postage, office shelf, etc. There is a contingency head also in the recurring expenditure to cover any unforeseen expenditures or escalation of costs. 
Finally, 10 percent of total of all heads of the proposed budget, in some cases only recurring heads, is given as overhead expenditure. The budget and the overhead total is the financial demand of the proposal. Remember it should be as per applicant’s requirement and work proposed and should not be exaggerated especially beyond the ceiling set by the funding agency in its guidelines. 


Here list those academic works which the applicant has mentioned in his or her research outline as well as a number of other important works on which he or she will refer during his or her research.


Give a list of other documents attached to applicant’s proposal.


Once the applicant has finished conceptual work on his or her proposal, he or she should go through a careful editing stage, in which he or she should make that the proposal does not contain any grammatical/orthographical/typing mistakes. If possible, the applicant may ask someone within the academic community to proof-read his or her proposal in order to make sure that the proposal conforms with international academic standards.

Professor C.P.Barthwal
M.A., Ph.D. Ex- Vice Chancellor, Kumaun University
Professor & Head of Political Science & Public Administration Departments
Ex-President, Indian Political Science Association & Indian Public Administration Association
Conferred Prof.V.S.Ram Senior Political Scientist Award. 
Currently, Advisor, H.N.B. Uttarakhand Medical University, Dehradun 
Editor, Indian Journal of Political Science & Bhartiya RajnitiVigyan Sodh Patrika.