At the end of this subject, the main product you should have to show for it is a research proposal. A research proposal helps your colleagues and supervisors evaluate you proposed research, assess the appropriateness of you methods, and identify problems ahead of time, sot hey can be fixed.

This pathway will provide you with the understanding needed for writing up your research proposal. It will explain the components of a research proposal, and provide you with a template for writing it up.


  • Understand the components of a research proposal
  • Understand the process of writing up a research proposal
  • Become familiar with the format and template of a UOW research proposal

Research proposal template

At the university of Wollongong, in the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts, there are some expectations with regards to research proposals. Prospective Honours/Masters by Research/PhD students are required to complete a research proposal and submit this with the formal application form and relevant documents. The proposal should be no more than 3,000 words in length (excluding references). The numbers in parentheses indicate an estimate of the portion that should be devoted to each section. This does not suggest that all sections should be this portion exactly, but it should provide guidance as to the relative priorities of the proposal. The proposal should contain the following elements.

  1. Suggested research title
  2. Introduction (15%) – The introduction should situate the question(s) you are addressing. Why is the question important? How will answering it advance knowledge in international studies? What is the broader social/political/geopolitical context that frames your question? What are the broader issues that the research is trying to explain? (Be sure your research question(s) are clearly stated in this section)
  3. Literature review (25%) – The literature review should demonstrate that your research question is anchored in and contributes to a body of literature(s). You should demonstrate awareness of key research in the relevant fields and provide an analytical summary of current knowledge. This section should also describe and justify the general theoretical approach/framework applied in your proposed research.
  4. Research design (10%) – This section should describe your approach to researching the proposed problem. The research design (descriptive, comparative, case study, narrative, etc.) should be described and justified as appropriate to address the research problem you have identified.
  5. Methods and Data (20%) – This section should indicate the data sources needed to answer the research question and the general methodological approach taken. Items to address include: key propositions or hypotheses; concepts; independent and dependent variable(s); indicators; cross-section or longitudinal approach; unit of analysis; sampling; validity and reliability; etc. (Please note: not all of these topics apply for all projects so please address what is relevant to your work.) For students doing theory based projects please indicate what data sources you will utilise and your general method.
  6. Proposed analyses (20%) – This section should describe how you intend to analyse the data to address your research question(s). Is the project qualitative, quantitative or a mixed methods approach? Please identify the techniques you will use to analyse the data. Note: qualitative methods typically require coding AND analysis of data. Both stages should be described in this section
  7. Proposed timeframe for the study (10%) – Outline a timetable for completion of the project (6 months for honours, 2 years for full-time Masters students, 3 years for PhD).
  8. References

Components of a research proposal

Title page

A research proposal begins with a title page. The title is centered in the upper half of the page, with each important word capitalized. The title should clearly and concisely (in about 12 words or fewer) communicate the primary variables and research questions. This sometimes requires a main title followed by a subtitle that elaborates on the main title, in which case the main title and subtitle are separated by a colon. Here are some titles from recent issues of professional international studies journals:

  • Benefits of global partnerships to facilitate access to medicines in developing countries: a multi-country analysis of patients and patient outcomes in GIPAP
  • Grounding the European public sphere: looking beyond the mass media to digitally mediated issue publics
  • “Smartness” without vision: the Moroccan regime in the face of acquiescent elites and weak social mobilization


The introduction begins on the second page of the proposal. The heading at the top of this page is the full title of the manuscript, with each important word capitalized as on the title page. The introduction usually includes three distinct subsections, although these are typically not identified by separate headings. The opening introduces the research question and explains why it is interesting, the literature review discusses relevant previous research, and the closing restates the research question and comments on the method used to answer it.

Tip: write the introduction last. It makes sense to start writing the introduction first, but in fact, after your proposal is written, you will often find that the introduction is easier to write. You will then have a better understanding of what background is relevant to the reader, and what needs to be emphasised.

The opening, which is usually a paragraph or two in length, introduces the research question and explains what is interesting about it, and who it is interesting/important to. To capture the reader’s attention, researcher Daryl Bem [1] recommends starting with general observations about the topic under study, expressed in ordinary language (not technical jargon)—observations that are about people and their behaviour (not about researchers or their research).
After capturing the reader’s attention, the opening should go on to introduce the research question and explain why it is interesting. Will the answer fill a gap in the literature? Will it provide a test of an important theory? Does it have practical implications? Giving readers a clear sense of what the research is about and why they should care about it will motivate them to continue reading the literature review—and will help them make sense of it.

A condensed literature review: Immediately after the opening comes a condensed literature review, which describes relevant previous research on the topic in a condensed way. It should NOT be simply a list of past studies. Instead, it constitutes a kind of argument for why the research question is worth addressing. By the end of the literature review, readers should be convinced that the research question makes sense and that the present study is a logical next step in the ongoing research process. It is not your full literature review at this stage, but just a sample of the main tenants of your argument, which lead to the way you plan to address your research questions.
The closing of the introduction — typically the final paragraph or two — usually includes two important elements. The first is a clear statement of the main research question or hypothesis. This statement tends to be more formal and precise than in the opening and is often expressed in terms of operational definitions of the key variables. The second is a brief overview of the method and some comment on its appropriateness.

Literature review

The purpose of the literature review is to develop an argument for the method you chose to use in our research, and why this method is suitable for addressing your research question. The argument has to be based on scholarly academic sources. The literature review is also meant to give the reader a summary of the current knowledge on your topic: how can you group the various authors under consideration? What assumptions do they share? Do they agree about the implications of their work? Do they prioritize things the same and/or correctly? what gaps are there in those views?
Like any effective argument, the literature review must have some kind of structure. For example, it might begin by describing a phenomenon in a general way along with several studies that demonstrate it, then describing two or more competing theories of the phenomenon, and finally presenting a hypothesis to test one or more of the theories. Or it might describe one phenomenon, then describe another phenomenon that seems inconsistent with the first one, then propose a theory that resolves the inconsistency, and finally present a hypothesis to test that theory. In applied research, it might describe a phenomenon or theory, then describe how that phenomenon or theory applies to some important real-world situation, and finally suggest a way to test whether it does, in fact, apply to that situation.
Looking at the literature review in this way emphasizes a few things:

  1. It is extremely important to start with an outline of the main points that you want to make, organised in the order that you want to make them. The basic structure of your argument, then, should be apparent from the outline itself.
  2. It is important to emphasise the structure of your argument in your writing. One way to do this is to begin the literature review by summarising your argument even before you begin to make it. “This proposal describes two apparently contradictory phenomena, present a new theory that has the potential to resolve the apparent contradiction, and finally present a novel hypothesis to test the theory.” Another way is to open each paragraph with a sentence that summarises the main point of the paragraph and links it to the preceding points. These opening sentences provide the “transitions” that many beginning researchers have difficulty with. Instead of beginning a paragraph by jumping into a description of a previous study, such as “Williams (2004) found that…,” it is better to start by indicating something about why you are describing this particular study. Here are some simple examples:

Another example of this phenomenon comes from the work of Williams (2004).
Williams (2004) offers one explanation of this phenomenon.
An alternative perspective has been provided by Williams (2004).
We used a method based on the one used by Williams (2004).

  1. Remember that your goal is to construct an argument for why your research question is interesting and worth addressing—not necessarily why your favourite answer to it is correct. In other words, your literature review must be balanced. If you want to emphasise the generality of a phenomenon, then of course you should discuss various studies that have demonstrated it. However, if there are other studies that have failed to demonstrate it, you should discuss them too. Or if you are proposing a new theory, then of course you should discuss findings that are consistent with that theory. However, if there are other findings that are inconsistent with it, again, you should discuss them too. It is acceptable to argue that the balance of the research supports the existence of a phenomenon or is consistent with a theory (and that is usually the best that researchers in psychology can hope for), but it is not acceptable to ignore contradictory evidence. Besides, a large part of what makes a research question interesting is uncertainty about its answer.

Research design

In this section, you need to not only describe your research design, but also explain how that design is beneficial for answering your research questions. Does it provide breadth? depth? objectivity? The research design can usually be justified with previous research which has used a similar design, or, in contrast, by showing that there is little research in the area using such design, and a need for it.

Methods and data

The methods and data section is where you describe how you conducted your data collection. An important principle for writing a method section is that it should be clear and detailed enough that other researchers could replicate the study by following your “recipe.” This means that it must describe all the important elements of the study—basic demographic characteristics of the participants, how they were recruited, whether they were randomly assigned, how the variables were manipulated or measured, how counterbalancing was accomplished, and so on. At the same time, it should avoid irrelevant details such as the fact that the study was conducted in Classroom 37B of the Industrial Technology Building or that the questionnaire was double-sided and completed using pencils.
The method section begins immediately after the introduction ends with the heading “Methods”. Immediately after this is the subheading “Participants,” which indicates how many participants you intend to involve (if any), and how they will be recruited.


Reflection activity: research proposal

Share the answers to the following questions with the group in the discussion forum.

  1. What aspect of the research proposal task do you currently find the most challenging and why?


  1. Bem, D. J. (2003). Writing the empirical journal article. In J. M. Darley, M. P. Zanna, & H. R. Roediger III (Eds.), The compleat academic: A practical guide for the beginning social scientist (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.