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How to Write a Compelling Research Proposal


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The goal of a research proposal is to justify a research project you'd like to complete: including what you plan to accomplish, why it would benefit the larger community, and how you plan to do it.

According to Dr. Francis Collins, former Director of the NIH, So many worthwhile research ideas get put into the unfunded category in reviews because the proposals are not written clearly and don't present the importance of the research forcefully enough.

Let's discuss how to write a compelling research proposal.

Why write a research proposal?

Students may need to write a research proposal for class, a thesis proposal for a Master's degree program, or a dissertation proposal for a PhD program. Postdoctoral fellows often need to write fellowship proposals to secure funding for their salary and expenses, and professional researchers constantly need to write grant proposals to secure funding for research projects. Small grants may provide hundreds of dollars for travel expenses or a few thousand dollars for research supplies. Larger grants can provide tens of thousands to upwards of a million dollars to cover major equipment and multiple salaries.

People who are not researchers may also find themselves writing grant proposals. The grant money might be used to support after school activities for underprivileged students, provide seed money for a grocery store in a food desert, or develop a community program to help senior citizens use new technologies. While these grant proposals are not research proposals, the goal of the proposal is the same: Convince the reader that the project is immensely worthwhile, that you (and your colleagues) are extremely knowledgeable about the requirements and possible pitfalls, and that you are prepared and enthusiastic about completing the project for the benefit of the larger community.


Before writing anything, you must consider your audience. Whether you are a graduate student submitting a thesis proposal, or a faculty member applying for an external research grant, your reviewers will likely be multiple faculty members who have varying degrees of familiarity with your proposed area of research. Therefore, you must include enough background information to enable an intelligent reader to understand your proposed work.

Reviewers are busy people who essentially volunteer their time to benefit the academic community, and they all have substantial experience identifying weaknesses and discrepancies within research plans. Therefore, make sure your research proposal is concise, well organized, and convincing.

For most funding agencies, the number of good applications will greatly exceed the number of grants that can be awarded, so your proposal needs to really shine in order to be successful.

Many universities have an internal review process that must be completed before an application can be submitted for an external grant. As part of the internal review process, your proposal will be reviewed to identify weaknesses and discrepancies, and to provide editorial assistance to improve clarity and to ensure that all guidelines are meant. If these services are not offered by your institution, I strongly recommend seeking feedback from multiple readers, such as faculty advisors, senior graduate students, post-docs, or a professional editor.

Getting started

The process of selecting a topic is discussed in my earlier blog post on Writing Your Thesis Proposal Like a Pro, so here I will focus on how to make your proposal as persuasive as possible.

It's a good idea to start with an outline for each section of your research proposal (see the guidelines provided by your professor or funding agency). This will help you identify any areas that may be problematic, so you can focus your reading and otherwise work to resolve potential problems. Include citations for all relevant information at this early stage, so you can avoid the nightmare of trying to track them down later. Also note the resources you have available to help complete your research. These may include university resources such as equipment, technical support, knowledgeable experts, and useful sample populations, as well as resources within the larger community (e.g. at a neighboring institution). Make a note of any other resources you may need, such as online databases or specific equipment.


For your research proposal, carefully follow the specific guidelines of your graduate program or funding agency. The length of the proposal may range from 10-15 pages for a graduate research proposal, to over 25 pages for a large government grant. Citations, figures, and indexes are not included in the word count.

A typical format includes the following sections:

  1. Title: Clearly and concisely state the goal of your research, in a way that gets the reader excited about reading your proposal.
  2. Introduction: A brief summary of one to three paragraphs. Include the rationale for the study, the research question and hypothesis, the major method(s) to be used, and the potential significance of the findings. Depending on the field, the research methods may be difficult for non-specialists to understand. However, the rationale and potential significance should be clear to any educated reader. It is often useful to start with a broad rationale for the study (e.g. "Obesity is a major problem in the United States."). Then discuss why you are well-positioned and highly motivated to conduct research in this area (e.g. "At City Hospital in Springfield, we treat many patients who struggle with obesity and its life-threatening effects."). Be optimistic but realistic when discussing the potential benefits of your research (e.g. "Developing a more effective strategy to support obese individuals as they make lifestyle changes will improve long-term weight control and overall health.").
  3. Background and Significance: Present a more detailed explanation of your proposed research. Discuss the useful resources that are readily available to you (e.g. previous experience, access to sample populations, equipment, colleagues, etc.), and resources that can be obtained with appropriate financial support (e.g. reagents, travel to a specific research location, etc.) Set clear boundaries for your research to show that you understand what can realistically be accomplished with the available time and resources.
  4. Literature Review: Discuss the previous research that has led to your research question and methodology. You should discuss the significance of previous work, as well as the important unanswered questions that your work aims to address. Highlight aspects of previous work that you plan to adapt to your research, and aspects of previous work that now seem flawed or incomplete. You need to highlight your deep understanding of the research field, and your ability to imagine how the field can move forward—partially through your own efforts. Knowledgeable reviewers will judge you harshly if you show an incomplete understanding of seminal work, or if you fail to mention important recent work. All readers should be able to take away a positive impression of your knowledge and passion for the field.
  5. Research Design and Methods: Describe the methods you will use to collect data and analyze it. As appropriate, discuss sample size, statistical tests, and why one method was chosen over others. Be sure to discuss potential problems that could arise, and how you plan to work around them.
  6. Limitations: Every study has limitations, so point out some of the limitations of your study. Then emphasize that your research has valuable benefits in spite of the limitations.
  7. Ethical Considerations: When using human or animal subjects, be sure to carefully consider the ethics of your research and obtain all necessary approvals to conduct your research. For human subjects, think carefully about how you will protect their privacy.
  8. Conclusion: Use one or two paragraphs to reiterate why your proposed research will make a meaningful contribution to the field, and why you are an ideal candidate to conduct this important work. This will be your closing argument, so make it accessible and convincing for all readers.
  9. Citations

Additional suggestions

Aim for about five major points in your proposal. Less than five may seem insubstantial, and more than five may make the proposal seem unfocused. Present your most important points first. Use subheadings to help organize your research proposal. When possible, use active voice (e.g. "We will identify mutations.") rather than passive voice (e.g. "Mutations will be identified."). The focus of your proposal should always be your planned research (i.e. "identify mutations that make kidney cancer more aggressive") and not the general topic (e.g. "the genetics of kidney cancer").

Value your reader's time. Write clearly and concisely so that someone unfamiliar with your area of research can understand the main points of your proposal.

Remember that your reviewers are passionate about research. Give them something they can be excited to support.

Closing thoughts

While writing a research proposal is quite daunting, the good news is that an excellent proposal will serve as a blueprint to guide you through your research. In addition, large parts of the text can often be used in your dissertation and/or manuscripts for publication.

Even if your research project doesn't go as planned, and you have to revamp major portions or change course entirely, the process of preparing a proposal makes you a stronger researcher. This is why students are asked to write research proposals that they will not carry out. Finally, dissertation committees and grant agencies don't keep a checklist of research you must complete, and are typically satisfied if you conduct well-informed research that produces meaningful results.

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