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Writing a research proposal

A research proposal is a request for support (usually financial) of research or instruction. A written proposal should answer these questions:

  • What do you want to do, how much will it cost, and how much time will it take?
  • How does your proposal relate to the sponsor's interests?
  • How will your proposal affect your students, your department or the university, your academic discipline, or government entities?
  • What has already been done in this research area?
  • What are your plans?
  • How will you evaluate your results?
  • Why should you, rather than someone else, do this project?

There are several departments and people on campus who can help you with your proposal. The Office of Sponsored Programs is the primary department charged with managing and supporting research proposals. They offer regular workshops on grant and proposal writing. You'll work with OSP throughout the proposal process. Your college librarian can assist with portions of your proposal.

Types of proposals

Solicited proposals

Submitted in response to a specific solicitation issued by a sponsor. Such solicitations, typically called Request for Proposals (RFP), or Request for Quotations (RFQ), are usually specific in their requirements regarding format and technical content, and may stipulate certain award terms and conditions. Broad Agency Announcements (BAAs) are not considered formal solicitations.

Unsolicited proposals

Submitted to a sponsor that has not issued a specific solicitation but is believed by the investigator to have an interest in the subject.


Requested when a sponsor wishes to minimize an applicant's effort in preparing a full proposal. Preproposals are usually in the form of a letter of intent or brief abstract. After the preproposal is reviewed, the sponsor notifies the investigator if a full proposal is warranted.

Continuation or non-competing proposals

Confirm the original proposal and funding requirements of a multi-year project for which the sponsor has already provided funding for an initial period (normally one year). Continued support is usually contingent on satisfactory work progress and the availability of funds.

Renewal or competing proposals

Are requests for continued support for an existing project that is about to terminate, and, from the sponsor's viewpoint, generally have the same status as an unsolicited proposal.

Parts of a proposal

Proposals typically follow a similar format, though specifics will be spelled out for any given agency.

Title page

Most sponsoring agencies specify the format for the title page, and some provide special forms to summarize basic administrative and fiscal data for the project. Titles should be comprehensive enough to indicate the nature of the proposed work, but also be brief.


The funder may use the abstract to make preliminary decisions about the proposal. An effective summary states the problem addressed by the applicant, identifies the solution, and specifies the objectives and methods of the project. This summary should also outline funding requirements and describe the applicant’s expertise.

Table of contents

Very brief proposals with few sections ordinarily do not need a table of contents. Long and detailed proposals may require, in addition to a table of contents, a list of illustrations (or figures) and a list of tables. If all of these are included, they should follow the order mentioned, and each should be numbered with lower-case Roman numerals. The table of contents should list all major parts and divisions (including the abstract, even though it precedes the table of contents).

Introduction (including statement of problem, purpose of research, and significance of research)

The introduction of a proposal should begin with a capsule statement of what is being proposed and then should proceed to introduce the subject to a stranger. It should give enough background to enable an informed layman to place your particular research problem in a context of common knowledge and should show how its solution will advance the field or be important for some other work. The statement describes the significance of the problem(s), referring to appropriate studies or statistics.

Background (including literature review)

  • Make clear what the research problem is and exactly what has been accomplished
  • Give evidence of your own competence in the field
  • Show why the previous work needs to be continued. 

The literature review should be selective and critical. Discussions of work done by others should therefore lead the reader to a clear impression of how you will be building upon what has already been done and how your work differs from theirs.

Description of proposed research (including methodology)

The comprehensive explanation of the proposed research is addressed not to laymen but to other specialists in your field. This section is the heart of the proposal and is the primary concern of the technical reviewers. Remember as you lay out the research design to 

  • Be realistic about what can be accomplished
  • Be explicit about any assumptions or hypotheses the research method rests upon
  • Be clear about the focus of the research
  • Be as detailed as possible about the schedule of the proposed work
  • Be specific about the means of evaluating the data or the conclusions
  • Be certain that the connection between the research objectives and the research method is evident.
  • Spell out preliminary work developing an analytical method or laying groundwork as phase 1. At the end of that phase you will be able to report that you have accomplished something and are ready to undertake phase 2.

Description of relevant institutional resources

In general this section details the resources available to the proposed project and, if possible, shows why the sponsor should select this university and this investigator for this particular research. Some relevant points may be the institution's demonstrated competence in the pertinent research area, its abundance of experts in related areas that may indirectly benefit the project, its supportive services that will directly benefit the project, and its unique or unusual research facilities or instruments available to the project.

List of references

The style of the bibliographical item itself depends on the disciplinary field. Be consistent; whatever style is chosen should be followed throughout.


This section usually consists of two parts:

  • Explanation of the proposed personnel arrangements
  • Biographical data sheets for each of the main contributors to the project

The explanation should specify how many persons at what percentage of time and in what academic categories will be participating in the project. If the program is complex and involves people from other departments or colleges, the organization of the staff and the lines of responsibility should be made clear.Any student participation, paid or unpaid, should be mentioned, and the nature of the proposed contribution detailed. If any persons must be hired for the project, say so, and explain why, unless the need for persons not already available within the university is self-evident.


Sponsors customarily specify how budgets should be presented and what costs are allowable. The budget delineates the costs to be met by the funding source, including personnel, non-personnel, administrative, and overhead expenses. The budget also specifies items paid for by other funding sources. Includes justifications for requested expenditures.

Related Links

College Librarian Program and Contacts

College Librarians provide assistance with research, purchasing materials and access, classroom assignment design, information skills sessions, and distance education needs. Find their contact information on this page.