Step-By-Step Guide to Writing a Research Proposal (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Edition)

Today's guest is Thibaud Coroller, a graduate student in the Computational Imaging and Bioinformatics Laboratory (CIBL) at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School. Thibaud’s research focuses on radiomics, a field that uses medical imaging (CT, PET, and MRI scans) to learn about tumors and predict their responses to treatment.

Thibaud regularly publishes his research in scientific journals, and he’s generously agreed to share his understanding of the publication process with us. Below, you’ll find Thibaud’s guide to writing a scientific research proposal. This will be especially useful for readers who are considering applying to graduate school.

First, though, a note of thanks. We met Thibaud through The Tiny Pharmacist, a blog dedicated to sharing information and experiences about health, careers in pharmacy, and study abroad. The blog's creator, Hoang Ngoc Bich, has been studying in the US for over 10 years. She’s currently working as a pharmacist and is passionate about sharing her experience with fellow students. 

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What is a Research Proposal?

A research proposal explains the need to study a specific scientific problem and presents a concrete plan for carrying out that study.

A research proposal is similar to a scientific publication in structure and intent; the primary difference is that in a research proposal, results are not yet available (or are preliminary and incomplete).

Who Writes Research Proposals?

If you’re applying to a PhD program, you’ll likely write a research proposal. Graduate school is the beginning of the adult learning world, where you can fully design your own curriculum and map out a research path. Your research proposal is your chance to explain how you gained an interest in your topic and why you would like to pursue it.

Once you enroll, you’ll find that your schooling years are quite short (yes, even if you end up doing a PhD that never seems to end). You may not have many chances to try new things or expose yourself to new ideas and fields of research; the research proposals that you write during your graduate career are rare opportunities.

They’re also great introductions to life as a professional researcher, whether that’s in an academic context or elsewhere. And, thankfully, the steps you take in writing your proposal can be reused later in your career (i.e. grants, publications, book chapters).

What Makes a Good Research Proposal?

Quality research proposals reflect several key points: your knowledge of the topic, your aptitude for performing rigorous research, and your enthusiasm for leading a study. 

Before investing time in a research proposal, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What topics interest you most? Is there a specific area of research that you’d like to develop?
  • Is your topic relevant to current research in your field? Does your topic advance important questions in interesting directions?
  • Are you equipped to investigate the topic? (For example, advanced nuclear physics might be difficult for a college freshman.)
  • Do you have the time and attention to devote to this project right now?
  • Is this a one-time project, or could it potentially be continued later in your career?

After you’ve answered these questions, here are some additional issues you’ll want to think about. A research proposal is a big undertaking, and it requires a lot of you, including:

  • A scientifically curious mindset. You won’t just be sitting in class anymore – instead, you’ll actually be doing scientific research and communicating with other professionals. Your motivation should be apparent in the proposal. If you are excited by your work, the reader will be as well.
  • Conducting a literature review. You’ll need to ensure that your research hasn’t been done yet; you’ll also need to explain why your approach is feasible and how it differs from that of previous researchers. It doesn’t always have to be drastically different; after all, consistent results will add to your field’s body of knowledge. Still, new ideas are usually preferable.
  • Learning how to conduct comprehensive research, manage a bibliography, and plan a scientific experiment.
  • Demonstrating your problem-solving and critical thinking skills - especially the ability to break complex issues into smaller, more manageable ones.
  • Focusing on your writing. Let’s face it: scientists usually aren’t the best stylists. Improve your writing and communications skills through courses, assignments, and coaching.
  • Formatting carefully. Writing a research proposal means following your organization’s submission guidelines (number of pages and figures, reference format, and so on). Stick to these rules; otherwise, your proposal may be rejected outright.

What Does a High-Quality Research Proposal Include?

In this section, we will describe the structure of a research proposal and explain how to write one efficiently. We’ll use common section titles. (Your organization's specific guidelines may differ.)

Abstract

Short text (150-300 words) that allows the reader to quickly identify key points.

Introduction

Clearly describes the purpose of the study and how it differs from previous work in your field. (If no work has been done on your topic, explain why.)

The introduction should also include an extensive bibliography, and every statement should be supported by citations. Infographics (charts, graphs) can also help reviewers understand your research (and provide a nice break from blocks of text). 

Key Points About the Introduction

  1. Context: Introduce a general idea in your field. Cite landmark studies and pertinent research. Describe how previous researchers approached the problem - and how your approach differs.
  2. Competent: Present a clear idea of how to make progress in your field and the potential applications of your results. Avoid over-optimistic claims.
  3. Coherent: Organization is key. Paragraphs should be connected, and the progression of ideas should feel clear and logical.
  4. Concise: Long introductions are a quick way to lose your reviewer’s attention. Avoid trivia; focus only on important details.
  5. Compelling: Your reviewer receives hundreds of proposals. How can you ensure that she'll want to read yours? Consistent, clear, and reader-friendly formatting can have a big impact on a reviewer’s mood. Format a proposal that you would enjoy reading.

Methods / Materials

This is the backbone of your proposal – your opportunity to describe your overall research design. To do so, you’ll draw on your literature review; you'll evaluate methods used by other researchers, as well as methods that haven’t been used - but could be.

Precision is critical here. You’ll describe your specific methodological approaches, your techniques for analyzing data, and any tests of external validity you’re willing to use.

Like the introduction, this section must be well-written and logically organized. (Ideally, the order of the paragraphs should match the Results section. For example, if you describe your univariate analysis techniques before your multivariate analysis techniques in the Methods / Materials section, you should present them in the same order in the Results section.) In general, you want to show that you've planned your study carefully, using the best information available.

Your design and methods should also reflect the specific aims of your study. Your methodology should anticipate possible pitfalls, suggest potential controls, and ensure that you have the cleanest, most unbiased data possible.

Example of details worth mentioning in the Methods / Materials section:

  • Statistical methods used.
  • Software used (including version).
  • Hardware used (e.g., microscope, LASER).
  • Biological organisms used (e.g., information about cell lines).
  • Chemicals used, including concentrations and references.
  • If you include photographs, list the brand, model, and parameters of your camera.

Key Points About Methods / Materials

Do not give general or trivial information. Be specific about each experiment and its corresponding measure/test.

  1. What makes this data unique? (Are you investigating rare plants? Are patients undergoing a specific treatment?)
  2. How is the data investigated? (Are you conducting retrospective or prospective analysis? How many samples will you take? What controls will be in place?)
  3. How are the data analyzed? (Qualitative interpretation? Statistical tests? Data transformation?)
  4. What are the endpoints of this study?

Results

Since you're writing a research proposal, you may not have results to share. (Perhaps you haven't begun your study. Or, if your study is underway, your results may not be available yet.) 

If you do have preliminary results, however, this is the place to share them. Doing so can strengthen your proposal.

You can also describe anticipated results. This involves risk, however; your reviewer might disagree with your line of thinking. You’ll want to weigh the potential upsides and downsides of anticipating results on a case-by-case basis.

Key Points About Results

  1. Present results objectively.
  2. Clearly explain all acronyms.
  3. Use graphical elements (plots, tables) to efficiently represent your findings. Figures should be labeled (titles, legends, axis names, and defined scales).
  4. Discuss anticipated results carefully.
  5. To the extent you can, exclude speculation and personal opinion.

Conclusion

The conclusion is the “take home” message – a final summary of your proposal. It should be 1-2 paragraphs in length.

Key Points About the Conclusion

  1. Briefly summarize your proposal: reiterate the purpose of the study and the research questions it attempts to answer.
  2. Mention potential applications of your findings. (How does your work fit into the broader scientific picture?)

References / Bibliography

You must cite your sources via references and a bibliography.

  1. A reference is a link to a specific paper, website, or article that supports a claim. 
  2. A bibliography lists all of your references. It usually appears at the end of the manuscript (after the conclusion).

Together, your references and bibliography allow readers to delve deeper into the state of research on your topic. They also allow readers to understand your research methods more fully.

Your references should mostly include recent papers - less than 5-10 years old, depending on the field. (In the biomedical world, things move quickly, and studies over five years old might not reflect the current state of research. In physics or astronomy, by contrast, studies take much longer to complete, so research progresses more slowly.)

Nonetheless, citing older papers can still be important – both to acknowledge the impact of pioneering work and to highlight innovations in scientific method (e.g., the impact of DNA sequencing).

Using Software to Construct Your Bibliography

Free applications such as Zotero or Paperpile allow you to efficiently store PDF documents, keep track of papers you've cited, and automatically adapt citation indexes and formats (and avoid painful manual editing!).

Additional Feature: Figures

Figures are an important part of scientific papers because they visually summarize complex ideas, experimental designs, and important results. The easiest tool for creating figures is PowerPoint; if you're skilled in vectorized images, GIMP and Adobe Illustrator are also useful.

Key Points About Figures

Follow the “nothing less, nothing more” rule:

  1. The figure should be self-explanatory.
  2. Captions and values should be clear.
  3. Scales should be adapted to highlight key results without misleading the reader.
  4. No superfluous data or extravagant color.
  These figures display the same data, but the figure on the right is much more useful. It provides a legend, clearly labeled axes, and helpful explanatory notes. (See Rougier et al. PLoS Computational Biology, 2014.) You can also check out the Public Library of Science Computational Biology website for more important guidelines.

 

These figures display the same data, but the figure on the right is much more useful. It provides a legend, clearly labeled axes, and helpful explanatory notes. (See Rougier et al. PLoS Computational Biology, 2014.) You can also check out the Public Library of Science Computational Biology website for more important guidelines.

I’ve Written and Submitted My Proposal. What Happens Next?

As a frequent peer-reviewer for scientific journals, I can share some important insights from the other side of the process.

First, keep in mind that reviewers are humans. They generally review proposals and journal articles for free in their personal time. (Reviewing a proposal or article takes anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.) Rushed or sloppy proposals can put a reviewer in an unfriendly mood – and might lead him to spend less to spend time discovering the positive aspects of your proposal. 

It’s in your best interest to offer a clear and catchy Abstract to keep the reviewer focused. Remember: you’ve been working on your proposal for weeks (or even months); concepts that are trivial to you might be unfamiliar to the reviewer.

Key Points About the Review Process

  1. If possible, provide a figure in the Introduction. Doing so engages the reader and offers a clear vision of the experiment/study you hope to conduct.
  2. Avoid weak links. If all of your ideas are great except one, the reviewer will likely focus on the bad one and lose sight of the rest.
  3. Explain your methods fully and clearly, but include only the important details. (I know – it’s a tricky balance.)
  4. Back up all of your claims, but don’t overstate them. Include an exhaustive bibliography (including landmark and recent studies).
  5. Don’t be evasive. Say what you know, say what you don’t know, and say what you’re going to do.
  6. Don’t plagiarize. It’s unethical, and it’s easy to detect.
  7. Make your submission aesthetically pleasing. Create section breaks, align your text consistently, and select easy-to-read fonts.

I hope this outline has provided a helpful overview of the research proposal process. Good luck on your future endeavors!