Writing a research proposal

A research proposal is written with the purpose to convince a sponsor or donor that you have come up with an interesting idea, and that it is worthwhile to finance your research project. You thus need to make a real effort in making a good research proposal and to clearly convey the message why the research is important. A research grant proposal should be accurate, brief and clear; it should tell why the planned research is needed, and it should give evidence that you and your possible collaborators have the competence to do the job. Your proposal should also match the purpose and goals of the funding organization.


Most granting sponsors have guidelines telling what should be included in a research proposal, as well as formal requirements such as maximum number of pages with a specified font size, line spacing, number of copies to be submitted etc. Make sure to follow these guidelines in every detail! You will not be happy if your project is not even considered for further evaluation because some formalities were not fulfilled in your application.

Your research proposal will usually be reviewed and graded by a number of referees, where some of the people might be specialists in your particular research area, but several of them may not be very familiar with the area. This further stresses the need for your application to be accurate, brief and clear and emphasize essentials. You cannot expect the graders to realize that your project is important unless you manage to convince them that it is!

Essential components of a research proposal

Writing a research proposal is partly similar to writing a scientific paper; you need to define the problem, the objectives, what is known and what is not known about the problem, as well as give your research plan. Instead of presenting results, you describe the expected outcomes. You also give a time plan with short milestones and present a budget for the project. Your (and your collaborators') qualifications are verified in a "Curriculum Vitae". Make sure you make a structured and logical proposal with suitable headings and an appealing layout.

When writing a research proposal, it is also wise to check the criteria that will be used for grading the applications. Such criteria might be relevance, scientific quality, qualifications of applicant(s), research collaboration, plan for dissemination of results, and budget in relation to project plan and funds available.

Some essentials to include in a research proposal are summarized in the box and briefly discussed below. For more detailed information, see e.g. a [Manual for grant writing] available in the internet (Reid 2000).

Title and Summary. Those give reviewers a first impression of your research proposal and should be informative, brief and clear. Summarize the key information of your proposal; tell what problem you wish to address, and also give the objectives, the significance and the potential contribution of your proposed research, and a very brief description of the methods to be used. The summary might also include a few words on


your and your organization's ability to carry out the research, as well as the resource needs of the project. The allowed length of the summary is usually stated in the sponsor guidelines.

Justification, background, objectives and expected output. Define the problem and emphasize the importance and relevance of your proposed research project, and tell what is unique in your approach. Present a brief literature review (and a coherent Reference list) to show what is done already, and also identify information gaps. The objectives might be split into major and specific objectives, and also be put in a broad framework. Specify the expected outcomes and possible applications of your research.

Research plan (including equipment), time schedule and milestones. Describe the research methods and materials to be used, including methods to analyse the materials or data collected (e.g. laboratory or statistical analyses). State the facilities and equipment needed, which of these your organization can provide, and what requires funding within the research proposal. Describe the research methods so that the scientific quality of the proposal can be evaluated, but avoid describing the methods in too much detail. Relate the experiment/study to the objectives. Present a time schedule for the activities to be performed and milestones to be achieved, e.g. as a time-delivery flow chart of achievements and outputs. Note that an ethical approval might be needed for animal experiments.

Dissemination of results. Scientific results must be communicated to relevant audiences. Obviously, scientists aim for publication in scientific journals, and at international and national conferences. In applied areas of research it is as important that the results are also, but not only, communicated to the industry and various authorities outside the scientific community. Such publications must be kept in a popularized form. Many funding organizations require a good plan for publication and information of results to approve an application.

Budget. Many sponsors provide a specific budget format that you must follow, but there might be the possibility to add more details elsewhere. The budget should be credible and realistic, and clearly reflect your research plan. Some items might need specific justification. Indicate whether your organization, or maybe other donors, will cover part of the research costs. If that will be the case, your chances for a research grant might be improved; cost-sharing/matching funds are sometimes a precondition.

Collaborating institutions. Performing the research in collaboration with other institutions might strengthen your proposal, and also indicate a multi-disciplinary approach. Across-country collaboration is sometimes a requirement. Costs for the collaborating institutions may need to be considered in the budget. Evidence of collaboration, i.e. letters of support from collaborating institutions, should be included as an appendix.

Curriculum Vitae (CV). It is common to add a CV as an appendix to the research proposal. Alternatively, if kept short, it may be incorporated at the end of the application. The main purpose of the CV is to provide the reviewers with such information that they can form an opinion whether the applicant(s) have the competence required to carry out the research described in a proposal. The qualifications and abilities of the principal investigator(s) are most important to describe, although CVs may also be required for the collaborating scientists. A CV must be kept brief and clear; include essentials of relevance for the application! Organize the information into categories, such as personal facts, academic education, relevant positions, main research topics, relevant publications, awards or honours received and other skills or experiences that might be of relevance for carrying out the research project. Scientists sometimes overdo the CV and harm themselves by writing a longer CV than the research proposal itself!

A CV is also required in many other situations, e.g. in applications for academic positions. The focus on research, teaching and administration or leadership merits may vary depending on the type of position and the tasks to be performed. Instructions and examples for writing a CV and related letters are easily found on the Internet.

Before delivering a research proposal, also let someone who is not in your area of discipline read it and give you her/his comments. And, remember to make a final check that all requirements set by the sponsor organization are fulfilled (including signatures required)!