Your research proposal is the main base upon which a supervisor and a research degrees committee can begin to judge the value or potential of your research work. Many universities now demand a great deal of work prior to the submission of a research proposal, which in the past might well have been little more than an indicative title.
Drawing up a research proposal is the first main task you will be involved in with your supervisor. Depending on your university regulations, the norm is to register for your research degree if it is an MPhil or a PhD, then develop the proposal, then have registration confirmed when the proposal is accepted - which could be a process lasting anything from three months to a year in some instances. For students studying for an MA or other Masters, you will already be on the course and drawing up a proposal with your supervisor is an ongoing rather swift process with a usually early deadline to begin the work and a set deadline to hand it all in. Do check on university regulations very early in advance as you enter your research degree.
Before you submit your research proposal formally, you will need to carry out a substantial amount of early research work, some literature review and searching, and to identify the theoretical and methodological underpinnings to your work.
What are the theoretical bases and contexts for your work? With much PhD research in particular and some MPhil and Masters work, the interdisciplinary nature of the research means that there will be several theoretical contexts and areas with which your work will be related and out of which it will grow. You need to determine and focus on the methods, beliefs and ways of constructing and discussing knowledge and ideas which you will need to be familiar with. You need to be able to show you can work with these to achieve your research outcomes.
You will need to seek support from your supervisor in the development of a proposal of sufficient quality and to convince a research degrees committee that you have the potential to carry out research at the level you seek. Masters research proposals often go before field or subject committees, while MPhils and PhDs go before full research degree committees (or whatever carries out that function in your university) where they will be read carefully by internal and external readers and by the committee. The latter can ask some very helpful questions about questions, aims, methods, theoretical underpinning and that fundamental question - so what? That is, what will this piece of research lead to or contribute to?
For more advice, see your supervisor.
When you embark on your proposal, you are expected to identify your main research questions and sub-questions, to clarify for yourself:
The research proposal is a carefully crafted piece of work. It is also a very useful foundation from which to develop your ideas and arguments. You will be able to use it to help you plan your work and study programme and to draft your chapters. Some of the problems you might encounter in your early literature review could lead to central underpinning questions running throughout the research. The issues you deal with in order to write the proposal will run throughout the research. It is a stage and a substantial piece of work from which you will draw in the future. You will also have to recognise that it is a compromise. Of course, by producing a detailed plan like this, you might well feel you are in a ‘straitjacket’ and this should be avoided. You will discover other information and arguments, you will find some of what you seek is not there, you will change your mind and your emphases and you will find also that the time planning skips, changes and so on. But the proposal is a draft outline and it will be worked with in the future in a dynamic way. For the proposal acceptance process, it is absolutely essential and it is a most useful base for future work.
Does this make perfect, coherent sense to you? And to your colleagues? Talk it through with a friend, colleague or family member, and of course, with your supervisor!
Look at some example of proposals from other colleagues to use as models (do not copy, each piece of work is unique, and do look at two or more).
For further information see Chapter 5 of The Postgraduate Research Handbook by Gina Wisker