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7.9: Developing a Research Proposal

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    Developing a Research Proposal

    Writing a good research paper takes time, thought, and effort. Although conducting and writing about research is challenging, it is manageable. Focusing on one step at a time will help you develop a thoughtful, informative, well-supported research paper. The steps to develop a good research proposal are to choose a topic; narrow it down to a specific aspect about the topic, to a "how" or "why" research question and any sub-questions; and to write a proposal that explains why you want to explore this question and how you intend to go about conducting your research to answer your research question. Think about a proposal as getting the "go-ahead" from your instructor to start your research. Your instructor wants to ensure that the task you set for yourself is manageable, and the proposal helps them determine that.

    Writing at Work

    Many occasions arise in the workplace to write a proposal. You may have a new idea for a process or to save money. You may think that your company should focus its marketing efforts on a new target market. You may own your own business and need to approach a bank for a loan. All of these situations require proposal writing. They may come in different forms and include different details from a research proposal, but the basic elements of explaining your idea in order to get permission to continue and obtain the resources you need remain. "Elevator pitches" (getting your idea across to your audience in the length of an elevator ride) are the most extreme, verbal version of a proposal.

    Choosing a Topic

    When you choose a topic for a research paper, you are making a major commitment. Your choice will help determine whether you enjoy the lengthy process of research and writing—and whether your final paper fulfills the assignment requirements. If you choose your topic hastily, you may later find it difficult to work with your topic. By taking your time and choosing carefully, you can ensure that this assignment is not only challenging but also rewarding.

    Writers understand the importance of choosing a topic that fulfills the assignment requirements and fits the assignment’s purpose and audience. Choosing a topic that interests you is also crucial. You instructor may provide a list of suggested topics or ask that you develop a topic on your own. In either case, try to identify topics that genuinely interest you. There may very well be more than one.

    Figure: by Pixabay on Pexels

    After identifying potential topic ideas, you will need to evaluate your ideas and choose one topic to pursue. Will you be able to find enough information about the topic? Can you develop a paper about this topic that presents and supports your original ideas? Is the topic too broad or too narrow for the scope of the assignment? If so, can you modify it so it is more manageable? You will ask these questions during this preliminary phase of the research process.

    Identifying Potential Topics

    Sometimes, your instructor may provide a list of suggested topics. If so, you may benefit from identifying several possibilities before committing to one idea. It is important to know how to narrow down your ideas into a concise, manageable question. You may also use the list as a starting point to help you identify additional, related topics. Discussing your ideas with your instructor or a tutor will help ensure that you choose a manageable topic that fits the requirements of the assignment.

    Miguel was assigned to write a research paper on health and the media for an introductory course in health care. Although a general topic was selected for the students, Miguel had to decide which specific issues interested him. He brainstormed a list of possibilities.


    If you are writing a research paper for a specialized course, look back through your notes and course activities. Identify reading assignments and class discussions that especially engaged you. Doing so can help you identify topics to pursue.

    Possible Topics
    1. Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) in the news
    2. Sexual education programs
    3. Hollywood and eating disorders
    4. Americans’ access to public health information
    5. Media portrayal of health care reform bill
    6. Depictions of drugs on television
    7. The effect of the Internet on mental health
    8. Popularized diets (such as low-carbohydrate diets)
    9. Fear of pandemics (bird flu, HINI, SARS)
    10. Electronic entertainment and obesity
    11. Advertisements for prescription drugs
    12. Public education and disease prevention
    Exercise 1

    Exercise 1

    Set a time for five minutes. Use brainstorming (listing) or idea mapping (bubbled, interconnecting topics) to create a list of topics you would be interested in researching for a paper about the influence of the Internet on social networking. Do you closely follow the media coverage of a particular website, such as Twitter? Would you like ot learn more about a certain industry such as online dating? Are you interested in how social networking can influence politics or marketing? Which social networking sites to you and your friends use? List as many ideas related to this topic as you can.

    Exercise 2

    Answer the following questions to help you figure out and narrow down your topic, especially if your instructor has not provided you with a list of topics.

    1. What topics relate to what you've studied this semester? If you are a visual learner/thinker, try doing this in mind map form.2.

    2. What are the different academic domains that are related to this topic (for example, history, economics, business, sociology, biology, health, philosophy, the environment/ecology)?

    3. What do you wonder about in relation to this topic?

    4. How does what you wonder about relate to business and society?

    5. Based on the above, write down three potential research questions. Each question should begin with the word "why" or "how."

    Example of a Topic Exploration Mind Map
    1 (7).jpg
    Figure: created by authors.

    Narrowing Your Topic

    Once you have a list of potential topics, you will need to choose one as the focus of your essay. You will also need to narrow your topic. Most writers find that the topics they listed during brainstorming or idea mapping are broad—too broad for the scope of the assignment. Working with an overly broad topic, such as sexual education programs or popularized diets, can be frustrating and overwhelming. Each topic has so many facets that it would be impossible to cover them all in a college research paper. However, more specific choices, such as the pros and cons of sexual education in kids’ television programs or the physical effects of the Keto diet, are specific enough to write about without being too narrow to sustain an entire research paper.

    A good research paper provides focused, in-depth information and analysis. If your topic is too broad, you will find it difficult to do more than skim the surface when you research it and write about it. Narrowing your focus is essential to making your topic manageable. To narrow your focus, explore your topic in writing, conduct preliminary research, and discuss both the topic and the research with others.

    Exploring Your Topic in Writing

    “How am I supposed to narrow my topic when I haven’t even begun researching yet?” In fact, you may already know more than you realize. Review your list and identify your top two or three topics. Set aside some time to explore each one through freewriting and/or the KWL+ activity below. Simply taking the time to focus on your topic may yield fresh angles.

    Exercise 3

    Free write one-half to one page about what you know about the topic, as well as what you would like to know. Remember that free writes don't need to be organized or take any particular form. It is just a matter of putting some thoughts on paper.

    Miguel knew that he was especially interested in the topic of diet fads, but he also knew that it was much too broad for his assignment. He used free writing to explore his thoughts so he could narrow his topic. Here are his ideas.

    Our instructors are always saying that accurate, up-to-date information is crucial in encouraging people to make better choices about their health. I don’t think the media does a very good job of providing that, though. Every time I go on the Internet, I see tons of ads for the latest “miracle food.” One week it’s acai berries, the next week it’s green tea, and then six months later I see a news story saying all the fabulous claims about acai berries and green tea are overblown! Advice about weight loss is even worse. Think about all the diet books that are out there! Some say that a low-fat diet is best; some say you should cut down on carbs; and some make bizarre recommendations like eating half a grapefruit with every meal. I don’t know how anyone is supposed to make an informed decision about what to eat when there’s so much confusing, contradictory information. I bet even doctors, nurses, and dieticians have trouble figuring out what information is reliable and what is just the latest hype.

    Exercise 4

    Complete the K and W portions of the following "KWL+ Chart" for your topic. In a "KWL+ Chart," K stands for what you already Know about the topic. W stands for what you Want to know; L stands for what you Learned (having gone through the research project or having read a particular paper). "+" stands for what you still want to know after having finished reading a particular paper or having finished your project.Add exercises text here

    KWL+ Chart


    What I Know about my topic


    What I Want to learn about my topic


    What I Learned about my topic


    What I still (+) want to know about my topic

    Conducting Preliminary Research

    Another way writers may focus a topic is to conduct preliminary research. Like free writing, exploratory reading can help you identify interesting angles. Surfing the web and browsing through newspaper and magazine articles are good ways to start. Find out what people are saying about your topic on blogs and online discussion groups. Discussing your topic with others can also inspire you. Talk about your ideas with your classmates, your friends, or your instructor.

    Miguel’s free writing exercise helped him realize that the assigned topic of health and the media intersected with a few of his interests—diet, nutrition, and obesity. Preliminary online research and discussions with his classmates strengthened his impression that many people are confused or misled by media coverage of these subjects.

    Miguel decided to focus his paper on a topic that had garnered a great deal of media attention—low-carbohydrate diets. He wanted to find out whether low-carbohydrate diets were as effective as their proponents claimed.

    Writing at Work

    At work, you may need to research a topic quickly to find general information. This information can be useful in understanding trends in a given industry or generating competition. For example, a company may research a competitor’s prices and use the information when pricing their own product. You may find it useful to skim a variety of reliable sources and take notes on your findings.

    Exercise 5

    Use the information from the "W" column in your KWL+ chart, as well as your free write, to guide you to read some initial research (maybe a couple of articles) about your topic. Identify some common or contrasting themes or issues in what you read.


    The reliability of online sources varies greatly. In this exploratory research, you do not need to evaluate sources as closely as you will later. However, use common sense as you refine your paper topic. If you read a fascinating blog comment that gives you a new idea for your paper, be sure to check out other, more reliable sources as well to make sure the ideas is worth pursuing.

    Formulating a Research Question

    In forming a research question, you are setting a goal for your research. Your main research question should be substantial enough to form the guiding principle of your paper—but focused enough to guide your research. A strong research question requires you not only to find information but also to put together different pieces of information, interpret and analyze them, and figure out what you think. As you consider potential research questions, ask yourself whether they would be too hard or too easy to answer.

    To determine your research question, review the free writing and KWL+ exercises you completed earlier. Skim through books, articles, and websites and list the questions you have. (You may wish to use the 5WH strategy to help you formulate questions. See Chapter 4.6, "Prewriting Strategies" for more information about 5WH questions.) Include simple, factual questions and more complex questions that would require analysis and interpretation. Determine your main question—the primary focus of your paper—and several sub-questions that you will need to research to answer your main question.

    Here are the research questions Miguel will use to focus his research. Notice that his main research question has no obvious, straightforward answer. Miguel will need to research his sub-questions, which address narrower topics, to answer his main question.

    Topic: Main question: Are low-carbohydrate diets as effective as they have been portrayed to be by media sources? (Note that this research question will work even though it can be answered with a "yes" or "no" because it combines two different topics and requires evaluation, so it cannot simply be answered with a fact. Research questions that can be answered with a fact are not true research questions.


    • Who can benefit from following a low-carbohydrate diet?
    • What are the supposed advantages to following a low-carbohydrate diet?
    • When did low-carb diets become a “hot” topic in the media?
    • Where do average consumers get information about diet and nutrition?
    • Why has the low-carb approach received so much media attention?
    • How do low-carb diets work?


    Notice that Miguel's sub-questions begin with the journalism questions of "who," "what," "when," "where," "why," and "how." While "why" and "how" are good words with which to begin your main research question, writers can use the more fact-based, journalism question words to ask sub-questions to help develop their research and find background information that your reader may need for context.

    Exercise 6

    Write your main research question (that begins with "why" or "how") and at least four to five sub-questions. If you created a mind map, you may want to base some of your questions on the intersection of different bubbles in your mind map.

    Creating a Research Proposal

    A research proposal is a brief document—no more than one typed page—that proposes the research you would like to do, isummarizes the preliminary work you have completed, includes your proposed research question, and explains how you will go about conducting your research. This last part is especially important if you want to do any primary research, such as surveys or interviews. Your purpose in writing it is to formalize your plan for research and present it to your instructor for feedback. You will also briefly discuss the value of researching this topic.

    When Miguel began drafting his research proposal, he realized that he had already created most of the pieces he needed. However, he knew he also had to explain how his research would be relevant to other future health care professionals. In addition, he wanted to form a general plan for doing the research and identifying potentially useful sources. Read Miguel’s research proposal.

    1 (4).jpg
    Figure: 2 (2).jpg

    Use this example to write your own research proposal. If you choose to be more specific about where you will look for your sources, and if you will do any primary research, indicate that in your proposal as well.

    Writing at Work

    Before you begin a new project at work, you may have to develop a project summary document that states the purpose of the project, explains why it would be a wise use of company resources, and briefly outlines the steps involved in completing the project. If it involves spending money to save money, you will also want to include a proposed cost/benefit analysis in table form. This type of document is similar to a research proposal. Both documents define and limit a project, explain its value, discuss how to proceed, and identify what resources you will use.


    Last update: June 6, 2020.

    This page titled 7.9: Developing a Research Proposal is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Athena Kashyap & Erika Dyquisto (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .