What should a research proposal contain?
Ideally, a proposal should follow the traditional format for presenting and describing research ideas or projects, starting with an outline of the background or context of the research and knowledge of the literature; followed by consideration of the participants and methods you may wish to focus on; and then an assessment of why the research is important and how it could influence or impact areas such as educational theory, policy or practice. The sections should include the following:
1. Introduction and context
Introduce the proposal by outlining the research topic and its relevance to educational practice and/or policy; or theoretical/conceptual debates or foci; or relevant empirical applications or studies.
2. Knowledge of literature and theoretical understanding
The introduction and context should be followed by a concise (not exhaustive) review of relevant literature and theories relating to the research area. Be careful to reference any major lines of argument and/or published work of key researchers in your chosen field. It is important that you seek to identify a gap in existing literature and/or practice that your proposed research will aim to address.
3. Research methods & methodological appreciation
Although the specific methods of your research may change during the course of your studies it is important at this stage to provide a well-reasoned suggestion for how you could conduct research on your chosen topic. This should demonstrate to potential supervisors that you already have a good understanding of research methods and how they may be applied in particular or varied settings.
This section should therefore provide an outline of the methods that could be used and a rationale for why these are best suited to your area of research.
You need to clearly consider and justify the context of the research (e.g. geographical; educational sector i.e. primary/secondary/tertiary/university), as well as the participants (e.g. individuals; small groups; larger groups or classes), and any special considerations (e.g. access; particular ethical issues). In addition, it is helpful to
provide an idea of the anticipated duration and timeline of the study (taking into account whether you are applying for full- or part-time study).
4. Contribution to knowledge and impact
Clearly it is not possible at this stage to know what your findings will be but on the basis of the rationale you have provided about the background literature, gaps in the knowledge base and proposed methods, it should be possible to speculate about the ways in which your research will make a contribution to knowledge. This could be about influencing educational policy and/or practice, developing theoretical ideas or about equipping teachers/students/managers with particular skills.
Whatever your focus, you should seek to explain in this section what the potential impact of your research could be and for whom.
5. Qualifications and experience
You should take the opportunity to explain how your previous qualifications and experience relates to the topic and will help you to succeed with this study.
6. Information about you
Doctoral study is extremely rewarding for many people and also challenging; it is helpful for us to learn a little more about you; why you, why now, why here? You can include in your proposal a section to explain your motivations for wanting to pursue the doctorate generally, and also your topic specifically, and why this is the right time for you to be doing this. Completing a doctorate requires flexibility, openness, tenacity, commitment and interest and we would like to know that you feel prepared to tackle the challenge!
How should the proposal be presented?
You are applying for high-level study and so your proposal should be presented in a way that conveys your professionalism and academic ability; poorly presented proposals suggest that the application has not been considered carefully enough during the preparation stage. Reviewers will be paying close attention to the quality of your English writing and potential to produce work at doctoral level. Therefore, your proposal must be typed/word-processed; express your ideas in good, accurate English; be well structured, clear and legible; and include references in a standard academic format such as the Harvard system.
Remember that the proposal is intended as a preliminary indication of your suitability for postgraduate research and so first impressions do matter. It is worth
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