Rev. Isaac Boaheng
Posted 27th August 2020

One of the important documents that one needs to present to show his/her readiness to undertake a thesis/dissertation is a research proposal. Without a research proposal, a student cannot start his/her project work. It is the same document that is also required by scholarship/bursary committees and other funding agencies to determine the suitability of an applicant for a grant. In most institutions, a research proposal is required by postgraduate applicants and without it, one’s application cannot be finalized. One cannot therefore overemphasize the significance of a research proposal in a postgraduate research program. Unfortunately, literature on the subject are either not available to many researchers or are not comprehensive enough for readers. It is against this backdrop that I write this paper to help the researcher in developing a well-structured research proposal that can produce focused and disciplined theses.

What is a Research Proposal?

Matt Henn et al. (2006:257) define a research proposal as “a written plan for a study” indicating what exactly the research intends to do. For Smith (2008:113) a research proposal is a document that tells what will be studied (the research problem) and how it will be studied (the research plan). From these definitions comes the fact that a research proposal is the road map for reaching a defined research destination. Usually the research proposal is written in future tense. When the work is completed, it is revised in the past tense to become the first chapter of the study. In addition to showing the supervisor or funding institutions the researcher’s preparedness for the research, the research proposal also provides the researcher the needed foresight for his/her work.

The Essential Elements of a Research Proposal

Even though research proposals differ from subject area to subject area and from institution to institution, there are some central features common to all proposals. These common features include: (1) Topic/title; (2) Background to the study; (3) Motivation for the study; (4) Statement of research problem; (5) Purpose of the study; (6) Research question(s); (7) Research hypothesis; (8) Significance of the study; (9) Research design and methodology; (10) Limitation(s) and delimitation(s) (Scope of the research); (11) Literature review; (12) Organisation of study; (13) Definition of terms; (14) Ethical considerations; (15) Timetable for the research; and (16) Preliminary bibliography.

Topic/title: This is a specific, brief, clear and informative statement reflecting the nature and scope of a research. One can find ideas for a research topic from academic journals, existing theses/dissertation, and everyday situations, including conversation with others, news on radio and TV. The researcher’s interest, availability of material, contribution to knowledge, significance of the topic, word limit and time limit are key factors that inform the choice of a topic. A topic may be stated as: Exploring the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

Background to the study: Here, the researcher gives a brief account of his/her understanding of the topic by stating what previous writers have said about the topic and the root and scope of the research problem, discussing recent developments on the topic and the extent to which previous studies have successfully investigated the problem. Any gap in knowledge, an unclear situation, an unresolved question, a lack of information on the proposed topic, or any circumstance that has led to his/her study are to be noted. All that is discussed here must lead up to the research problem. Some key questions to address in this section are: What conditions have led you to propose your research project and to define your aim/s in the way that you have done? How did previous researchers define the problem/variables, and how did they go about solving/addressing it? What is your interest in the research project? Why is it worthy of academic investigation? These questions must be answered in this section of the proposal.

Motivation for the study: The motivation for the study has to do with the circumstances that led to the choice of the proposed topic. What motivates you to undertake this project? Motivation can come from the researcher’s experience. For example, someone who lives in a poor community may be motivated to undertake a research on poverty. A person who has witnessed teachings about a particular topic and realizes that more explanation needs to be given or that clarification is needed in certain aspects of the topic may be motivated to conduct a research in that area. The researcher’s aspiration is also a form of motivation.

Statement of the research problem: Here, the researcher states the main focus of the research. It usually arises from the research background and it is supposed to be sated clearly in specific terms, usually a sentence or at most a very short paragraph. For Smith (2008:132) “The golden rule for formulating a research problem is that you must state it in a single sentence!” The research problem may be formulated in a statement or question form. Questions can start with “can?”, “should?”, “is?”, “how?”, “what?”, “why?” etc. The question must be formulated in such a way that it reflects the aims and title of your research project. The researcher must not raise questions/issues he/she is not prepared to find answers to. Smith suggests five steps for arriving at the research problem: (a) Identify a provisional research idea; (b) Conduct a preliminary literature review; (c) Formulate the main research problem; (d) List 3-5 key research questions; (e) Flesh out the research problem (Smith 2008:128).

Aims/Objectives/Purpose of the research: This section answers the question: What do I want to achieve through the research? It must relate to the title and the research problem. It is helpful to begin your aim/s with words like: explore, investigate, analyze, determine, interpret, understand, demarcate, critique, ascertain, compare, contrast, focus on, examine, consider, identify, evaluate, assess. In a research on the topic “Exploring the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility”, the researcher wrote the following aims: (1) Discuss the doctrines of God’s divine sovereignty and human responsibility from biblical perspective. (2) Explore the question as to how God can be sovereign and yet not be responsible for the choices that human make, especially in relation to salvation. (3) Discuss the opinions of some philosophers and theologians from Ghanaian Universities and seminaries on the sovereignty-responsibility debate.

Research Question(s): A research question is the question that the research sets out to answer. It is essentially a hypothesis asked in question form. Avoid questions that are too broad, too vague or too narrow or questions that can be answered by “yes” or “no”. Questions should be clear concepts that facilitate an original contribution to the study and focus the research. Research questions must relate directly with research problem. Imagine a study whose research problem is that there is misconception and confusion about the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in the African context. The research questions could be stated as follows. (1) What does the Bible teach about the doctrines of God’s divine sovereignty and human responsibility? (2) How can God be sovereign and yet not be responsible for the choices that human make? (3) What are the views of key African philosophers and theologians on the sovereignty-responsibility tension?

Significance of the study: The significance of a study describes what contribution the study, upon completion, will make to the broad literature or set of broad educational problems. For Kissi (2012:7), the significance of the study has to do with “the intellectual problems that the researcher hopes to solve through the research.” Two principles are helpful in dealing with this section. First, the significance of the study must be in line with the problem statement, stating what the study will contribute and who will benefit from it. The researcher needs to ensure a one-to-one correspondence between the statement of the problem and the significance of the study.

Research hypotheses: A research hypothesis is a proposed solution to the research problem or a calculated guess as to what its results will be. As such, it is a specific statement predicting in concrete (rather than theoretical) terms what the outcome of a research will be. A good hypothesis is reasonable, testable and consistent with available facts and theory. Hypotheses and research questions are related. One hypothesis may be for the main research question and each sub-question may have a sub-hypothesis (Smith 2008:140).


Another article comes as a sequel to this one. Issues to be considered are research design and methodology, limitation(s) and delimitation(s) (scope of the research), literature review, organisation of study, definition of terms, ethical issues, bibliography; and timetable for the research. Readers are encouraged to read that one as well to be able to get a holistic view of the subject matter discussed.

Henn M et al. 2006. A Short Introduction to Social Research. London: Sage Publications.
Kissi S 2012. Thesis Writing: Addressing Some Common Problems of Students. Accra: Pinpoint Media.
Smith KG 2008. Academic Writing and Theological Research: A Guide for Students. Johannesburg: South African Theological Seminary Press.

This article is published with the kind courtesy of the author—Isaac Boaheng (Rev.), an ordained minister of the Methodist Church Ghana, a Master of divinity graduate of the Trinity Theological Seminary, Legon Accra -Ghana and a Translator with the Bible Society of Ghana.

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