Research Proposal

Elements of the Research Proposal

Your research proposal is one of the most important elements of your application. It gives the selection committee a view into your academic interests and how you think through the path that you would take to learning more about them. You’ll accomplish this by proposing a single research project that you haven’t done yet. Don’t worry: that’s what everyone is doing, and the committee knows that. The expectation is that you won’t have expertise in this area yet. Instead, the research proposal is a genre of writing that gives you the space to dream academically. In it, you’ll share what it is you already know that leads you to want to know more, what more you want to know, and what sources of information you’d like to find and analyze in pursuit of that knowledge.

Your proposal should proceed in the following order (feel welcome to use the four headings provided below in your own document):

  1. PURPOSE | Open with a sentence stating the purpose of your proposed project: “The purpose of this project is to [‘research’ or synonym] the relationships between [concept 1] and [concept 2], through a focus on [particular thing you’d like to study in a short phrase].”
  2. CONTEXT | What is the time period, geographical location, specific authors or texts, etc. that you will focus on for your proposed area of study?
  3. CONTRIBUTION | Based on what you know so far, how have other scholars approached aspects of what you plan to do? How is what you propose different from that?
  4. CENTRAL RESEARCH QUESTION | What do you want to know or understand? What is the primary research question you’re seeking to answer through the project? “How” and “why” questions are strongest for this type of research.
Literature Review/Theoretical Framework
  1. FIELDS | List three (3) academic disciplines (like anthropology, history, literature, philosophy, sociology, etc.); interdisciplinary fields (like African American studies, American studies, gender and sexuality studies, etc.) or subfields (like nineteenth century U.S. women’s history, postcolonial Pakistani literature, contemporary Nigerian film, Maori religious studies, etc.). Based just on what you know so far, state what you think each discipline, field, or subfield reveals about the subject of your research; what each is lacking or misses; and what we could learn by putting all three together. You can draw from your personal experiences, past academic work you’ve done, conversations you have with professors or others, or preliminary reading that you may do during the process of putting together your application.
  2. ADDITIONAL RESEARCH QUESTIONS | Given what you think is not yet known, and what could be learned by putting the three fields together, what are some more specific questions you’re seeking to answer? These can be elaborations or additions to your central question above.
  1. METHODS + METHODOLOGY | What sources or data would you need to answer those questions? What methods do you propose using to find the sources or collect the data? What methods do you propose using to analyze them? Why are those sources, data, and methods best suited to answering each of the research questions that you posed above?
  2. PREPARATION + RESOURCES | What skills, knowledge, or connections do you have that will put you in a good position to engage those methods? What courses or experiences have you had that might set you up well to start this project? Which professors might you like to work with on this research, and what would each offer to your project?
  3. MOTIVE | How does this project tie into other, or broader, research interests that you have? Why are those research interests, and this project, important to you? Why are they important to the fields you listed above (as far as you may know right now, talking with your professors can help you establish this)? Why do you think your research interests, and this particular project, are important even to those outside those fields? What do they help us to understand better about the world or some meaningful part of it?
Bibliography/Works Cited
  1. REFERENCES/CITATIONS | You are welcome to reference other scholars’ work in your research proposal, though this is not necessary. If you do, however, you must cite them in some format appropriate to your field of study.

As a genre, the research proposal does not need to have any flowery language or attention-getting introduction. It really is effective just to begin right away with, “The purpose of this research is… .” At the same time, you do not want your research proposal to read like a series of short answers tacked together. You still want it to be a cohesive document, with flow from one point to the next, so be sure to write in a way that connects each idea to whatever preceded it. The order provided above should help with that.

Getting Started on Your Research Proposal

Writing a document about research that you haven’t done yet can be both exciting and daunting at any level of an academic career. (Professors are sometimes challenged by this exercise, too!) Because of that, make sure to engage others–especially professors you know and enjoy being in conversation with–as you prepare to write your research proposal. We recommend working through the first two resources in the list below and then scheduling office hours appointments to talk through your ideas with past or current professors. They can offer advice on how you might approach what you’d like to learn through your research, things you might read (now or in the future), and best ways to move forward with your proposal.


Once you have bounced ideas off of some knowledgeable people, we recommend working through the Research Proposal Workbook linked below. That should produce what is effectively an early, very rough draft of your proposal. Then, rework that content into the order laid out in the Research Proposal Template, with the additional context and instructions for each section provided above. Bring others–professors, staff members you work with, current or past Mellon Mays Fellows, MMUF staff–into your writing process by asking them to read drafts of your proposal and give you feedback that you can then consider as you revise.


Identifying a Research Topic

Research Question Levels + Action Items

Research Proposal Workbook

Research Proposal Template