Exploring Issues and Problems in Preparing a Research Proposal

*Ashok Sapkota


This article tries to explore on the issues while writing an academic proposal in common. It tries to provide the theoretical explanations followed by the major problems students encounter while accomplishing proposal writing by students at graduate level, particularly in the four sections: preliminaries, body, references and appendices. The article focuses on the basic rubric of writing a proposal where a student can have a self-reflection to their proposal.


Before we begin to write something about academic research proposal, many questions arise in our mind, such as: What to write? Where should I begin to write?, Who will support me? How to write? Can I do myself? Is there any specific format to write?, How long does it take me to complete a proposal…a week, a month… a year or years?, Which book will help me?Relating these queries, we can simply define research proposal that it’s an overall plan or pre-plan to accomplish a research. It includes proposed procedures and methodologies to be undertaken in a research. Before we begin the steps involved in preparing a research proposal, it is necessary to throw light upon the nature and need for a research proposal. The research proposal, as important aspect of research process, is comparable to the blue print which the architect prepares before the work of building commences. Similarly, a research proposal outlines a plan (Olive, 2005) including main components of research. It includes general theoretical background of the topic, research objectives, significance of the study, review of related literature methodology, ways to analyze and interpret data and present data along findings and recommendation and work plan. Most of the institutions require that a proposal be submitted before any project is approved. This provides a basis for the evaluation of the project and gives the advisor or supervisor a basis for assistance during the period of their direction.

Writing a proposal needs rigorous and careful planning. As Best and Kahn (2003, p.35) states, the initial draft proposal is subject to modification after review by the student and his or her project advisor or committee.” A well- designed research proposal directs towards the completion of successful thesis. Good research must be carefully planned and systematically carried out (Creswell, 2012). Thus, a research proposal is:

  • Plan, scheme, structure and strategy
  • A preliminary task for successful research
  • A map that will help you to navigate your journey along the research process.
  • Overall plan or pre-plan to accomplish research

The format of thesis proposal differs across an institution or universities. However, most of the proposal formats include the need for all information required. The format may vary from a university to other university or from a department to other, For example: A research proposal format used in Tribhuvan University varies from Kathmandu University, or a format applied at department of English education may vary from department of English literature.

Hence, the main intent of research proposal is to answer the research questions which ensures and reassures the reader (Bhattarai, 2009). The gravity of research is obtained after receiving the answers of those questions more accurately maintaining the both the content, mechanics of writing and drawing justifiable conclusions.

Discussion of the issue

There are several issues raised so far besides writing a research proposal. As several queries have been raised in an introduction section earlier, many students think that writing a research is simply a formality and mark-fetching. Preparing a proposal has been a responsibility of teacher rather than student themselves. Students are supposed to have less knowledge regarding the gravity of thesis writing. Karn (2009) raised the several issues on supervising theses as:A thesis-supervisor is a topic-provider, thesis is (not) mark-fetching, writing a thesis is an act of reproducing and compiling texts from various sources, the supervisor is like a narrator, thesis writing is a formality and supervisors delay the process of their thesis writing. These issues are still in the existence even after a half decade. However,  drawing own experiences of supervising theses since half decade, the major problem lies on the theoretical knowledge, preparation, self-awareness, criticality and not feeling responsibility on own work. The first micro-activity is to develop confidence and exploration on the selected issue and the subject matter. Similarly, it is essential to know the major areas where we need to become conscious to prepare a well-structured proposal. Thus,this research wasaimed at exploring problematicareas in which the students felt major problems.

Study Objectives

The main objectives of the study was to identify the major areas of the proposal in a rubric in which the students committed major mistakes or confusions and identify the problems mainly in the four main sections of the proposal writing; preliminaries, body, references and appendices (tool used) in which the students, specific faced problems in the respective sections.


The study was survey in nature. The department of English Education and Kathmandu Shikshya Campus were taken as a study site. Thirty different proposals of 30 students from both the campus were selected using non-random purposive sampling. The first drafts of the selected sample were analyzed based on a checklist. A conversation analysis from each student was taken regarding the issues and problems in preparing research proposal.

The Problem Exploration and Self-Analysis Rubrics

The study tried to identify the problems mainly in the four main sections of the proposal writing; preliminaries, body, references and appendices (tool used) in which the students, specific faced problems in the respective sections.

After the review of the research 30 different research proposals, most of the student’s confusion, areas of the research, their function, basic characteristics and self-analysis or reflection can be presented with the table below where the students can reflect and evaluate their own proposal:

Component Function Characteristics Self-analysis (Reflection)
Title -to provide an image of the whole research-to address the major key element of the research proposed thesis title (should be descriptive of focus, concise, eye-catching and preferably use key words from the international information retrieval systems) Is my title appropriate?-Is my titlelonger than necessary?-What are the redundancies in my title?

-Can I reframe my title?

-What are the words/areas which I can put under delimitation section?

-Did I consult it to my Supervisor?

Exploring Theoretical Review provide a theoretical understanding of the selected area of the research. consulting and taking notes after reviewing the related books, research reports or thesis, journal article What are the related books that I have read?-What are the major points which I have taken from those books?-How many research reports did I consult?

-How is my research different from them?

Familiarizing the Format able to make a mind map about the research process reviewing the latest research proposal approved from the department How many research proposal have I reviewed?-Was I able to develop a concept of format?
Cover page identifies topic, degree, institution and submitted by Title
department, degree proposal is for , university andSubmitted by
Is the title grammatically correct?-Are there any spelling errors?- Did maintained the appropriate format?
Approval Page members of the ‘research guidance committee title, head, supervisor, members selected Is my approval page missing?-Have I checked the spelling, honorifics and name of the members in research guidance committee?- Is the page set up well managed?


Table of Contents lists sections of proposal and page references use a hierarchy for titles and subtitlesuse the numbering system as follows: 1; 1.1, 1.2…; 1.1.1, 1.1.2…;,…etc. (don’t use more than four digits)  -Are all the titles and subtitles listed in the table of contents?-Did I mention the particular page number?-Are the heading numbering appropriate?

-Have I used separate patterns of writing page number for preliminaries and body?


Background: (and a more descriptive name) provides background information relating to the social/political/historical/ educational (etc) context of the study may include historical, cultural, political, social or organisational information about the context of the researchmay include a theoretical starting pointmay include personal motivation

may include policy

-Was my theoretical information appropriate?-Did I relate the ideas to my research title?
Statement of the Problem follows from background to persuade the reader that the study will be useful/interesting this may include reference to a ‘gap’ in the research literature, to the need to apply certain ideas in a new context, or to the significance of your particular topicthe ways in which the study may be significant for the educational community may also be discussed -What was the issue, problem, or controversy that the researcher wanted to address?-What controversy leads to a need for this study?-What was the concern being addressed “behind” this study?

-Is there a sentence like “The problem addressed in this study is . . .”?


Objectives (Purpose) of the study to state clearly and succinctly the purpose of the studyto outline the key research questions and aims the objectives are expressed in terms of the broader context of the studythe research question(s) (usually What, How, Why, or What if) should be few, so that the focus is manageablethe aims will be related to the purpose and the questions -What or the objectives of study?-Is my objective accordance to statement of problem and research questions?-Can I accomplish the objectives?

-Did I select an appropriate action verb in my objectives?

-What are the action verbs in my study?

Research Questions describes nature of the problem and situates research in context clarifies the expectation of the findings or conclusion -Are my research questions appropriate?-Will they answer my research objectives?-Are they related to my statement of the problem?

-Are they specific?

Significance of the Study predicts the significance of the study and expected outcomes. These may relate closely to aims this is only a prediction, and may be excluded if the rationale for the study has been well developed earlier in the proposal -Who are the beneficiaries of  my research?-Did I specify how each group such as students, teachers, curriculum designers, etc will be benefitted from my research?
Delimitations of the Study to specify the research area includes a statement about the delimitations (boundaries) of the study -Did I delimit the study site?-Did I delimit the number of sample?
Operational Definitions of Key Terms lists specialised terms or words and their meanings (eg, from another culture, acronyms, key concepts in a relatively new field) this is placed in a position which is easy to locate (eg, before or after the main text parts) -Were my operational definitions of key terms appropriate?-What is the meaning of those terms in my research?-Did I mention the source from where I have cited?
Review of the Theoretical literature and Empirical Review to show your supervisor and department that you are aware of significant writers/researchers in the field, and to indicate which issues/topics you will focus on in your review (this may change later)to show that you can be judicious in your selection of issues to focus on and take an approach of critical inquiry this is not expected to be extensive for the proposalyou should have done an initial survey of the main theorists and a library information search (CD ROMs etc) to establish your directions and formulate a tentative list of readingsyou should demonstrate critical analysis

your review should be shaped by your argument and should seek to establish your theoretical orientation

Is the review appropriate?-Are the sub topics related to my research discussion?-Did I relate the ideas to my topic?

-Did I mentioned my reflection?

Conceptual Framework to show the relation of themes or variables in the study provides a image of a holistic concept of the research -What are the variables or themes of my study?-Did I show their relation?-What is the relation of research design with those variables/

-How will be my data derived?

-What is the relation of tool in my research?

Research Design and Method of the Study describes the research plans includes your understandings of the nature of knowledge and how this affects your choice of research design -Did I select my research design?-Did I mention its characteristics?-Did I mention the source?

-Did I mention the reason of selecting the particular research design than other one?

Population, Sample and Sampling Strategy Helps to specify the research includes description of and rationale (brief) for selection of participants, methods of data collection and analysis, and procedures you will use to ensure ethical practice -What is my total population?-What is sample for the research?-Which sampling strategy did I use?

-Why did I use the particular sampling Strategy?

-Is my sample appropriate as necessary to the selected research design?

Study Areas/Field Delimit the research includes the research site where you want to conduct the research -Did I mention the area of my research?
Data Collection Tools and Procedures Specify the tools of research includes the tool to be used and its procedure -Did I mention the tool(s) that I am going to use?-Did I mention the process of using that tool to collect information?
Data Analysis and Procedure helps to prospect the data  analysis procedure in thesis includes the analysis procedure -Did I mention the data analysis procedure?
Analysis and Interpretation of Results helps to envision  the analysis and interpretation of results includes the ways of interpretation of results -Did I mention how I will be analyzing the results?
Conclusions and Recommendations helps to propose  the ways to conclude and recommend the results includes the ways to make possible conclusions and further recommendations -Did I mention how I will be concluding my research?
Work Plan depicts the tasks proposed and the stages/times for their completion this may take the form of a chart, timeline or flowchart (or any other)
  • What are the activities am I going to do?
  • When can I accomplish each activity?
  • What is my total time-frame?
References mention what have been consulted in the study. maintains a proper academic writingknows a reader what were the sources that you have consultedavoids plagiarism
  • Have I mentioned all the references?
  • Is any citation missed?
  • Are they arranged in a chronological order?
  • Have I followed the APA format of reference arrangement?
Appendices to display documents which are relevant to main text, but whose presence in the text would disturb rather than enhance the flow of the argument or writing includes documents, pilot study material, questions for interviews, survey instruments, explanatory statement to participants,etc. Did I mention the sample tool which I will be using?-Are the questions or test appropriate as to the research objectives and statement of problem?
Mechanics of writing maintains academic writing includes capitalization, punctuation, spelling errors on title and subtitles, coherence and cohesion -Are my sentences grammatical correct?-Are there any spelling errors in title, sub-titles or running texts?-Are there dangling headlines in any page?



Hence, the main intent of research proposal is to answer the research questions which ensures and reassures the reader. The strength of research is obtained after receiving the answers of those questions more accurately relating the context. The main function of any research proposal is to outline the methods and operation procedures (methodologies) that will be used to collect data to analyze them and to find out the answers to research questions. It is essential to reflect on the own research proposal and ask oneself the different questions rather than depending solely on the supervisor’s suggestions.


Best, J.W. and Kahn, J.V. (2003). Research in education. India: Prentice Hall.

_____ (2006). Research in education (Ninth Edition). India: Prentice Hall.

Bhattarai, A. (2001). Writing research proposal. Journal of NELTA, vol.6, Number 1-2.

_____ (2009). The first step in research. Journal of NELTA, Vol. 14, Number 1-2.

Creswell, J.W (2012). Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research. New Delhi:PHI

Karn, S. (2009),Give me an easy topic, please:My experience of supervising thesis: Journal of NELTA, Vol-14, No.1-2

Olive,P. (2005). Writing your thesis. New Delhi: Vistaar Publications

Sapkota, A. (2014). Research methodology in language education and thesis writing. Kathmandu: Sunglight.

(*Ashok Sapkotais a faculty at central department in English Education, Tribuhuvan University, Kirtipur, and Kathmandu Shiksha Campus, Kathmandu, Nepal and a former teacher trainer at British Council, executive member of NELTA central committee, member: South Asian Teachers’ Association, ELTECs/U.K. He is one of the editorial members of NELTA ELT FORUM blog.)


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