Research proposal

The first edition of Guidelines for writing a research proposal appeared in 1997. It has inevitably been widely read, not because of its inherent fascination, but because, over its eight year life, numerous postgraduate students in the Psychology Department have had to consult it in order to survive (and in most cases master) the arduous process of writing a research proposal.

Several changes have been made for this new edition. A number of sections which led to regular misunderstandings on the part of readers have been clarified. There have also been minor administrative changes within the Department and the University which have required that some of the content be updated.

However the main change is that the conventions for citing and listing references have been extensively revised to bring them into line with the 5th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2001). In addition, the examples covered are more extensive and reflect a wider range of the kinds of references likely to be cited not only in research proposals but also in the thesis itself. This means that this booklet provides a useful source for all postgraduates in the Department of Psychology who want a quick guide to the conventions for citing and listing references for any work to be presented to staff in the Department.

David Edwards, February 2004
1. What is a research proposal and what is it for?
Whether you are planning a small honours research project or a major research project at PhD level, the process of research proposal preparation will help you to think carefully about many aspects of your proposed research. If you embark on a research project without adequate preparation, you run the risk of discovering as you go along that what you have taken on is too large, too small, impossible, or full of contradictions! The guidelines set out in this document are designed to prevent this from happening. By following them, in close consultation with your supervisor, the planning of your research project will be orderly, thorough and well conceptualized. This will ensure that you have an appropriate focus for the research project and that, once you begin the research, you will be able to follow a series of methodological steps which are likely to succeed in answering your research questions.

The finished research proposal is a formal, highly focused document which summarizes your plans for setting about a research project. The format requirements are set out below. It is important to follow these carefully because they reflect the criteria which are used by the committee(s) that will evaluate your proposal (see Appendix 1 for a detailed set of such criteria). At Honours level, proposals are usually reviewed by an Honours research proposals review committee.

Master’s proposals in Clinical and Counselling Psychology are reviewed by the Psychology Department’s Research Projects
Review Committee (RPRC). All other Master’s and PhD proposals are first reviewed by the RPRC, and, once they have been passed by that committee, go on to the Humanities Higher Degrees Committee (HHDC).

Information about the dates on which the RPRC and HHDC meet (and the deadlines for submission of proposals for their agendas) is available in an information document which is obtainable from the Administrative Assistant and usually posted on the Department’s website (Research Projects Review Committee information, 2003). 2. The basic format

Whatever degree your research is for, you will need to follow the same basic principles with regard to the format and structure of the research proposal. Section 3 below provides detailed guidelines as to how you should organize and structure it into various sections. Section 5 describes the conventions to be followed for citing and listing reference material. In addition, please note the following formal requirements for the proposal:

‘ Use 1½ spacing between lines and a 12 point Arial or Times New Roman font (or one of similar size).
‘ For proposals which do not go on to the HHDC, the title and other information should be displayed at the top of the
proposal (see Figure 1); for proposals which will go to the
HHDC they should be on a separate header page (see Figure
‘ The proposal may not exceed five pages (not including the header page where this applies) and should not include
appendices. Note: if your proposal is shorter than this, it will probably contain inadequate information.
‘ Number the pages (not the header page where this applies). Figure 1
Heading format for proposals
which do not go to the HHDC
Rhodes University Department of Psychology — Honours 20031 An evaluation of an affirmative action programme in a small
Research proposal submitted by3 __________________
Supervisor 5 __________________________________________
Begin the text of your research proposal here … .
Figure 2
Format for title page of proposals which go to the HHDC
A programme evaluation of a training programme
for HIV/AIDS counsellors2
Research proposal submitted by
Melissa Appollis3
g03c1263 4
For a thesis in fulfilment6 of the requirements of the degree of Master of Arts in Psychology1
Supervisor: Professor T. Mkhize5
Key for Figures
1 Name of degree 4 Student number
2 Title of project 5 Supervisor
3 Student name 6 “… fulfilment” or “… partial
3. The structure of the proposal
The research proposal needs to have a title, a context section, statement of the research question or aims and a method section. Below are guidelines for writing each of these. Pay close attention to the kind of information that should be included in each part. Following these guidelines will help you to make best use of the limited space available and to avoid the inclusion of irrelevant or inappropriate material.

3.1 Title
The title should give the reader a succinct indication of what the research is about. This must include reference to the field of research and an indication of what the research question is. It is often best not to write the title until you have finished writing the rest of the research proposal. You may change the title when you write the actual research project either to reflect new emphases that emerge as the project unfolds, for example, in response to unexpected findings from your data analysis, or to add an artistic or personal touch to give your title a human quality or some personal distinctiveness.

Important note: For those theses which go through the HHDC, the title is recorded in the Faculty record. This means that it cannot be changed without formally notifying the Dean and getting the permission of the Faculty. A request to change the title must be made in writing to the Faculty Office, preferably well before the thesis is actually handed in.
3.2 Context
The function of this section is to prepare the reader for the research question(s) that will be found in the following section. In order to do this thoroughly, you will need to cover the following points: ‘ You must show that your question is situated in an existing literature which provides a background and context for your

own research. You may draw on a particular research tradition or discourse within psychology (for example, attribution theory, radical feminism, object relations theory, a particular personality theory, career development theory). Or you may describe the

literature in a particular applied area, such as HIV/AIDS
counselling, affirmative action in South African organizations, psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, attitudes to socio-political transformation, or the effects of cumulative mild brain injuries in sport. Sometimes there may be two or more

areas of the research literature which are relevant to your
research. In this case you need to introduce the relevant
concepts and issues from each one. You need to write about
these concepts and research findings in such a way that you
demonstrate that there is a substantial existing literature which you will be drawing on, and that you have a working knowledge and understanding of that literature.
‘ Introduce and define the most important psychological
concepts, distinctions, principles and theories which will
form the basis of the conceptual framework within which
your research question makes sense (Leedy & Ormrod, 2001).

‘ In participatory and/or action research projects, conducted in partnership with a community, an organization, or a
particular group of people, give a brief account of the nature of the partner community, organization or group. You should also describe the organizational or community context within which the research will take place. In addition, provide details of the history of your involvement with the community, organization or partners and of the implicit or explicit contract that you have with them.

‘ When writing up a case study of a therapy or counselling process that has already taken place, give a brief account of the nature of the therapy/counselling process and argue why the material lends itself to theoretical exploration in a research thesis. ‘ It is often appropriate to give a historical perspective to research in the area. Over the past 100 years who have been the major players in investigating the area? Has the focus of research shifted? What have been the important historical milestones in opening new perspectives or research approaches? How does the approach you will use fit into this (Leedy & Ormrod, 2001; Seidman, 1998)?

If you have collected a large amount of background material for this section, you do not need to refer to or describe everything that may be relevant or which you intend to include in the thesis. You only need to provide sufficient material to take care of each of the points just described. Furthermore, the degree of thoroughness with which the contextual background must be presented depends on the level of the degree you are studying for. When doing a PhD you need to show that you are familiar with everything important that has been written in the area. At Honours level, you will not, of course, have the time and resources to do that, but, you do need to take account of all the above requirements on a smaller scale.

There are two steps to take to ensure that you have a sufficient background knowledge:
‘ Choose a supervisor who is working in the area and who knows what the core research writing in the area is.
‘ Conduct a literature search using an online database such as PsycInfo which you can access through the University Library’s electronic resources web page. Identify the items which you want and check to see if they are in the Library or available in full text on one of the other online databases such as PsycArticles or ScienceDirect. If they are not, you can use the Library’s interlibrary loan facility to order them. Students who are working on a research area which a staff member is investigating, may be able to obtain financial assistance towards the cost of this from the staff member’s research grant.

You can expect to rework the context section again and again. It is not something you can expect to write out in an organized and systematic fashion at one sitting! This is because, as you think about your topic and refine your research question, you will come to recognize what material has a direct bearing on it, and what material is of limited relevance. For example, as you clarify your thinking, you are likely to discover that you have omitted to define clearly certain concepts which are essential if your research question is to be understood. You are also likely to realize that some of the material which you initially thought was important is only of marginal relevance to the research question and needs to be omitted.

You should organize this section carefully, so that you communicate to your reader that you have a clear sense of purpose in setting about your research project (Neuman, 2000, p. 101-103). A mistake that many students make is that they approach this section as if they were writing a discursive essay on the topic. Doing a research project is not a good vehicle for conducting your own personal enquiry into an area that you have not read about and have no conceptual understanding of. In Honours and some directed Masters’ and PhD courses, opportunities to write discursive essays are provided during the specialized papers you will be studying for. If you approach a research proposal like a seminar you will convey this message: “I am interested in {depression, eating disorders, racism, art therapy, affirmative action etc.}. I do not know much about it and have not yet read much that has been written by

psychologists on the issue. However here are a few
preliminary thoughts I have about the topic. I hope that
somehow during the course of doing this research my ideas
will get more organized and I will be able to make some
sense of this topic”

This, of course, is not a message which will impress the people who will evaluate your finished proposal!
Rather you should actively promote your research idea as something important and worthwhile. You should aim to communicate to your reader:

“I have identified something of interest and importance within the discipline which is worth investigating. I have a good basic knowledge of the literature in this area and understand the central concepts and theories. I have sufficient conceptual understanding to provide a basis for a clear research question and for a systematic research investigation. When I complete the research it will be something which will contribute to knowledge, have practical value and be worth reading ”

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