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What is an Academic Proposal?

By Sarah Valek
Updated May 17, 2024
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Before students write a thesis or graduate dissertation, they need to write an academic proposal. This pitches a major project to a supervisor or academic committee for approval. The proposal is a written document outlining the details of a proposed research project. Based on how convincing the proposal is, an academic committee or supervisor will approve or deny the student to proceed with research.

An academic proposal is centered around a research question. The question is something the student wants to know but must conduct research to figure out. The proposal describes why the student should conduct research to figure out this conclusion. It will describe why the student’s topic needs to be addressed, show the details of how research will be conducted and declare how a valid conclusion will be drawn.

Besides the research question, a successful academic proposal consists of a few sections: a rationale, review and outline. The rationale describes why the student chose the topic and why a conclusion to the research question will be useful to know. In the rationale, the student will describe how the topic ties into his discipline or course and will describe any limitations of the project.

The review describes all the literature written about the topic. Any books with relevant or similar information will be listed here. The student will say how her research builds upon current knowledge but will describe how she’s also taking a new approach and charting new territory on the subject. The outline lays out the plan of action — the student’s intended approach, what forms of data collection and analysis will be used, what resources are needed, any costs involved and a time frame for completion.

Much of the academic proposal should address the “why” and “how” of the project: Why is this subject worth learning about? Why should people care? How will academics know the conclusion is valid? How will the conclusion be tested?

Students must be careful and pay close attention to details, grammar and readability what writing an academic proposal. The proposal should be concisely written using an active voice. Students should begin by writing a rough draft then going through and proofreading it while editing for clarity. All proposals need a hook that captivates the reader and makes them curious and eager to know the conclusions to the student’s research question. Some writing centers at colleges offer help writing academic proposals.

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Discussion Comments

By BabaB — On Jul 22, 2011

Writing an academic research proposal is designed to be both a learning experience and to show evidence that a student is able to choose a creative research question and follow guidelines. In addition one needs to show if he/she can establish that the topic is something that needs to be investigated.

A student must show that he/she can follow guidelines, but at the same time can be creative. A good format and attention to grammar and spelling is necessary.

Many of these students will be involved in writing research papers in their future jobs. Learning what formalities need to be done before you do research and write up your findings is a great skill to have "under your belt."

By live2shop — On Jul 21, 2011

I think that the most important part of an academic proposal is to choose a research topic that is unique. You can say that "there is nothing new under the sun," but there are many different angles to look at a question.

Finding good resources for research is crucial. A good deal of research is crucial. You need to have a good feel for the research that has already been done on your subject.

In an academic proposal, you need to follow the rules of reason to make sure that your premises lead logically to your conclusion.

By wander — On Jul 21, 2011

@popcorn - Before starting to write your academic proposal it is a really good idea to do as much research as possible on proper formatting. While most professors will give you an outline on what they are looking for, in a lot of cases you'll be on your own once you realize the outline is rather sparse, which I am sure you have figured out.

In case you are left out high and dry, most school sites will have a general guideline for what to do and will offering free counseling in the student academic centers. This free tutoring is worth stopping by for.

If you don't want to meet a tutor in person, there are oodles of samples and guides online for academic proposals in every field you can think of. Doing research will save you from numerous rewrites. If you are worried about the quality of what you are seeing online make sure to look into samples that have been legitimately published.

By popcorn — On Jul 20, 2011

If you have been asked to do an academic proposal for your Master’s class what is the best way to go about knowing what format to use and what content to include?

Our professor gave us a pretty brief outline, but I am not sure if it’s enough to really complete an academic proposal that will be impressive. I have been looking for some examples online, but they don’t really follow the kind of material I am planning on working with, so I am concerned about the quality of the advice I am getting online.

There seems to be a labyrinth of information about academic proposals.

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