How to write a proposal

The blueprint for your writing project


In everyday language, the word “proposal” is probably most frequently used in the context of marriage or business. In both cases, the proposal lays out the terms of a long-term endeavor. While the details may be a bit vague under a marriage proposal (“I’ll love and cherish you forever”), in a business proposal they need to be quite specific and tied to a timeline of which milestones are to be achieved by which date. Writing a business proposal requires a great deal of preparation and planning that is culled down into a concise document. This proposal serves as the master plan for the launch and growth of the business.

It’s no different for the proposals you’ll have to write during college, grad school, or beyond. The most common is the thesis proposal. This document also is a distillation of your goals during a longer period of research, and it details when and how you plan to carry out each step.

In this blog post we’ll discuss why you should write a proposal, what information you should include in it, the various types of proposals you might encounter, and how Citavi can help.

Why write a proposal?

When you’ve been asked to submit a proposal, you might well think to yourself, “Not another document to write!”. But drafting a proposal isn’t a superfluous task. On the contrary: it can help you plan and prepare for your thesis or other research project. Even if a proposal is not required for a particular project, it still is a good idea.

Why’s that? You can think of the proposal as the blueprint for your project. Already at the beginning it helps you assess the relevance of your topic, clarify what exactly you want to examine, and get an idea of how much time it will take. It helps you discover potential problems and make changes to your timeline and research question if needed. The proposal also helps keep you focused so that you don’t later get distracted by related topics or don’t know how to get started writing. You can always look back at your plan whenever you’re unsure. This can help save you frustration and time, and if you’ve planned well from the beginning, you can potentially avoid a stressful time crunch at the end.

The proposal isn’t just useful for you alone. It also helps convince your advisor or a grant committee of the importance and relevance of your research. Sometimes when you write the proposal, you won’t know if you’ll be able to carry out the research or not. The proposal then functions as an application for submission to a potential advisor or grant body.

It’s important to remember that the contents of your proposal are not etched in stone. Since the proposal is written early on, it’s no problem to later make changes during the course of your project if unforeseen findings come along.

What should you include in a proposal?

Your proposal should answer the following three questions:

  1. What are you researching?
  2. How will you research it?
  3. Why are you researching it?

To make it easy for potential advisors or funders to get behind your project, make sure the answers to these three questions appear at the beginning of your proposal. You’re excited about your topic and can’t wait to get started? Then make sure to also convince your reader of the importance of your topic right from the start.

It can help to get advice from your peers, since some of them have likely already been through the same process. They might know some good points you could include or they could inform you about recent research you didn’t know about. A quick exchange can only help the final product.

While a proposal can often be flexible in terms of its format, there are a few rules of thumb and some information that will nearly always be included. First, the contents of your proposal should mainly be formulated in your own words, i.e. you won’t want to use too many direct quotations. Instead of focusing on past findings, the emphasis of the proposal should be on your research.

If you have special requirements from your institution or advisor, make sure to follow them. Otherwise, depending on the type of proposal (see below), you’ll likely need to include all or some of the following sections:

  • Cover page
    For a thesis proposal, the cover page should include your name, department, degree program, and the proposed title and advisors for your thesis.
  • Table of contents
    The table of contents is the preliminary outline for your paper. You can keep this fairly basic at the start, since you’ll of course add more subcategories during the course of your project. Top-level categories can and will change later on as well.
  • Introduction
    This should be a short summary of your project. In addition to answering the three questions listed above, the introduction should help position your research in your field of study and define a few of the key terms you’ll be using. The introduction should be written as it would be for your final project but shorter. Later on you can reuse this section when formulating the full introduction in your thesis and can make additions or changes to it.
  • Research question or thesis statement
    What question does your work seek to address and what exactly do you want to research? Here you should describe to your reader what exactly the scope of your topic is.
  • Importance and implications
    Why does this particular research question interest you? Why is it important? Make it clear to your reader why your topic needs to be explored. In certain fields, it may also be okay to include your personal reasons for wanting to pursue the project.
  • Current state of knowledge
    By carrying out an initial literature review on your topic and by talking with your peers and advisors, you can get a good sense of the current state of knowledge for your research topic. From there, you can try to find where there are contradictions or gaps. For the proposal you usually won’t need an exhaustive literature review, so concentrate on seminal works important current literature and go from there.
  • Research aims
    In this section you would formulate what your aims are and what you think you’ll find out during the course of your project. Do you expect your hypothesis to be confirmed or refuted? What results do you think you’ll get? And how will this new knowledge advance your field?
  • Preliminary work

If you already examined aspects of your topic in another work, for example, a Master’s Thesis, you should mention that in your proposal. Also, if you’ve already made connections with others that are necessary to carry out your work, such as being able to use a particular research station, you would want to add this information, too.

  • Methodology
    Describe in detail which approach you’ll be using for your research. Will you primarily be examining the existing literature, conducting interviews, using a survey or carrying out experiments in a lab? Once you’ve decided on the basic type of research, there are still a number of different methods you can choose from. Writing this section of the proposal forces you to really think about your methodology at the beginning and pick the best approach for your research question. Make sure to describe the techniques, tools, and other resources you’ll be using in as much detail as you can.
  • Plan
    An important part of your proposal is your plan for when each part of the project should be completed. Your plan will help make you aware of the many small tasks in your research project, and you’ll be able to see whether or not your schedule is realistic. As you work backwards from your final deadline and set dates for various milestones, you may realize that your research topic is too ambitious. In such cases you’ll likely want to narrow the focus of your research question or the scope of your project.
  • References
    At the end of your proposal you should create a formatted list of references you plan to use. All the seminal works on your topic should be included.

The scope of your proposal naturally depends on whether it’s for a shorter-term undertaking, such as a semester-long research project or for a longer-term one, such as a dissertation or grant-funded research study.

Proposal for a semester project

The proposal for an undergraduate semester-long project helps your professor or teaching assistant see where you might need help. Usually this document will only be one to two pages long, and you won’t need to include many of the sections above, such as preliminary work or a time plan (which is often defined for you anyway). The proposal for a project like this will consist mainly of your thesis statement and introduction and a preliminary outline. You might also be asked to provide a list of references, but not always.

Thesis proposal

The thesis proposal will usually include most of the sections mentioned above. The work involved in creating it can take a long time, too, sometimes even up to half a year. You will usually submit a few drafts to your advisor which you’ll then discuss and revise. This process can take a while, but it’s time well spent. At the end you will submit the proposal for approval and can then get started in earnest on your project.

Depending on the type of thesis, your proposal will usually be between 5 - 20 pages long.

Grant proposal

A grant proposal is used to try and gain funding for a particular project. These proposals and the accompanying applications can be very long indeed and creating them can take several months.

These types of proposals usually have strict requirements you’ll need to follow. They usually will also call for additional sections than those listed above. For example, the National Institutes of Health (and many other funding bodies) require a budget plan.

Writing a thesis proposal with Citavi

Your proposal helps give you a bird’s-eye view of your project as a whole. To maintain an overview of all the sources you’ll be working with, you’ll want to use a reference management program like Citavi. Citavi can also help with other aspects of your thesis proposal, too. For example, you can start developing the content for your proposal in Citavi’s Knowledge Organizer. There you can create an outline using the hierarchical categories in Citavi and then add notes, ideas, and important quotations to the future sections of your proposal. You can then easily insert the outline in Word with just a few clicks. Creating a table of contents for your proposal couldn’t be easier.

The three main questions for your introduction (what, how, and why) can be formulated in Citavi using thoughts. Your research question, implications, and your research aims can also be formulated using thoughts. For any important quotations or ideas from others that you want to include, use Citavi’s other knowledge item options, such as direct and indirect quotations. These snippets can be added to your outline and then inserted as needed from the Word Add-In when writing.

When you’re looking for sources to discuss the current state of knowledge on your topic, you can use Citavi’s Online Search feature.  At the end of your proposal, insert a reference list generated in Citavi.

For creating a detailed plan for the various phases of your project, use Citavi’s Task planner. Enter milestones, deadlines and individual steps (for example, “initial search”, “carry out experiment”, “proofread draft”, etc.) Export your tasks as a task list and insert it into your proposal as well.

Now you can get started writing your own proposal and planning your project. Just like with a marriage or business proposal, we hope that it will make you feel confident about your future long-term (research) endeavors.


For further reading:

Gaines, K. (n.d.). Writing a master's thesis or dissertation proposal. Retrieved August 11, 2020, from

National Institutes of Health. (2020, July 14). Write your application. NIH Central Resource for Grants and Funding Information.

Punch, K. (2006). Developing effective research proposals (2nd ed.). SAGE.

Research & Learning Online. (2020). Writing a research proposal. Monash University. Research & Learning Online.


Created by: Jana Behrendt – Published on: 8/11/2020
Tags: Graduate students Good to know Writing tips

About Jana Behrendt

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

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