Writing a Proposal for a Research Project

What is a Research Project?

Research is an original analysis or inquiry situated within a scholarly discipline.

Possible products of a research project include:

  • an honors thesis
  • a manuscript for peer-reviewed publication or presentation
  • a poster at SURPS

All proposals should meet our general guidelines. Below you will find tips specific to writing proposals for research projects.


Goals and Objectives: State your general scholarly questions. You may frame exploratory research with open-ended questions, or make specific assertions that you intend to support through your methodology.

Literature Review: Discuss your project’s relationship to current thinking in your field. Select and critique relevant works that situate your planned scholarship, and demonstrate your knowledge of what has been done on this topic or in related areas. Show how your project will contribute to existing schools of thought.

Project Plan: Provide a detailed methodology that will enable you to achieve your project goals. What texts, observations, or other source materials will you need to answer your question? What analytical framework will you use to understand or interpret these sources? Provide a logistical plan, including your timeline and milestones for progress.

Goals and Objectives: State hypotheses or theoretical predictions that you will test. If your project is part of a larger collaborative research agenda within your mentor’s lab or group, describe both the overarching research goal and the particular component(s) that you are focusing on. What are your specific aims for this particular phase of the project?

Literature Review: Critique the most relevant peer-reviewed papers that set the stage for your hypotheses. Are you challenging or refining current knowledge of the mechanisms, technologies, or phenomena of interest? Demonstrate your grasp of what has been done on this topic or in related areas, and show how your research builds on and contributes to this body of knowledge. A highly compelling literature review often includes works from a variety of research groups.

Project Plan: What are the key steps in the experiment or modeling effort that will test your hypothesis? What quantitative analyses will enable you to interpret your observations or refine your model? Spell out your specific role and responsibilities, and your intellectual ownership of these responsibilities. Provide a logistical plan, including your timeline and milestones for progress.

Proposals in the social sciences may share some of the features of either science or humanities proposals. For example, an econometric comparison of tax policy effects would need to discuss a statistical framework, whereas an ethnographic account of folk stories would outline a very different kind of qualitative method.

Goals and Objectives: State the questions or hypotheses you will examine, making clear the level of focus and the quantitative or qualitative nature of your goals.

Literature Review: Discuss how your research questions connect to current thinking in your field. Select and critique recent works that provide a foundation to the way you are stating your research questions, and that show your knowledge of what other scholars are already working on. A highly compelling literature review often includes works from a variety of research groups.

Project Plan: Provide a detailed methodology that will enable you to achieve your project goals. What observations, datasets, or transcripts will you need to answer your question? What analytical framework (statistical or qualitative, as appropriate) will let you draw sound conclusions? Provide a logistical plan, including your timeline and milestones for progress.

  • Focus and scale of the project objectives: Open your proposal with a crystal clear one- or two- sentence statement of your objective. This helps reviewers orient themselves, and prepares them to read the rest of your proposal more effectively. By carefully articulating specific and well-honed goals, you reassure reviewers that your project will meet with success, and that your final product will exhibit real depth and sophistication.
  • A robust discussion of existing works in the field: Probably the single most common deficiency in student proposals is the inadequate rationale for doing the project at hand. When we ask for a critique of published scholarship, or of recent creative work, or of your personal experiences we do not mean a list, or a cursory description. Rather, we expect you to select from a broad range of influences or papers with which you are familiar, and critically analyze these key works and experiences to show how these have shaped your proposed project and how you will contribute to the developments in your discipline.
  • Significance of research projects: Students sometimes focus on why their project is important to them personally. In a research proposal, we seek to understand the project’s intellectual significance to scholars in your discipline. We are not asking about its importance to your educational development or importance to a humanitarian or ideological cause per se. Demonstrating the scholarly significance of your project is best done through a robust literature review. There is always peer-reviewed literature that discusses some of the theoretical or methodological background to your research question.
  • Balance of independence and collaboration: Write your project plan in the first person. Reviewers want to see what you will take responsibility for, and what you will be doing with the assistance of others. If you write that “... the data will be gathered and analyzed using a statistical model”, you are providing much less information than if you had written “... I will gather the data and analyze them using a statistical model devised by a graduate student in our research group”.
  • Preparation: Give a concise outline of specific courses that directly shaped your approach to your topic, and are foundational to your project’s success; or state when you will complete such courses before the start of your project. If your project involves the use of human subjects, state when you submitted your Human Subjects Protocol (at the latest, you would submit the protocol to the IRB at the same time as you submit your grant proposal).
  • Mentoring: Provide an account of the interaction between you and your mentor(s) to date, and your plan for continued interaction. Describe how your mentor’s area of expertise will support your work. Your proposal and the mentor’s letter of recommendation should make clear the balance between independence and assistance you can expect from your mentor.
  • Internship vs. independent project: Many successful projects involve interacting with non-profit organizations, government agencies, clinical facilities, or private businesses. It is critical that your proposal draw a clear line between your agenda and your other responsibilities in the organization. A volunteer internship hastily married to a thin research question is not likely to be funded; a carefully designed, intellectually rigorous study that leverages your contacts in a particular organization is much more compelling. Reviewers will look closely at how you distinguish between these two kinds of projects.

If your project takes place off-campus, you will need thorough and rigorous preparation, including specific methodological coursework and training in the cultural and ethical aspects of working away from Stanford. A travel safety plan is also required. See Go Apply-Special Requirements for more details.

If your research project involves human subjects (or information or materials from human subjects), you and your faculty sponsor should submit your protocol to IRB by the first of the month of your grant deadline, at the latest. You will need to have Human Subjects approval in hand before funding can be approved. For more information, consult Go Apply-Special Requirements and the Institutional Review Board’s website at http://humansubjects.stanford.edu.


The Student Grants Website contains detailed information on grant types, deadlines, and eligibility criteria. The site has a comprehensive Go Apply section with a Checklist for complete applications, Grant Writing Timeline, and links to the online Grant Application Portal.