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Writing a Research Proposal

When you start to work on a doctoral dissertation, you are sometimes required to write a research proposal. This document is supposed to give other persons (e.g., your supervisor or an organization which provides stipends) an overview of the planned research. It should not be longer than 10-15 pages (including cover page and bibliography). In order to write a research proposal, you need to have worked on your planned research topic for some time - but do not work too long on it (not longer than about 3 months).

The structure of a research proposal may vary, depending on the discipline and the topic of the dissertation. Some organizations which provide stipends might also demand a specific structure. In general, however, the following structure can be recommended:


The abstract should summarize the planned research project on about half a page. It should contain the main question and the object of the project and briefly indicate to what broader research field the project is relevant and what is innovative about the project.

Question of the research project

Describe the question that you would like to pursue in the research project. Make also clear what related questions you do not want to pursue and why. Explain how your topic is relevant within a broader field of research. Show that your topic can lead to interesting and innovative results which have a connection to current research debates.

Literature review

Give an overview over the most important contributions of the last years to the area of your research project. State the central research literature and the theories defended by various authors. Indicate important disputes, unsolved questions and research gaps, and explain how your work will contribute to progress of research.

Procedure / Research methodology

Explain how you plan to answer your research question. Which different steps are necessary within the project? For empirical research projects, it may be necessary to explain in detail what methodolgy you are going to use and why. Mention possible objections against your research method and reply to them. Estimate the costs of gaining and evaluating the data you want to use.

Access to research material

This section is only necessary if you would like to use material that cannot be easily accessed. Explain which material is necessary to answer your research question. How can you access the material, and how much will this cost?


Make a realistic timeline, mentioning the main steps of your research project and when you plan to have them finished. If possible, make steps of 3 months.


List the central academic literature for your topic.

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