What goes in a proposal? (B. Zakarin 2009)

Contributor: B. Zakarin, History and Fellowships, b-zakarin@northwestern.edu
Posted: 2009

No two proposals are exactly alike in content and form, but most successful proposals share basic features that allow readers—the people who make admissions decisions and award grants—to appreciate the importance of your questions, the suitability of your methods, and the likelihood of your success.  Understanding these features will allow you to anticipate—and address—questions readers might have about your project.

Proposal components are generally most effective when presented in the order below, but you do not need to develop them in this order.  Many writers, for example, find it easier to draft the opening paragraphs once the rest of the proposal has taken shape. Approaching your proposal as a series of specific sections, furthermore, is a powerful means of ensuring that you provide the information readers need and that you make efficient use of the limited space.

All that said, these are guidelines to help you—not rules requiring rigid adherence.  You may decide that certain bits of information could reasonably fit into more than one section or that the distinction between “background” and “literature review” is not as clear as you had first imagined.  Ultimately, it is less important that you find the “right” place for any given piece of information than that you answer readers’ questions, which usually pertain to the standard elements of a proposal. 

Thinking of each section as one specific paragraph will help you get started and ensure that you achieve balance between the different proposal elements.  As you refine your project and revise your proposal (and get feedback on drafts) you will find it easier to make decisions about how and whether your project requires deviations from the structure suggested here.  


Purpose: Often the most difficult section to write, the introduction should quickly engage readers with succinct answers to their immediate questions:  What problem does the author want to solve?  And, why does it matter?  By the end of the first paragraph or the beginning of the second, readers expect a clear statement about what kind of research the author proposes to conduct and what that research will help them better understand.

Strategies: Experiment early on with different possible introductions:  Is there a specific event or anecdote that captures the essence of your project?  Or, would a more general explanation better orient the reader to your topic?  Even if it seems difficult right now, exploring options will help clarify in your own mind what your central research question is.  You can elaborate on this question in other parts of the proposal; your goal at this point is to help readers—in just a few sentences—to understand what you are trying to find out and why.   Do not worry if it takes a while to find the right “hook” and a concise statement of the project and its significance; it will get easier as you work through other parts of the proposal.


Purpose: Since academics have different specialties, you cannot assume that readers know anything about your topic.  You will therefore need to help your reader appreciate both the relevance of your chosen topic and the logic of your research agenda.  The key is to provide enough background but not so much that your reader is distracted from the central purpose of the proposal—conveying the nuts and bolts of your research plan. Include only what is essential for readers to know in order to understand your project.  The tricky part is determining the bare minimum readers need to know in order to appreciate the novelty and significance of your research questions.

Strategies: As with the introduction, writing the background section gets easier as you develop other parts of the proposal.  It is particularly helpful, especially in the early stages of proposal writing, to confine this section to a single paragraph.   You may find that you are able to sprinkle bits of relevant background information throughout the proposal (e.g., in the introduction or literature review sections).  In order to do so effectively, you need a clear sense of what readers need to know and when they need to know it.  To assess your progress on this front, get feedback from others who represent your target audience: the well-educated but uninitiated reader.

Literature Review

Purpose: Readers want to know how your proposed project relates to other scholarly research and how it will contribute to our collective knowledge.  Therefore, you must situate your proposed research within existing scholarship.  Once you demonstrate familiarity with relevant scholarship, you then need to explain how your project will build on, challenge, or go beyond existing research.  This is where you convey how the project you are proposing is original and innovative.  It also sets the context for the research questions you will articulate in the next section.

It is generally not sufficient to state that your research will simply “fill in a gap”—that is, to write that the project is original because other scholars have ignored the topic.  Rather, you will need to explain how filling this gap can illuminate issues that might otherwise be missed.

Strategies: The following questions can help you get started: What scholarly research has been completed on the same topic or theme?  How will your research differ from previous work?  What questions have other researchers asked and what is your understanding of their findings? Which aspects might they have neglected or what problems have they been unable to solve?  How have previous researchers left unexamined the questions/issues/topic that you will address?

If no studies of your particular topic exist, look to parallel or broader bodies of scholarly literature. For example, if you are studying a particular social movement that has never been studied, you might look to studies of other social movements or to more general theoretical literature on social movements. Unless a few seminal studies dominate the literature on your topic, you may need to make generalizations about the types of research that scholars have done.  It is often more effective to accurately summarize the state of existing literature than to discuss individual works in detail.  You can always use footnotes and the bibliography to cite other works. 

The literature review may seem daunting, but you have probably already identified some key works while developing your topic.  One or more books or articles from a syllabus or term paper might have led you to your topic.  In addition, you know someone who can help: your faculty advisor.  As you discuss the project with your advisor, he/she will be able to direct you to appropriate scholarship.  These recommended readings, in turn, will give you a solid basis for a literature review.  

Your current goal is to familiarize yourself with these works, not necessarily read them start-to-finish.  The proposal is your promise to read them more closely so your eventual thesis is as comprehensive as possible.

Research Questions

Purpose: This section (along with “methodology”) may be the most critical as you work toward developing a viable topic and research agenda.  Your project should revolve around one central research question.  Define that question and, if necessary, break it down into a series of interrelated questions so readers understand what questions you expect to answer with your research.  The holes, gaps, contradictions and limits of previous research that you have outlined in the literature review should lead to a more detailed explanation of precisely what you seek to learn.

Strategies: Pay particular attention to the relationship between your research question(s) and your methodology.  All sections of the proposal should be interrelated, but it is critical that your research questions and methodology “match”—that is, make certain that your research questions can actually be answered using your chosen methodology.  Proposal writers often find that their initial questions are too vague or broad to be answerable with available sources and methods.  Thinking of your questions and methods in tandem will help you bring them into alignment so your project is manageable.


Purpose: While “research questions” will tell readers what you hope to learn through your research, your “methodology” tells them how you plan to go about answering those questions.  You will need to convey the following:

  • The scope and length of the research—Readers will want to know if you can feasibly complete the project given the your stated scope and length of the research.  How much material will you examine? Will you need to travel? How many interviews will you conduct? What is your timetable for conducting the research?
  • The types of data or source materials—Why are these sources relevant for the questions you hope to answer?  If you are traveling to an archive, what kinds of materials do you expect to find? For interviews, how will you choose your subjects?
  • How you plan to analyze the data—To what ends will you study your chosen materials?  What criteria will you use as you sort the information?  Do you have a working hypothesis? Can you project possible findings? 

Strategies: Novice proposal writers frequently find the methodology section perplexing, particularly in disciplines where methods are not explicitly described as such.  Think of this section as a statement of your research plans.  Of course, you cannot know exactly what you will find until you actually conduct the research, but you can contact archivists and librarians to discover what types of sources might be available and where they are located, meet with faculty and other experts to discuss what methods and approaches might be best, and think carefully about how much research you can realistically do in a given timeframe.

Note on Timelines for Grant Proposals: A research grant compensates you for your time and effort.  Thus, readers on grant committees want to know exactly how you plan to spend that time.  URGs and Weinberg Summer Research Grants are intended to fund 8-week projects.  Under certain circumstances, Weinberg College will consider a pro-rated summer grant for those students who cannot commit to 8 weeks of research.  In grant proposals, state as precisely as possible your planned timetable and agenda for the entire research period.  You can include these details about your methodology either in the text of the proposal or in an appendix.


Purpose: This section demonstrates that you are qualified to undertake your proposed research by describing specific and relevant examples of previous training, experience, and coursework. What courses have you taken that have helped prepare you for this project?  More importantly, which types of knowledge did you learn in them that will help you complete the research? Do you speak the necessary foreign languages? Do you have experience conducting interviews or manipulating data sets? Further, if you will travel to conduct research, have you established contacts in your place of research? Have you scheduled appointments for interviews? Have you contacted archivists to ensure that materials you wish to examine are accessible? Have you begun the process of obtaining clearance from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) to do research with human subjects (if applicable)?

Strategies: Avoid simply listing or stating relevant courses completed or past experiences; instead emphasize the sets of skills and bodies of knowledge that you have acquired.  Think about aspects of your preparation that align with your proposed methodology, and address any shortcomings.  If you lack experience in critical areas, then note how you will overcome them through coursework, or how you will work around them during your research.  If necessary, propose self-imposed limits on the scope of your research plans, and explain your intellectual justification for doing so.


Purpose: The “conclusion” of a proposal conveys to readers how you, the researcher, will benefit from undertaking the project and indicates what the scholarly product of the research will be.  Readers also want a sense of how a project fits in with a student’s overall goals, whether it is a senior thesis to cap off an academic career or a chance to get a taste of what graduate work might be like.

Strategies: A conclusion need not be long.  The following questions will guide you toward a successful conclusion: How does the project fit into your overall academic and/or career goals?  Will the research prepare you to apply for graduate school or a fellowship?  Aside from a senior thesis, what might you do with the research (e.g., a presentation at an academic conference, publication in a scholarly journal)?  Feel free to aim high in your conclusion.  Committing lofty goals to writing is not an ironclad pledge; rather, it is your chance to articulate just how far you might take the contribution to knowledge you seek to make.


Purpose: A bibliography is an essential element of a strong proposal, as it allows you to show the reader that you have done legwork and are familiar with the relevant scholarly literature—even if you have not yet read it.  A thorough bibliography also takes some of the pressure off writing the literature review section.  Discussing individual works in the text of your proposal is less crucial if your readers can instead scan bibliographic entries.

Strategies: A bibliography is always a work in progress.  You do not have to read everything before preparing your proposal’s bibliography.  Listing potentially relevant works will help you and your advisor prioritize your research agenda.  As you develop your bibliography, you will discover where you need to dig deeper and/or how you might pare down a topic that starts off too broad.  Think of the bibliography as a concrete representation of your awareness of the body of knowledge to which you hope to contribute.

Note on Citation Styles: Start practicing appropriate citation styles now to save time later.  Citations are more than bureaucracy; doing them right shows that you know conventions of the field.  For the discipline of history, the Chicago Manual of Style is the bible, and is available in print and on-line through the Northwestern University Library website.

Appendices and Supplementary Materials

Purpose:  Appendices are another way to strengthen your proposal by demonstrating that you have done your homework.  Depending on the nature of your project, you may find that supplemental materials are not necessary, but most proposals can benefit from additional information like that listed below.

Strategies:  Materials you might include as appendices include:

  • A bibliography of primary sources you intend to examine
  • Evidence of contacts (e.g., copies of correspondence with archivists and research librarians)
  • Evidence of contact and appointments with potential interviewees
  • A list of interview questions
  • A week-by-week timeline for your research agenda (for grant proposals only)

You should mention each appendix in the text of your proposal. Number appendices by the order in which you refer to them in the proposal.  Along with a number, label each appendix with a brief descriptive title (e.g., “Appendix 2: Correspondence with Kennedy Library Archivist” or “Appendix 3: Selected Materials from Leopold Papers Finding Aid”).