Overview of a Proposal
“It takes a village to write a research proposal” (unknown). Conducting a
research study takes time, planning, coordination, and people. Research studies are not
conducted in a vacuum. A variety of persons ranging from clinical experts to
biostatisticians may be involved in the development and implementation of your
proposal. Use your experts and organizational resources to assist you with this project.
This should not be yours alone.
The writing of the research proposal is just one piece of the more extensive
research study. The proposal writing is your first step. Start by doing your homework.
Define your project by clarifying your specific aims, conceptual/theoretical framework
(which will guide your study), research questions or hypotheses, methods, budget,
resources, and timeline. Don’t be overly ambitious. Research grants are not awarded for
large complicated projects. Carve out only a small piece which may be built on in the
future as you develop your program of research.
Before you get started, review the NNSDO guidelines and scoring criteria to
ensure that you address all sections. Verify that this proposal fits with one of the stated
NNSDO research priorities. “Remember we are not awarding grants, the agency is.”
(Tornquist and Funk, 1990). If the proposal is not a good fit, and guidelines are not
followed, your chances of funding are minimal.
Develop a content outline before you begin to write. The time invested on the
front end will save you later as you write. This outline will assist you in identifying gaps
in your literature and areas requiring further content development. Again, refer to the
NNSDO guidelines and scoring criteria to develop this outline.
Your goal is to submit a structured, well-organized proposal that is
understandable and easy to read for the reviewers. Make your proposal clear, concise,
and persuasive. Write to your audience and show enthusiasm for your topic. For ease of
the reader divide your document into sections and subsections using headings and
structured paragraphs with one point in each. The reviewers should not have to search
for information. Avoid the use of acronyms, check your grammar and spelling, and
remove any unnecessary words. Get assistance if you need it. Remember, the best writer
is the one with the best editor.
The NNSDO research proposal is divided into the following sections: abstract,
narrative, budget/resources, timeline, references, appendices, and human subjects review.
Each of these sections is discussed below.
Write this last!! Wait until you have completed your entire proposal and then
write the abstract. Use topic sentences from your written proposal to develop your
Abstract Content (one-page single spaced)
Significance of the Problem
Proposed Solution (Specific Aims)
Define Variables and how each will be measured
Plan for Data Analysis
Relevance of the Study for NNSDO
Fatal Flaw: Not concise!
The narrative is the focal point of your research proposal. The narrative is where
you want to make the argument for your study. The goal is to get your study funded.
Sell it. Be persuasive. Be explicit. You must capture the reader as to its importance, why
this is different or better than previous studies, and the impact it will have on staff
Reviewers will be paying attention to: 1) the significance, 2) whether the specific
aims including your research questions/hypotheses are realistic or too many, 3) a relevant
literature review, does this contain original sources and important studies, are the
concepts linked together demonstrating a gap of knowledge exists making this study
worthwhile, 4) methods that match the specific aims, and 5) whether the proposed study
can be conducted in the anticipated time frame and within the proposed budget.
Fatal flaw: Writing an exorbitant amount on the background/literature review and
not enough on your methods section describing specifically how you plan to study
NNSDO Format Questions to ask as you write?
Problem Statement and Specific Aims What is being proposed?
Background and Significance Why is it important?
Research Design and Methods How do you plan to study it?
Projected Budget How much time, funding or other expenses
Project’s Timeline are needed to accomplish it?
Human Subject’s Approval Any other relevant issues that should be
addressed i.e. ethics, confidentiality issues
Problem Statement and Specific Aims
The purpose of this section is to “hook” or “grab” your reviewer. Write a brief
statement of the problem or need. Start off by presenting the facts and evidence. You
may want to include relevant statistics to start this section; use the most updated
statistics/facts that you can find. Write a compelling argument in a logical sequence as to
why this is a problem. Be succinct and precise. Demonstrate how your study differs
from others and fills a knowledge gap or adds to the current knowledge.
Fatal flaw: Too much detail. You can cover this in your literature review!
Specifics aims are the objectives of your project. What do you want to accomplish. Your
specific aims are your outcomes by which success of your study will be measured.
Fatal Flaws: Specific aims don’t match with your research questions or hypotheses!
Background and Significance
The background section is the literature review. Think in terms of relevant
literature. You do not need to write about everything ever written, include the classical
studies and studies most pertinent to your topic. Often it is easiest to start with a general
literature overview and then move to the specific articles to support your study. Present
evidence of the scientific rationale for your study. Build your literature review around a
conceptual model/theoretical framework. Show your model and describe it. Identify
each of the variables in this model. Describe how each of these variables has been
studied in the past and how you plan to study these in yours. Look for similar studies,
compare and contrast these studies, identify the limitations of these studies (or flaws),
and finally identify the gaps in the literature. Explain how your study will fill these
knowledge gaps or add to the present knowledge. How does your study differ (different
setting or population) or improve on previous research methods. Don’t just use nursing
research. Explore literature outside of nursing.
Fatal Flaws: Overwriting and only focusing on nursing literature!
This section should be one of your strongest. Present a compelling argument for
your study for the reviewer. Discuss how your proposed research will extend or enhance
scientific knowledge and how it relates to NNSDO research priorities. Explain succinctly
how will your research will extend knowledge in 1) nursing staff development
interventions, 2) staff development outcomes, 3) staff development as advanced practice,
or 4) program adaptations for different populations. Identify how this research may be
used by other nurse educators or serve as a basis for future research studies to benefit
nursing staff development. Avoid generalities. Be specific.
Fatal Flaw: Does not fit with one of the stated NNSDO research priorities!
This section is one of the most critical and yet often overlooked sections by the
writer. Be comprehensive and explicit on how you plan to research this problem. This
should be a “how to” section. How do you plan to study the problem? The reviewer
should already know from your previous sections the “why” of your study. Explain how
your methods fit your question. Enough detail should be provided that a reviewer could
easily replicate your study. You may have an excellent question that is highly significant
but if your methodology is not sound your proposal will not be funded.
Explain your research approach and provide justification for why you selected it.
Are you interested in performing a qualitative or quantitative study? Very quickly,
purposes of qualitative research may include rich description of a phenomenon,
identification of themes or relationships, or hypothesis generation. Traditional qualitative
approaches include biography, phenomenology, grounded theory, ethnography, or case
study. Quantitative research is interested in theory testing and uses statistical analysis to
describe the phenomenon or assess the relationships of interest. If you are interested in
using a quantitative approach you need to decide whether your study will be non-
experimental, quasi-experimental or an experimental design.
Go to an expert to assist you with this section so that you are well acquainted with
the different types of research approaches and designs. Let your research question guide
your decision. Think about how this has been studied in the past? What approaches were
used? Why or why weren’t these successful? What were their limitations? Explain how
your approach will help in answering your question. Identify the advantages and
disadvantages of using this research approach.
Finally, to lend support to your methods section, it helps if you can demonstrate
that you have already collected some preliminary data or performed a needs assessment
to support your project (i.e. small survey, interviews, focus groups, etc.). This
preliminary work demonstrates that you have thought about the problem. However, this
is not required for your proposal submission. Once you have described your research
approach, you need to give the specifics of how you plan to conduct your study. The
following sections should be addressed in your proposal.
Setting: Identify where you plan to conduct your study. Explain why you selected this
setting and what makes it appropriate for your study. Additionally, you may want to
address the type of support you will receive if using a specific setting such as a nursing
unit. Do you have the support of the manager and staff?
Sample: Identify the sample that you will be using. In this section the reviewer will want
the following information explicitly described.
1) Inclusion criteria: How was this decided? Can you support this criteria based
on your literature review?
2) Exclusion criteria: As above provide your rationale.
3) Sample size: How was this determined? Did you perform a power analysis?
Can you realistically recruit and retain this expected number? What steps will
you take to make recruitment and retention happen?
4) Explain how you will select your subjects and if applicable how you will sort
Human Subjects Protection: Identify all potential risks and benefits to your subjects.
Clearly explicate how confidentiality of the subject and data will be maintained. Explain
how informed consent will be obtained. Provide Institutional Review Board (IRB)
Variables: Identify and define each of your independent and dependent/outcome
variables. For each variable explain how you plan to measure it and provide your
rationale (why this measure is appropriate). If you are using a research instrument
provide information on the reliability and validity of this instrument. Include a copy of
this instrument in your appendices and if it is a published data collection instrument
include approval for use from the author or source.
Procedures for data collection: Provide a detailed description of the procedure for your
study. This should be a list of the actual steps you plan to take to conduct this study.
Items to include would be how and when consent will be obtained, sequence or timing of
the interventions, sequence or timing of the mailings for a survey or distribution of
instruments etc. List each step for the reviewer to understand the process. Remember
from this description the reviewer should be able to conduct your study.
Data Analysis: For each research question or hypothesis explain how you plan to analyze
your data. For this section explain how you plan to assure data quality as well as who
and how data will be managed. Identify the variables you will use in each analysis and
the order of the analyses. Use a consultant, if needed, to assist you with the statistical
analysis for this section.
Assumptions: Think about your conceptual model and research approach and identify
what your underlying assumptions are for this study. As an example, if you are having
persons complete a survey it is assumed that people will answer honestly/truthfully.
These may be listed.
Limitations: Discuss the limitations of your study in relation to the research approach,
reliability and validity of your instruments, sample and setting, data analysis, and ability
to generalize findings. Explain how you plan to minimize these limitations.
Fatal Flaw For Methods Section: Not enough detail!
Budget and Budget Justification
Think about what it will take financially to complete this project. Will you be
using other funding sources? What monies and/or human resources are available to you
to assist you with this study? Use a spreadsheet and itemize each of your costs. Have
someone review this for you if you are not used to preparing budgets.
Fatal Flaw: Under budgeting!
This may be easily portrayed using a Gantt chart. As you prepare your timeline
think in terms of whether you will be supported by your organization to perform this
research study. How much time will they allow you to spend on this project per week or
month. What other professional and personal responsibilities do you have that may affect
your ability to work on this project? Factor in additional time for unexpected events. As
we all know nothing ever goes as planned.
Will others be assisting you on this project? How much time are they willing to
devote? Are they committed to this project? You need solid commitments from others to
ensure completion within the one-year timeframe. Include in your appendices letter(s) of
support for your study.
Fatal Flaw: Overambitious. Not enough time allotted for the research project!
Submitted by Joan Warren, PhD, RN,BC