A research proposal is a piece of work that, ideally, would convince scholars that your project has the following three merits: conceptual innovation; methodological rigour; and rich substantive content. Of course your first version of a research proposal is produced at at a very early stage in your career, and you may well have many other calls on your time. Here we'll suggest the optimum route to take - of course the reality may have to be a compromise between this and what can more easily be managed.
A research proposal is a short document (probably between 300 and 1000 words - check the word limits on your application form) detailing the main components of your intended research. It shouls include the title, research questions and tentative hypotheses, the primary materials, the proposed theoretical framework, the intended design and methodology and, sometimes, outcomes expected. It is a means of presenting and justifying a research project and the practical ways of conducting it.
You need to start the reading relating to it at least nine months in advance of your proposed date of first registration, and the actual drafting at least six months in advance of this date. In the case of a proposal relating to an application for AHRB funding, you need to start drafting by January of the year of first registration. Many universities have their own internal advisory and vetting procedures in relation to these applications with a deadline well in advance of the early May deadline of the AHRB itself, and will be able to give you feedback on your draft.
By now you should have a clear idea of your chosen research topic and should have approached someone in the university department in which you hope to study for advice and guidance.
Your research proposal frames your original idea, locates it, delimits it and specifies not just what you are studying but how you will actually carry it out and what you might find. For these reasons, a research proposal often turns out to be an invaluable resource and planning tool for your period of study. The process of preparing a research proposal is not a short or easy one. Often it is at this very stage that key elements of your study are decided. However, keep in mind that changes can and might be made in the future - for example the exact corpus of material may change as your work develops.
You are not expected to do it all by yourself: ask for help and guidance from your prospective supervisor or from a previous one.
To help you in drawing up your proposal, it might be useful to consider the following:
The guidelines we provide here are a COUNSEL OF PERFECTION! Much of what we suggest will not be attempted until you actually start your MA or PhD research. ALWAYS refer to a supervisor, past or future, to get detailed feedback on your work.