How to write a research plan

A research plan is a structured guide or model which a researcher uses to gather their thoughts about the steps or procedures to be used in conducting their research. A research plan is different from a research proposal though some use both terms interchangeably. Unlike the former, the latter is a formal, more detailed document.  A research plan can form the basis from which a research proposal is developed.

Research plans can come in different formats, according to the peculiarities of the proposed research as well as the personal feelings of the researcher. Hence an ideal research plan does not exist.

Below are some tips to consider when writing a research plan.

Specify your sources of funding

Research is usually a lengthy, rigorous, time and energy-consuming process. It can also be capital intensive. For this reason, it needs adequate preparation financially because without funds nothing much will be accomplished. Thus, you need to clearly map out your source(s) of research funds in your plan.

For example, will you apply for research grants from both private and public sector organizations? Unless you are already financially secured, funding should be the most important consideration when writing your plan.

Note your institution’s rules

Knowledge is vast and made up of different fields. Therefore, each field of knowledge has a particular modus operandi which includes a format for writing research projects and theses. Your research plan should take note of all the procedures prescribed by your institution for research work.  These include the Style Guide which provides guidelines on things like punctuation, capitalization, citations, referencing, spacing, formatting of numbers and dates, tables, and others. Popular Style Guides include MLA, Chicago, APA, Turabian, etc.

Your institution also provides rules on the overall structure of your thesis such as the specific headings of each chapter, the type and size of fonts to use among others. Some institutions instruct students on the maximum number of words allowed in a thesis.

Organize the different parts of your research

When you have completely acquainted yourself with your institution’s rules, you then have to strategize on how to organize all aspects of your research according to those rules. An important consideration here is the number of words to be allocated to all the parts or components of your research paper. Here you can benchmark against other works in the same field as yours. If you are writing a journal paper, compare the typical size of a research paper in the journal of your choosing. Likewise, if you are writing a thesis, use past theses as a yardstick when estimating the number of words for the sections and chapters. If not, you have to propose the size of your thesis arbitrarily.

Note that the size depends on your resources because the larger the size, the more you are likely to spend in gathering materials and typing the thesis. Whatever the size you decide on, ensure that your work is thoroughly researched and of a very high quality.

Determine the timeline for the research

Theses usually have a timeline that indicates the allowed duration of time to write them for each session. This timeline depends on the institution’s calendar but you have to discuss it with your supervisor to obtain a clearer picture. Based on the timeline provided by your institution, you can then plan your own tentative schedule. It is tentative because it can be amended at any time if there is a need to.

The schedule should provide an estimated time for the completion of each phase of your thesis. For example, you may decide to complete the first chapter in one week, the second in two weeks, etc. make sure you stick to the tentative schedule so that you will not lag behind in terms of delivering your thesis within the expected time. You can always amend the schedule if the need arises but ensure that you work according to the official timeline to avoid any problems.

Capture your original contribution to knowledge

As you construct your research plan, always realize that one of the purposes of your thesis is to contribute to the stock of knowledge in your field in particular and to education and society as a whole. This contribution is usually linked to the research problem and research questions.

Try to conceptualize how and where your contributions to knowledge will be captured in your thesis. Ensure it is introduced and discussed as logically and appropriately as possible. 

Develop a work schedule

A work schedule is all about allocating time and energy to writing your thesis. Time management is very important because as a graduate student, there should be other things competing for your time besides your thesis such as your job and family among others. Thus, based on the tentative time schedule you constructed earlier, you should map out things like the times of the day to spend writing the drafts, surfing the internet or visiting libraries in search of research materials, taking written drafts to your supervisor for his comments, editing the drafts based on his comments, etc.

Consult others

It is often said that two heads are better than one and that no man is an island. Consultations are a necessary activity in life and research writing is no exception. Hence, when you must have developed most or all of your research plan, it is essential to hear the opinions of others that are knowledgeable in what you are planning. Your thesis supervisor is one good consultant to meet and discuss your draft plan with extensively.

Let him have a copy of the draft plan and allow him some time to go through it before soliciting his advice. Consider adjusting the plan if he asks you to. You can also talk to senior colleagues in your department with research experience to find out how they went about planning the research. The tips you get from them will also help you come up with an effective final research plan.


A research plan is an expression of a student’s thoughts on how to prosecute his research work. It helps the student to have a mental picture of the tasks ahead towards a successful commencement and completion of his research. Though the terms research plan and research proposal are often used interchangeably, they are not exactly the same.

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