How to Write a Research Proposal in Ecology: A Complete Guide to a Successful Assignment

Writing guide
Posted on July 4, 2019

Writing a proposal is a crucial step in the course of any research, because without a successful proposal the project in question will simply not come to be. It is especially true in the case of ecology papers. Conservation efforts and environment protection are an extremely hot topic these days, and at any given moment, there are likely to be dozens of similar propositions. It is your job to make your work attractive enough to be chosen over all the alternatives.

What Is a Research Proposal: General Characteristics and Goals

A research proposal provides a short summary of your proposed research that allows the reader to make conclusions about its originality, viability and relevance. It defines the major questions or issues you intend to address, outlines the general area that your research covers and describes the context of your work (existing studies and debates on this and related topics). The structure of a proposal can vary: different disciplines, colleges and departments have their own preferences. However, a few things remain unchanged:

1. A Research Proposal Is not an Article

Writing peer-reviewed articles and writing proposals follow completely different patterns, and the experience you may already have in the field of academic writing can be misleading when you attempt to prepare a proposal. Articles traditionally begin with a detailed elaboration of the background against which you carry out the research. You should carefully describe your theory or hypothesis and the methods you are using. Although a proposal should mention all these things, they are not at the forefront. You should understand your proposal as a marketing pitch – its main goal is not to describe your proposed research, but to persuade the reader that this research is worth pursuing.

2. Study the Guidelines

If you think it is obvious, then you will be amazed how many proposals are rejected simply because their authors do not bother to pay close attention to instructions. Don’t start drafting the proposal with the intention of fitting it to the guidelines later. Pay close attention to every word: In addition to technical things like font size and section titles, they contain hints to what, how and where you should write and what you should not include at all.

3. You Are Just as Important as Your Research

The examiners evaluate not just your research – they evaluate you as well. Do you have the necessary skills and expertise? Do you have any experience with the research methods you intend to use? Do you have sufficient background knowledge in this field of study? You have to prove not just that your research proposal is sound, but that you can successfully carry it out, too.

4. Put Special Effort in the Title

Remember that you are selling your research, and every marketer knows that if you have not grabbed the customer’s attention by a catchy title, then you have already lost him/her. Make sure your title:

  • Does not contain questions. You don’t have anything to show yet, so questions only add up to ambiguity;
  • Is easily comprehensible. You should drive your message home, not make it appear more scientific-like;
  • Is laconic and straightforward. If you cannot make it short, probably your research idea is too vague;
  • Shows why anybody should care. Make it immediately obvious that there are better reasons to do this research than your being interested in it.

5. Do not Beat about the Bush

This is the most important aspect of writing a research proposal. Get to what exactly you propose to do as soon as possible, providing as little background as you can get away with. The examiner is not interested in the context and the theoretical construct of the issue you intend to address. He/she wants to know the gist of the proposed research and see why it is exciting. If you spend half the paper setting up the background, you may not bother about proceeding further – the reader has already lost all interest.

How to Select a Suitable Topic for Your Research Proposal in Ecology

1. Define the General Direction

Ecology is a discipline that covers a lot of ground, and unless you have a very definite idea of what you want to write about, you cannot waste time randomly stumbling around trying to come up with a topic. Usually this stage isn’t very difficult, as your research direction has to be connected to the overall theme of your current course. Try to identify a direction that appeals to you or has connection to your previous research. For example, if the course is mainly dedicated to conservation and reintroduction efforts, you can narrow it down to a particular region – e.g., Australia.

2. Do a Literature Review

Once you know in what direction to move, you can start gathering the sources and checking out the existing body of knowledge on the chosen field of study. The easiest way to do it is to choose a few keywords related to the subject matter, and run searches with them using academic resource search engines and databases. Some examples include BioOne (dedicated to ecology and environmental science) and Jurn, DeepDyve and Google Scholar (multidisciplinary ones). You can also get help from your research supervisor or a library assistant.

3. Identify the Gap in the Knowledge

Study the literature and check if there are any noticeable gaps in the existing knowledge on the subject. Literature review will help you understand what studies have already been done and if there are ideas, issues or problems that haven’t been addressed or require deeper research/another methodological approach. For example, if you encounter a research dedicated to the success of koala reintroduction efforts in the Mt. Lofty Ranges region of Australia, you can zero in on the fact that the population living there, although relatively large, descends from just six animals that were reintroduced to the area in 1965, which makes it highly inbred.
literature review

4. Single out the Problem and Prepare a Purpose Statement

Now that you’ve identified a meaningful gap in the research, it is time to identify the problem you intend to tackle and answer 4 whys:

  • Why it is important;
  • Why you chose this subject;
  • Why you believe you have the necessary qualification;
  • Why others should care about the topic.

The mere existence of the gap in the knowledge does not mean the topic is worth researching. There should be a problem worth researching: one that promises real results and is feasible in terms of expense/return ratio.

Now you are ready to select a topic; here are a few examples:

  • Koala Conservation Effort: The Issue of Inbreeding among the Mt. Lofty Ranges Population;
  • Use of Fracked Gas in Cooking: Potential Ecological and Health Risks and Viable Alternatives;
  • Coral Reef Die-Off in the Gulf of Mexico: Most Common Causes and Potential Countermeasures;
  • Contamination of T. Testudinum Seagrass with Microplastic: Potential Implications for Marine Ecosystems;
  • The Influence of Agriculture-Caused Greening in the Level of CO2 Emissions in India and China.

Writing a Research Proposal in Ecology: A Step-by-Step Breakdown

A research proposal doesn’t have a predetermined structure – different disciplines, universities, departments and even faculty members have their own regulations and preferences. Sometimes you receive a detailed template to follow, sometimes your supervisor gives you a general structure, sometimes it can even be relatively freeform. Anyway, the structure we show here is just an example of what you usually have to include in an ecology research proposal – if the guidelines you got from your university are different, you should follow them. This structure can help you better understand what goes where.

How long your research proposal is to be fully depends on the college guidelines. It may range from just a few hundred words to a few thousand.

1. Title

We have already talked about the title above. There is only one thing to add – do not try too hard to make it an ideal fit for your future research. Currently the title’s job is to attract attention and persuade the assessor to accept it. You will have time to revise it to better reflect the nature of your work while you do the research – after it is accepted.

2. Abstract

A short and to the point statement of the nature of your proposed research, usually about 100 words or 3-4 sentences. Identify the problem or an issue you want to address in as few words and as straightforwardly as possible.

3. Context

No research exists in isolation, and here you should show the current state of the field of study and how well you are versed in it. Provide a general report on what is currently known, what is the general consensus among the scholars, whether there were any recent debates on the topic. This way you both lay the groundwork of your research, explaining the existing state to those who may be unfamiliar with it, and show your acquaintance with the literature on the subject. If you use any direct citations from the literature you’ve gathered at this point, quote them according to the guidelines you have received. Usually it is enough to mention the author’s surname and the publication date (e.g., “It has been mentioned in a recent study on carbon monoxide emissions in the North Atlantic region (Nylan, 2017)”).

4. Questions

Narrow the field of research down to the definite, concrete questions you are going to answer. Examiners often reject proposals because they are too vague and broad, which makes them unfeasible to complete in the allotted timeframe or with the relatively limited resources. For example, if you study the effects of microplastic on marine life, you may narrow it down and focus specifically on the lifecycle of parrotfish, its single yet common representative.

5. Methodology

Your research should be not just feasible and important; you should also carry it out using suitable methods. In this section, you describe how you will approach your task. Tell if your research will be primarily library-based or you are going to do field work. Which libraries are you going to use? What kind of empirical data are you going to collect? How will you do it, and what methods will you use to process and analyze it? Is your expertise enough to use these methods in order to provide trustworthy results?
research methods

6. Significance and Originality

Although your research has to be firmly grounded in the existing knowledge on the subject, it shouldn’t just rehash what is already proven. In this section you explain why your research is novel, how it expands and adds to what is known on the subject, how it can help further investigations in it and how it affects other disciplines.

7. Bibliography/Works Cited

This is simply the list of all the sources of information you have used so far or intend to use in your research. Don’t try to create a comprehensive list of everything written on the topic – your current bibliography does not limit what you can later use in your work.

Post-Writing Stage: How to Polish Your Ecology Research Proposal

The quality of your proposal defines whether your research will be accepted. In a sense, it even determines the course of your future career, especially if it is your first fully independent research project. Therefore, don’t be in a hurry to submit it once you’ve finished writing. Take your time and apply some post-writing polish.

1. Check Grammar, Syntax and Spelling

You may believe that at your academic level you don’t have to bother about such trivial things. However, chances are that you overestimate your mastery of English. Even experienced academic writers make mistakes, and few things spoil the impression more than an obvious blunder you’ve missed. At the very least, use a grammar-checking tool. Better yet, hire an editor or a proofreader.

2. Check if Your Research Question Is Alright

Is it narrow enough? Is your proposal in general feasible? Do you manage to convey your interest and excitement about your research? Have somebody you trust read your proposal and ask him/her what impression it makes.

3. Check for Plagiarism

Are you sure nobody did this research before? Check your sources once again. In addition, make sure you have properly quoted all your literature and listed it in the bibliography.

4. Check for Style

A research proposal’s style should be simple and straightforward. Ideally, even somebody who does not know anything about ecology should be able to grasp its meaning. Therefore, avoid long and complex sentences, unnecessarily complicated words and jargon.

5. Check the Guidelines

Did you strictly follow all the guidelines? Reread them once again and go over the entire proposal with a fine-toothed comb. Lack of compliance with instructions can get even an otherwise very promising proposal rejected.

If even after carefully using this guide your supervisor says that your research proposal needs additional work, don’t be discouraged – it is perfectly normal. Moreover, it is a good sign – if your supervisor doesn’t outright reject it, it means that its core is sound. Usually a research proposal goes through 3 to 4 iterations before it is finally accepted. Follow the steps above, listen to what your advisor has to say, and your efforts will eventually pay off.

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