Research design is a critical element in research proposals. Explaining how and the rationale for choosing a particular design requires a lot of thought and planning. The research design is analogous to architectural plans and builders—poor design results in less than satisfactory results.
The first step in selecting the design of a research proposal is to define the research topic narrowly. One way to do this is to start with a broad topic and continually refine the topic until it is explainable in one concise sentence. For example, "certain aspects of college students' life" is too broad. What aspects of college students' life does the researcher intend to study? This study could focus on students' social lives, academic lives, their participation in clubs, or their use of social media—more narrow subtopics than the original topic.
Here is an example:
The research intends to study how students' use of social media affects academic proficiency.
This statement can narrow further:
The researcher intends to study how students' use of FaceBook affects academic proficiency.
Narrow the focus of the research until the topic is unmistakably precise.
Once the topic is narrow, the research design will often become apparent. Some research designs are not appropriate for certain types of research, whereas others fit like a glove! Using the previous example, the research design probably applicable is a quantitative design or use of statistical data gathered from surveys or other similar sources. It is possible to use a qualitative design or survey the existing research on the topic and summarize the preponderance of the studies. Choosing between quantitative or qualitative methods of research will narrow the focus some more.
Once the focus is narrow, then there are several sub-groups of proposal design to choose from. A descriptive study (using observations, surveys, and case studies) is one subgroup that seems to pair well with the subject. Correlational studies where the researcher uses statistical analysis to correlate cause and effect or establish if there is a relationship between two variables is also a possibility.
The type of research design in the proposal is dependent on three factors. The first is the subject, the second is the applicability of the design to the research, and the third is the comfort level of the researcher with the chosen design. Many researchers are not comfortable with quantitative design because of the heavy emphasis on statistical analysis. Others feel qualitative research lacks mathematical power and is not as valid as a quantitative study. Whatever the design choice is, ultimately, the person conducting the research will provide a rationale for its use and thereby held accountable for the final result.