What is a research proposal?
For comprehensive advice please download our How to write a research proposal guide.
Your research proposal needs to outline the nature of your proposed research project and give some indication of how you will conduct your research. It is an integral part of the postgraduate research application process, so it is certainly worth investing time and energy into it.
Your research proposal should leave a positive first impression upon the reader about your ‘fitness’ to study a PhD. It is your project, so it is important to demonstrate leadership in this first stage of the application process. An ideal proposal should leave the reader feeling in no doubt that you have done some preliminary research about your subject and that you are knowledgeable and ready to tackle the challenges of a PhD.
Give your proposal your utmost attention and time, but also be realistic ‐ you are not expected to know everything at this stage. Your proposal can also be flexible. It is not a contract. Always ask someone else to read your proposal before you submit it, and to offer you some critical but supportive feedback.
Remember that a research proposal is about what you want to study; it immediately reflects your initial understanding of, and commitment to, PhD study. A research proposal can and should make a positive and powerful first impression about your potential to become a good researcher. Importantly, the main purpose is to enable the university to assess whether you are a good ‘match’ for our supervisors and our areas of research expertise.
Therefore, in a good research proposal you will need to demonstrate two main things:
- that you are capable of independent critical thinking and analysis
- that you are capable of communicating your ideas clearly
Applying for a PhD is like applying for a job, you are not applying for a taught programme. When you start a PhD you will become a valued researcher in an academic department. Through your research proposal your colleagues want to know whether they can work with you, and whether your ideas are focussed, interesting and realistic. Try and impress them!
Your proposal should be indicative and it should outline your areas of interest and your general insight into the research topic. You are not expected to be an expert and to be familiar with all the specific details of your subject. However, you are expected to have a good level of knowledge about the subject and where you might make a valuable contribution to research. The perfect research proposal should leave the reader interested, excited and wanting to find out more about your ideas, and about you!
Before you write a research proposal, the first step should be to provide a 500-word outline of your proposed research project. You should then forward this to any academic you feel would best suit your proposed project – you can find contact details for staff on the individual subject websites. If you receive a positive response, you can then plan to submit a formal application in the form of a research proposal.
Your proposal must specify the area of your proposed research and should cover relevance, theoretical perspectives, research methodology, and sources of data. Your proposal is your calling card. It is your chance to sell yourself and your research to prospective supervisors. Competition for places is fierce, and many students apply to us with excellent Bachelors and Masters degrees from around the world. Your proposal is your way of setting yourself apart from the crowd. So, you should work hard to submit the best possible application.
Putting together your document
There is no set formula for your research proposal in terms of length or what you include in it. It is quality, not quantity, that counts to demonstrate that you have a clear and concise way of thinking. Your proposal should explain your project, establish its importance, and set out how you are going to complete it in the time allowed.
PhD-level study, quite literally, encompasses an almost infinite variety of topics and projects. It is for this reason that prescribing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ method for research proposal writing is a difficult task, but the strongest proposals are likely to contain many of the following:
Background – You should establish the context to, and rationale for, your research based on a reading of the relevant academic and/or practitioner literature. Where possible, cite relevant authors and studies, and explain how this research builds on your previous academic work or professional experience. You should discuss the intellectual importance of your work, its contribution to your subject area, and its originality, which, in time, form three of the four main criteria for assessing your PhD.
Aims and objectives – Set out the central aims and research questions that guide your research. What hypothesis or argument are you trying to explore and what questions are you trying to answer? Set out your terms of reference clearly and precisely. These may cover what you intend to achieve by the research in general and, more specifically, how the research fits the background and the outcomes from the project.
Methods and techniques – Explain how your approach to collecting and analysing information will help you satisfy your aims and objectives. Potential data collection methods and possible analytical techniques give a sense of the direction of the research. Explain the choices behind case study organisations or locations, as well as sampling strategies or particular computer-based techniques.
Rationale - contextualise your questions/aims in a broader field of study, identifying the main literature that you are addressing. You need to explain why your research questions/hypotheses are important and topical.
Project management – You don’t need to produce a detailed time plan because research projects evolve. However, it is extremely useful to explain in general terms what you are proposing to do, and when, in order to get a sense of the scale of the task. This is especially important if you are proposing to undertake case study work or fieldwork.
Ethics – Almost inevitably your research will raise some ethical issues and you should aspire to conduct your research with the highest ethical standards.
Health and safety – All types of research have implications for health and safety, albeit some types of work are more risky than others. Where appropriate your proposal should seek to identify any issues and explain how you may address them.
References – Please enter a reference list using Harvard Notation. It is useful for potential supervisors to better understand the breadth and depth of your reading to date.
Appendices – These are a useful way of including additional supporting material while keeping the main body of the proposal succinct.
Timeline – You don’t need to produce a detailed time plan, but it is helpful to provide a summary of what you are planning to do and when. You will be expected to submit your thesis within three years (six years for part-time students) so it is important you have a feasible timeline. This section is especially important if you are proposing to undertake case study work or fieldwork.
Bibliography – a short bibliography of relevant works in your research area.
How long should a good research proposal be?
A good research proposal is as long as it takes, but a guide would be 1,500-2,500 words. Remember that it is meant to be an accurate overview, not a thesis, so you need to provide enough detail for the reader to understand it. A paragraph would not be enough and 5,000 words likely too much.
The '3Cs' rule
When you have written your research proposal, ask a friend to read it critically and provide you with feedback. Also, ask yourself whether it follows the '3Cs' rule:
- Clear - is what you have written intelligible and clearly articulated? Does it make sense, or is it vague and confusing? Does your proposal leave the reader with a clear sense of the purpose and direction of your research project?
- Concise - have you written your proposal in a succinct and focused way?
- Coherent - does your proposal link together well so that it tells the reader a short story about what you want to do, why you want to do it and how you will do it?
If you can answer all of these questions with confidence, you have probably put together a good proposal.
Depending on your project and the wider field it is a part of, you may want to include a paragraph on how you would go about spreading the ideas discussed in your research to the academic community, and in some cases the organisation arranging your funding. This could be anything, from traditional sources such as publications and seminars, to more contemporary methods such as blogs, vlogs and exhibitions.
To protect yourself from accusations of plagiarism please make sure that all your references are present, correct and up-to-date at the time of submission. In order to ensure you have correctly referenced, it is sensible to include publications in your bibliography that influenced your thoughts and arguments in any way, even if they are not quoted from directly. If you have used quotations from other academics, please check you have used quotation marks and a citation.
A good research proposal should not be complicated. However, it can be challenging to write and it is important to get right. A PhD is challenging, so it is good training working on your research proposal. Although there is no exact prescribed format for a general research proposal (across all subjects), a research proposal should generally include six main sections, as detailed below:
1: A clear working title for your research project
- What will you call your project?
- What key words would describe your proposal?
2: A clear statement about what you want to work on and why it is important, interesting, relevant and realistic
- What are your main research objectives? These could be articulated as hypotheses, propositions, research questions, or problems to solve
- What difference do you think your research will make?
- Why does this research excite you?
- What research ‘gaps’ will you be filling by undertaking your project?
- How might your research ‘add value’ to the subject?
- Is your research achievable in the time allocated? (e.g. 3 years full‐time)
3: Some background knowledge and context of the area in which you wish to work, including key literature, key people, key research findings
- How does your work link to the work of others in the same field or related fields?
- Would your work support or contest the work of others?
- How does your work relate to the expertise within the department you are applying to?
4: Some consideration of the methods/approach you might use
- How will you conduct your research?
- Will you use existing theories, new methods/approaches or develop new methods/approaches?
- How might you design your project to get the best results/findings?
5: Some indication of the strategy and timetable for your research project and any research challenges you may face
- What would be the main stages of your project?
- What would you be expecting to do in each year of your PhD?
- What challenges might you encounter and how might your overcome these?
6: A list of the key references which support your research proposal
- References should be listed in the appropriate convention for your subject area (e.g. Harvard). Such references should be used throughout your research proposal to demonstrate that you have read and understood the work of others
- Other relevant material that you are aware of, but not actually used in writing your proposal, can also be added as a bibliography
All of the above six sections are important but section 2 is particularly important because in any research project, establishing your main purpose represents the whole basis for completing the research programme. Therefore, the value of your proposed research is assessed in relation to your research aims and objectives.