Writing a research proposal

What is a research proposal? 

Getting your research proposal right is a critical part of the PhD application process if you’re not choosing an advertised project and want to conduct your own research idea.  

It’s essentially your sales pitch to showcase your proposed research topic, why it’s relevant to the wider world – and why you’re the best person to carry it out. It’s the first time the School will see your project idea, so it’s vital this proposal conveys the importance and originality of your research, based on current knowledge and existing literature surrounding the topic. 

As well as the ‘why’, you’ll also detail how you’re going to approach your research, what you hope to achieve and the potential impact your project will have. 

What should your proposal include? 

Below is an outline of the elements a research proposal might typically include: 

  1. Title page – A clear and succinct description of your research 

  1. Introduction (250-350 words) – A brief explanation of what you propose to research, why the research is of value, where its originality lies and how it contributes to the literature. You can also demonstrate any aims and objectives of your research in this section. 

  1. Literature review (1,200-1,400 words) – A thorough examination of key, recent contributions in research periodicals relating to the area of research in question. You should use the literature review to identify gaps in – or problems with – existing research to justify why further or new research is required. You should include a clear statement of your research questions. 

  1. Research Method (1,200-1,400 words) – A description of your choice of methodology, including details of methods of data collection and analysis. 

  1. Conclusion (200-250 words) – A summary of your project which collates the key points clearly. Remember, this is your final chance to convey why the School should choose your project – so make it compelling. 

  1. Bibliography/ References – Any literature cited in the proposal should be listed at the end of the document. Broadly speaking, Harvard referencing is the preferred style. 

Top tips to making your proposal great  

  • Keep it succinct and clear – try not to overcomplicate or go into excessive detail at this stage. The proposal is the starting point so make sure you’re getting across the key points in a structured, concise and clear way.  

  • Demonstrate your expertise – this proposal is your chance to really showcase your knowledge and skills in the area you’re hoping to research so don’t hold back. Use this opportunity to demonstrate exactly why you’re the best person to conduct this project. 

  • Proof your work – ensuring your proposal is free of spelling or grammar errors is so important. You want to explain your project in the best way possible, without mistakes distracting the flow and, therefore, the impact of what you’re saying. Plus, it shows you have a critical eye which is one of the key skills you’ll need for your PhD. 

  • Make it compelling – Yes, your proposal is a factual document, but it also needs to stand out. Letting your passion, originality and drive for your chosen topic shine through will help give your proposal the edge in this highly competitive process.