Postgraduate study

How to write a research proposal

Considering a PhD? You may need to submit a research proposal.

A well-written research proposal will help us assess your suitability for graduate-level research and whether we can support your proposed area of study.

Know your subject

Your research area and the opportunity you are applying for will determine whether you need to produce a research proposal. For example, if you are applying for a specific project such as a studentship, you may not need one. Check the relevant course page for details.

Proposals for arts and social sciences are typically based on an original research question that interests you. 

For engineering, science and health sciences, you should base your proposal on research already being carried out by supervisors at the University. It is important you contact them before you submit your application.

The aim is to show that you understand the fundamental principles of conducting research and the factors to consider when designing a research study. The work you undertake during the course of your PhD may differ to your original proposal. 


Cover the essentials

We don't expect you to have all the answers, but a successful proposal should:

  • clearly define your intended topic 
  • demonstrate that you understand your research area
  • indicate that you have started to develop an original and interesting research question
  • show that you understand how to conduct research
  • look professional – ensure your proposal is well-structured, clear and legible, and free of any spelling or grammatical errors
  • focus on quality rather than quantity

Structure your proposal


This should be clear, concise and describe the theme of your proposal. 


Include a short summary of your proposal, stating the problem or question you plan to address.

Background summary

Identify the study area your proposed thesis falls into, explaining its significance, likely impact and how it will contribute to the field. 


Explain the key aims of your research and the questions you will address in order to achieve them.

Methods and timescale 

Detail how you intend to carry out your research. Will you collect data using libraries, archives, field studies or interviews for example? How you will analyse the data you collect? A schedule of key activities can help demonstrate that your research is achievable within the timeframe of your PhD.


List the publications and sources you have cited in your proposal. You can also include sources you have read in preparation.


Get advice before you submit

We recommend that you discuss your proposal with a member of staff who has expertise in your field. This can also help you identify a potential supervisor. School, department or research centre websites related to your area of study are a good place to start looking. You can also contact us directly.

You can make minor changes to your proposal once you have been accepted for a research degree. However, since your proposal forms the foundation of your working relationship with your supervisor, major changes aren't typically expected. 

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