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
Proposal requirements depend on your research area and the opportunity you are applying for. For example, if you are applying for a specific project such as a studentship, you may not need a proposal. Check the relevant course page for details.
Research proposals for arts and social sciences should typically be 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, so it is important you contact them first.
The aim is to demonstrate that you understand the fundamental principles of conducting research and factors to consider when designing a research study. The work you undertake during the course of your PhD may differ to your 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 that you have checked for any spelling or grammatical errors
- focus on quality rather than quantity – as a guide, we typically look for 1,000 to 3,000 words
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.
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 process can also help you identify a 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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