How to write a research proposal

What is a research proposal.

A research proposal should present your idea or question and expected outcomes with clarity and definition – the what.

It should also make a case for why your question is significant and what value it will bring to your discipline – the why. 

What it shouldn't do is answer the question – that's what your research will do.

Why is it important?

Research proposals are significant because Another reason why it formally outlines your intended research. Which means you need to provide details on how you will go about your research, including:

  • your approach and methodology
  • timeline and feasibility
  • all other considerations needed to progress your research, such as resources.

Think of it as a tool that will help you clarify your idea and make conducting your research easier.

How long should it be?

Usually no more than 2000 words, but check the requirements of your degree, and your supervisor or research coordinator.

Presenting your idea clearly and concisely demonstrates that you can write this way – an attribute of a potential research candidate that is valued by assessors.

What should it include?

Project title.

Your title should clearly indicate what your proposed research is about.

Research supervisor

State the name, department and faculty or school of the academic who has agreed to supervise you. Rest assured, your research supervisor will work with you to refine your research proposal ahead of submission to ensure it meets the needs of your discipline.

Proposed mode of research

Describe your proposed mode of research. Which may be closely linked to your discipline, and is where you will describe the style or format of your research, e.g. data, field research, composition, written work, social performance and mixed media etc. 

This is not required for research in the sciences, but your research supervisor will be able to guide you on discipline-specific requirements.

Aims and objectives

What are you trying to achieve with your research? What is the purpose? This section should reference why you're applying for a research degree. Are you addressing a gap in the current research? Do you want to look at a theory more closely and test it out? Is there something you're trying to prove or disprove? To help you clarify this, think about the potential outcome of your research if you were successful – that is your aim. Make sure that this is a focused statement.

Your objectives will be your aim broken down – the steps to achieving the intended outcome. They are the smaller proof points that will underpin your research's purpose. Be logical in the order of how you present these so that each succeeds the previous, i.e. if you need to achieve 'a' before 'b' before 'c', then make sure you order your objectives a, b, c.

A concise summary of what your research is about. It outlines the key aspects of what you will investigate as well as the expected outcomes. It briefly covers the what, why and how of your research. 

A good way to evaluate if you have written a strong synopsis, is to get somebody to read it without reading the rest of your research proposal. Would they know what your research is about?

Now that you have your question clarified, it is time to explain the why. Here, you need to demonstrate an understanding of the current research climate in your area of interest.

Providing context around your research topic through a literature review will show the assessor that you understand current dialogue around your research, and what is published.

Demonstrate you have a strong understanding of the key topics, significant studies and notable researchers in your area of research and how these have contributed to the current landscape.

Expected research contribution

In this section, you should consider the following:

  • Why is your research question or hypothesis worth asking?
  • How is the current research lacking or falling short?
  • What impact will your research have on the discipline?
  • Will you be extending an area of knowledge, applying it to new contexts, solving a problem, testing a theory, or challenging an existing one?
  • Establish why your research is important by convincing your audience there is a gap.
  • What will be the outcome of your research contribution?
  • Demonstrate both your current level of knowledge and how the pursuit of your question or hypothesis will create a new understanding and generate new information.
  • Show how your research is innovative and original.

Draw links between your research and the faculty or school you are applying at, and explain why you have chosen your supervisor, and what research have they or their school done to reinforce and support your own work. Cite these reasons to demonstrate how your research will benefit and contribute to the current body of knowledge.

Proposed methodology

Provide an overview of the methodology and techniques you will use to conduct your research. Cover what materials and equipment you will use, what theoretical frameworks will you draw on, and how will you collect data.

Highlight why you have chosen this particular methodology, but also why others may not have been as suitable. You need to demonstrate that you have put thought into your approach and why it's the most appropriate way to carry out your research. 

It should also highlight potential limitations you anticipate, feasibility within time and other constraints, ethical considerations and how you will address these, as well as general resources.

A work plan is a critical component of your research proposal because it indicates the feasibility of completion within the timeframe and supports you in achieving your objectives throughout your degree.

Consider the milestones you aim to achieve at each stage of your research. A PhD or master's degree by research can take two to four years of full-time study to complete. It might be helpful to offer year one in detail and the following years in broader terms. Ultimately you have to show that your research is likely to be both original and finished – and that you understand the time involved.

Provide details of the resources you will need to carry out your research project. Consider equipment, fieldwork expenses, travel and a proposed budget, to indicate how realistic your research proposal is in terms of financial requirements and whether any adjustments are needed.

Bibliography

Provide a list of references that you've made throughout your research proposal. 

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How to write a successful research proposal

As the competition for PhD places is incredibly fierce, your research proposal can have a strong bearing on the success of your application - so discover how to make the best impression

What is a research proposal?

Research proposals are used to persuade potential supervisors and funders that your work is worthy of their support. These documents setting out your proposed research that will result in a Doctoral thesis are typically between 1,500 and 3,000 words in length.

Your PhD research proposal must passionately articulate what you want to research and why, convey your understanding of existing literature, and clearly define at least one research question that could lead to new or original knowledge and how you propose to answer it.

Professor Leigh Wilson, director of the graduate school at the University of Westminster, explains that while the research proposal is about work that hasn't been done yet, what prospective supervisors and funders are focusing on just as strongly is evidence of what you've done - how well you know existing literature in the area, including very recent publications and debates, and how clearly you've seen what's missing from this and so what your research can do that's new. Giving a strong sense of this background or frame for the proposed work is crucial.

'Although it's tempting to make large claims and propose research that sweeps across time and space, narrower, more focused research is much more convincing,' she adds. 'To be thorough and rigorous in the way that academic work needs to be, even something as long as a PhD thesis can only cover a fairly narrow topic. Depth not breadth is called for.'

The structure of your research proposal is therefore important to achieving this goal, yet it should still retain sufficient flexibility to comfortably accommodate any changes you need to make as your PhD progresses.

Layout and formats vary, so it's advisable to consult your potential PhD supervisor before you begin. Here's what to bear in mind when writing a research proposal.

Your provisional title should be around ten words in length, and clearly and accurately indicate your area of study and/or proposed approach. It should be catchy, informative and interesting.

The title page should also include personal information, such as your name, academic title, date of birth, nationality and contact details.

Aims and objectives

This is a short summary of your project. Your aims should be two or three broad statements that emphasise what you ultimately want to achieve, complemented by several focused, feasible and measurable objectives - the steps that you'll take to answer each of your research questions. This involves clearly and briefly outlining:

  • how your research addresses a gap in, or builds upon, existing knowledge
  • how your research links to the department that you're applying to
  • the academic, cultural, political and/or social significance of your research questions.

Literature review

This section of your PhD proposal discusses the most important theories, models and texts that surround and influence your research questions, conveying your understanding and awareness of the key issues and debates.

It should focus on the theoretical and practical knowledge gaps that your work aims to address, as this ultimately justifies and provides the motivation for your project.

Methodology

Here, you're expected to outline how you'll answer each of your research questions. A strong, well-written methodology is crucial, but especially so if your project involves extensive collection and significant analysis of primary data.

In disciplines such as humanities the research proposal methodology identifies the data collection and analytical techniques available to you, before justifying the ones you'll use in greater detail. You'll also define the population that you're intending to examine.

You should also show that you're aware of the limitations of your research, qualifying the parameters that you plan to introduce. Remember, it's more impressive to do a fantastic job of exploring a narrower topic than a decent job of exploring a wider one.

Concluding or following on from your methodology, your timetable should identify how long you'll need to complete each step - perhaps using bi-weekly or monthly timeslots. This helps the reader to evaluate the feasibility of your project and shows that you've considered how you'll go about putting the PhD proposal into practice.

Bibliography

Finally, you'll provide a list of the most significant texts, plus any attachments such as your academic CV . Demonstrate your skills in critical reflection by selecting only those resources that are most appropriate.

Final checks

Before submitting this document along with your PhD application, you'll need to ensure that you've adhered to the research proposal format. This means that:

  • every page is numbered
  • it's professional, interesting and informative
  • the research proposal has been proofread by both an experienced academic (to confirm that it conforms to academic standards) and a layman (to correct any grammatical or spelling errors)
  • it has a contents page
  • you've used a clear and easy-to-read structure, with appropriate headings.

Research proposal examples

To get a better idea of how your PhD proposal may look, some universities have provided examples of research proposals for specific subjects:

  • The Open University - Social Policy and Criminology
  • University of Sheffield - Sociological Studies
  • University of Sussex
  • University of York - Politics

Find out more

  • Explore PhD studentships .
  • For tips on writing a thesis, see 7 steps to writing a dissertation .
  • Read more about PhD study .

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How to nail your PhD proposal and get accepted

Bethany Fagan

Bethany Fagan Head of Content Marketing at PandaDoc

Reviewed by

Olga Asheychik

Olga Asheychik Senior Web Analytics Manager at PandaDoc

Getting a PhD placement is not easy, which is why your PhD proposal needs to be passionate and convincing.

A good research proposal may be the deciding factor between acceptance and approval into your desired program or finding yourself back at the drawing board.

Only about 55,000 doctorate degrees are awarded each year, according to the National Science Foundation ( download report ), making the field incredibly competitive.

That’s why a PhD research proposal is important: It formally outlines the intended research, including methodology, timeline, feasibility, and many other factors that need to be taken into consideration.

Here is a closer look at the PhD proposal process and what it should look like.

→DOWNLOAD NOW: FREE PHD PROPOSAL TEMPLATE

Key takeaways

  • A PhD proposal summarizes the research project you intend to conduct as part of your PhD program.
  • These proposals are relatively short (1000-2000 words), and should include all basic information and project goals, including the methodologies/strategies you intend to use in order to accomplish them.
  • Formats are varied. You may be able to create your own formats, but your college or university may have a required document structure that you should follow.

What is a PhD proposal?

In short, a PhD research proposal is a summary of the project you intend to undertake as part of your PhD program.

It should pose a specific question or idea, make a case for the research, and explain the predicted outcomes of that research.

However, while your PhD proposal may predict expected outcomes, it won’t fully answer your questions for the reader.

Your research into the topic will provide that answer.

Usually, a PhD proposal contains the following elements:

  • A clear question that you intend to answer through copious amounts of study and research.
  • Your plan to answer that question, including any methodologies, frameworks, and resources required to adequately find the answer.
  • Why your question or project is significant to your specific field of study.
  • How your proposal impacts, challenges, or improves the existing body of knowledge around a given topic.
  • Why your work is important and why you should be the one to receive this opportunity.

In terms of length, there isn’t a universal answer.

Some institutions will require a short, concise proposal (1000 words), while others allow for a greater amount of flexibility in the length and format of the proposal.

Fortunately, most institutions will provide some guidelines regarding the format and length of your research proposal, so you should have a strong idea of your requirements before you begin.

Benefits of a strong PhD application

While the most obvious benefit of having a strong PhD application is being accepted to the PhD program , there are other reasons to build the strongest PhD application you can:

Better funding opportunities

Many PhD programs offer funding to students, which can be used to cover tuition fees and may provide a stipend for living expenses.

The stronger your PhD application, the better your chances of being offered funding opportunities that can alleviate financial burdens and allow you to focus on your research.

Enhanced academic credentials

A strong PhD application, particularly in hot-button areas of study, can lead to better career opportunities in academics or across a variety of industries.

Opportunities for networking and research

Research proposals that are very well grounded can provide footholds to networking opportunities and mentorships that would not be otherwise available.

However, creating an incredible proposal isn’t always easy.

In fact, it’s easy to get confused by the process since it requires a lot of procedural information.

Many institutions also place a heavy emphasis on using the correct proposal structure.

That doesn’t have to be the issue, though.

Often, pre-designed templates, like the PandaDoc research proposal templates or PhD proposal templates provided by the institution of your choice, can do most of the heavy lifting for you.

With all of that in mind, let’s take a closer look at each section of a standard PhD research proposal.

writing phd research proposal

Research Proposal Template

Used 7990 times

Legally reviewed by Olga Asheychik

1. Front matter

The first pages of your proposal should outline the basic information about the project. That will include each of the following:

Project title

Typically placed on the first page, your title should be engaging enough to attract attention and clear enough that readers will understand what you’re trying to achieve.

Many proposals also include a secondary headline to further (concisely) clarify the main concept.

Contact information

Depending on the instructions provided by your institution, you may need to include your basic contact information with your proposal.

Some institutions may ask for blind submissions and ask that you omit identifying information, so check the program guidelines to be sure.

Research supervisor

If you already have a supervisor for the project, you’ll typically want to list that information.

Someone who is established in the field can add credibility to your proposal, particularly if your project requires extensive funding or has special considerations.

The guidelines from your PhD program should provide some guidance regarding any other auxiliary information that you should add to the front of your proposal.

Be sure to check all documentation to ensure that everything fits into the designated format.

2. Goals, summaries, and objectives

Once you’ve added the basic information to your document, you’ll need to get into the meat of your proposal.

Depending on your institution, your proposal may need to follow a rigid format or you may have the flexibility to add various sections and fully explain your concepts.

These sections will primarily be focused on providing high-level overviews surrounding your proposal, including most of the following:

Overall aims, objectives, and goals

In these sections, you’ll need to state plainly what you aim to accomplish with your research.

If awarded funding, what questions will your proposal seek to answer? What theories will you test? What concepts will you explore?

Briefly, how would you summarize your approach to this project?

Provide high-level summaries detailing how you mean to achieve your answers, what the predicted outcomes of your research might be, and precisely what you intend to test or discover.

Significance

Why does your research matter? Unlike with many other forms of academic study (such as a master’s thesis ), doctorate-level research often pushes the bounds of specific fields or contributes to a given body of work in some unique way.

How will your proposed research do those things?

Background details

Because PhD research is about pushing boundaries, adding background context regarding the current state of affairs in your given field can help readers better understand why you want to pursue this research and how you arrived at this specific point of interest.

While the information here may (or may not) be broken into multiple sections, the content here is largely designed to provide a high-level overview of your proposal and entice readers to dig deeper into the methodologies and angles of approach in future sections.

Because so much of this section relies on the remainder of your document, it’s sometimes better to skip this portion of the document until the later sections are complete and then circle back to it.

That way, you can provide concise summaries that refer to fully defined research methods that you’ve already explained in subsequent areas.

3. Methodologies and plans

Unlike a master’s thesis or a similar academic document, PhD research is designed to push the boundaries of its subject matter in some way.

The idea behind doctoral research is to expand the field with new insights and viewpoints that are the culmination of years of research and study, combined with a deep familiarity of the topic at hand.

The methodologies and work plans you provide will give advisors some insights into how you plan to conduct your research.

While there is no one right way to develop this section, you’ll need to include a few key details:

Research methods

Are there specific research methods you plan to use to conduct your research?

Are you conducting experiments? Conducting qualitative research? Surveying specific individuals in a given environment?

Benefits and drawbacks of your approach

Regardless of your approach to your topic, there will be upsides and downsides to that methodology.

Explain what you feel are the primary benefits to your research method, where there are potential flaws, and how you plan to account for those shortfalls.

Choice of methodology

Why did you choose a given methodology?

What makes it the best method (or collection of methods) for your research and/or specific use case?

Outline of proposed work

What work is required for research to be complete?

What steps will you need to take in order to capture the appropriate information? How will you complete those steps?

Schedule of work (including timelines/deadlines)

How long will it take you to complete each stage or step of your project?

If your project will take several years, you may need to provide specifics for more immediate timelines up front while future deadlines may be flexible or estimated.

There is some flexibility here.

It’s unlikely that your advisors will expect you to have the answer for every question regarding how you plan to approach your body of research.

When trying to push the boundaries of any given topic, it’s expected that some things may not go to plan.

However, you should do your best to make timelines and schedules of work that are consistent with your listed goals.

Remember : At the end of your work, you are expected to have a body of original research that is complete within the scope and limitations of the proposal you set forth.

If your advisors feel that your subject matter is too broad, they may encourage you to narrow the scope to better fit into more standardized expectations.

4. Resources and citations

No PhD research proposal is complete without a full list of the resources required to carry out the project and references to help prove and validate the research.

Here’s a closer look at what you’ll need to submit in order to explain costs and prove the validity of your proposal:

Estimated costs and resources

Most doctoral programs offer some level of funding for these projects.

To take advantage of those funds, you’ll need to submit a budget of estimated costs so that assessors can better understand the financial requirements.

This might include equipment, expenses for fieldwork or travel, and more.

Citations and bibliographies

No matter your field of study, doctoral research is built on the data and observations provided by past contributors.

Because of this, you’ll need to provide citations and sources referenced in your proposal documentation.

Particularly when it comes to finances and funding, it might be tempting to downplay the cost of the project.

However, it’s best to provide a realistic estimate in terms of costs so that you have enough of a budget to cover the project.

Adjustments can be made at a later date, particularly as you conduct more research and dive further into the project.

Resources are often presented in the form of a table to make things easier to track and identify.

Using templates to build your PhD proposal

Aside from any guidelines set forth by your institution, there are no particularly strict rules when it comes to the format of PhD proposals.

Your supervisor will be more than capable of guiding you through the process.

However, since everything is so structured and formal, you might want to use a template to help you get started.

Templates can help you stay on track and make sure your proposal follows a certain logic.

A lot of proposal software solutions offer templates for different types of proposals, including PhD proposals.

But, should you use a template? Here are some pros and cons to help you make a decision.

  • Expedites the proposal process.
  • Helps you jumpstart the process with a flexible document structure.
  • Often provides sections with pre-filled examples.
  • Looks better than your average Word document.
  • May be limiting if you adhere to it too much.
  • Might not be perfectly suited to your specific field of research, requiring some customization.

In our research proposal template , we give you just enough direction to help you follow through but we don’t limit your creativity to a point that you can’t express yourself and all the nuances of your research.

For almost all sections, you get a few useful examples to point you in the right direction.

The template provides you with a typical PhD proposal structure that’s perfect for almost all disciplines.

It can come in quite handy when you have everything planned out in your head but you’re just having trouble putting it onto the page!

Conclusion: Writing a PhD proposal

Writing and completing a PhD proposal might be confusing at first.

You need to follow a certain logic and share all the required information without going too long or sharing too much about the project.

And, while your supervisor will certainly be there to guide you, the brunt of the work will still fall on your shoulders.

That’s why you need to stay informed, do your research, and don’t give up until you feel comfortable with what you’ve created.

If you want to get a head start, you might want to consider our research proposal template .

It will offer you a structure to follow and give you an idea on what to write in each section.

Start your free trial with PandaDoc and check out all the tools you’ll have at your disposal!

Frequently asked questions

How long should a phd proposal be.

There really isn’t a specific rule when it comes to the length of a PhD proposal. However, it’s generally accepted that it should be between 1,000 and 2,000 words. It’s difficult to elaborate on such a serious project in less than 1,000 words but going over 2,000 is often overkill. You’ll lose people’s attention and water down your points.

What’s the difference between a dissertation proposal and a PhD proposal?

There seems to be some confusion over the terms “dissertation” and “PhD” and how you write proposals for each one. However, “dissertation” is just another name for your PhD research so the proposal for a dissertation would be the same since it’s quite literally the same thing.

Does a PhD proposal include budgeting?

Yes, as mentioned, you need to demonstrate the feasibility of your project within the given time frame and with the resources you need, including budgets. You don’t need to be exact, but you need to have accurate estimates for everything.

How is a PhD proposal evaluated?

This will change from one institution to another but these things will generally have a big impact on the reviewers:

  • The contribution of the project to the field.
  • Design and feasibility of the project.
  • The validity of the methodology and objectives.
  • The supervisor and their role in the field.

PandDoc is not a law firm, or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. This page is not intended to and does not provide legal advice. Should you have legal questions on the validity of e-signatures or digital signatures and the enforceability thereof, please consult with an attorney or law firm. Use of PandaDocs services are governed by our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

Originally published September 14, 2021, updated June 8, 2023

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  • Department of Sociological Studies

Writing a research proposal

Guidelines on preparing a thesis proposal to support your application.

Student in seminar typing on laptop

These guidelines are intended to assist you in developing and writing a thesis proposal. Applications for admission to a research degree cannot be dealt with unless they contain a proposal.

Your proposal will help us to make sure that:

  • The topic is viable
  • That the department can provide appropriate supervision and other necessary support
  • You have thought through your interest in and commitment to a piece of research
  • You are a suitable candidate for admission

The process of producing a proposal is usually also essential if you need to apply for funding to pay your fees or support yourself whilst doing your research. Funding bodies will often need to be reassured that you are committed to a viable project at a suitable university.

The research proposal – an outline

Your proposal should be typed double-spaced, if possible, and be between 1,000 and 2,000 words. Your PhD proposal can be added under the 'Supporting Documents' section of the Postgraduate Applications Online System .

Your proposal should contain at least the following elements:

  • A provisional title
  • A key question, hypothesis or the broad topic for investigation
  • An outline of the key aims of the research
  • A brief outline of key literature in the area [what we already know]
  • A description of the topic and an explanation of why further research in the area is important [the gap in the literature - what we need to know]
  • Details of how the research will be carried out, including any special facilities / resources etc. which would be required and any necessary skills which you either have already or would need to acquire [the tools that will enable us to fill the gap you have identified]
  • A plan and timetable of the work you will carry out

For more detailed information on each element of your research proposal, see our extended guidance document .

Three additional points:

  • Try to be concise. Do not write too much – be as specific as you can but not wordy. It is a difficult balance to strike.
  • Bear in mind that the proposal is a starting point. If you are registered to read for a PhD you will be able to work the proposal through with your supervisor in more detail in the early months.
  • Take a look at the Department’s staff profiles, research centres, and research clusters. Can you identify possible supervisors and intellectual support networks within the Department?

Examples of Successful PhD Proposals

  • PhD sample proposal 1
  • PhD sample proposal 2
  • PhD sample proposal 3
  • PhD sample proposal 4
  • PhD sample proposal 5
  • PhD sample proposal 6
  • PhD sample proposal 7
  • PhD sample proposal 8

Related information

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Writing your research proposal

How to write a PhD research proposal

Creating a focused and well-written research proposal - a concise and coherent summary of your proposed research - is an essential part of a successful PhD application.

A research proposal is normally required for self-funded PhDs (where you develop your own idea for a thesis), but isn't usually needed for funded studentships or pre-defined research projects.

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal sets out the central issues or questions that you intend to address. It outlines the general area of study within which your research falls, referring to the current state of knowledge and any recent debates on the topic. It should also demonstrate the originality of your proposed research.

What it should include

As a guide, research proposals should be around 2,000-3,000 words and contain:

  • A title – this is just tentative and can be revised over the course of your research
  • An abstract – a concise statement of your intended research
  • Context - a brief overview of the general area of study within which your proposed research falls, summarising the current state of knowledge and recent debates on the topic
  • Research questions - central aims and questions that will guide your research
  • Research methods - outline of how you are going to conduct your research, for example, visiting particular libraries or archives, field work or interviews
  • Research significance - demonstrate the originality of your intended research
  • A bibliography.

Crucially, it is also an opportunity for you to communicate your passion for the subject area and to make a persuasive argument about the impact your project can achieve.

Your research proposal will be assessed by our academic schools to assess the quality of your proposed research and  to establish whether they have the expertise to support your proposed area of PhD study.

Thesis writing classes and support for international research students

The University’s English Language Centre (ELC)  provides thesis writing support for international PhD students. Classes run throughout semesters one and two and are designed to help develop the academic writing skills needed to write up research effectively.

The sessions are taught by tutors with their own research experience. They have PhDs themselves and have many years of experience in analysing writing in different disciplines.

The course also provides an opportunity for students to receive individual feedback on samples of their own writing.

The following classes are available:

  • Thesis Writing for Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine
  • Thesis Writing for Humanities and Social Sciences

In addition to these thesis writing classes, the ELC also provides a 1:1 Academic Writing Consultation service.

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Guide to Writing a PhD Research Proposal

Writing a research proposal for doctoral applications.

As part of your application to any of the doctoral/masters by research programmes at DCU Business School, you are required to complete a research proposal. In this proposal, you describe the research you plan to undertake. As such, it is a vital part of your application process.

The research proposal involves a considerable amount of preparation. You will be expected to have refined your initial research ideas through critical analysis of some of the academic literature relevant to your topic. You will also be expected to have reflected on the nature of your proposed research and its impact. In this document, we present a set of guidelines to show you what is involved in the writing of a research proposal and to help you structure your research proposal effectively.

What should the research proposal consist of?

In essence, your research proposal should answer three questions:

  • What do you want to investigate?
  • Why do you want to investigate it?
  • How are you going to investigate it?

Your aim is to demonstrate that you have begun the process of refining your ideas for a research topic and that you have the capability to research at the level of the programme. One of the ways to demonstrate this is to show how your research idea relates to published research. You need also to show that you have given some thought as to why your research ideas are worth researching.

How should the research proposal be structured?

Below, we give a suggested structure for the research proposal. There are five main sections.

Section One: Introduction (200 words in length)

In this section, you should aim to give a clear, concise description of your research idea. This requires some skill in writing economically and you may find it easier to complete your introduction after you have written a draft of the full proposal.

Section Two: Preliminary Literature Review (1,500 words in length)

In this section you should give a brief summary of some of the academic literature that will inform your analysis of the issue or problem you present in the introduction. Try to answer the following questions. They are designed to make you think about the relationship between the existing academic literature and your own research idea.

  • What are the main concepts introduced in this literature and how are they defined?
  • What are the main questions this literature attempts to address?
  • What are the different theories that exist in this literature?
  • What is the empirical support for these theories?
  • In what ways do you think this literature will help you understand more about the research idea you wish to research?

Avoid giving a history of the evolution of a concept or a body of knowledge. Instead, focus on the contemporary state of knowledge on your topic.

Section Three: Proposed Research Methodology (800 words in length)

In this section, you should outline the research methods you intend using to gather data for your research. It is important to ensure that the methods you choose give you the appropriate data to answer the research questions you pose in your introduction. For example, if you want to explore a process, as opposed to a structure or an outcome, i.e. how a certain situation was arrived at over time, qualitative analysis may be more appropriate than quantitative analysis. If you want to assess a general mood or attitude across a large group of individuals, quantitative analysis would be a suitable technique. Remember, however, that quantitative and qualitative research methods are not mutually exclusive and you may feel that a mixed methodology is appropriate. It is important to mention any obstacles you perceive as impacting upon your research plan.

Try to answer the following questions. They may help you to clarify your proposed methodological approach.

  • Whose opinions, attitudes and beliefs do you want to assess (i.e. who will provide the raw data for your research)?
  • What data sources might you use?
  • Why will these data help you answer the research questions you’ve posed?
  • Do you want to see how these individuals’ attitudes have changed over time, what their attitudes are about a particular event or situation?

Section Four: Justification for Proposed Research (1,000 words in length)

In this section, you should discuss why you feel your research topic and proposed study is important. You should outline planned contributions to existing academic knowledge, existing theories, methodology, practice and policy.

Section Five: Preliminary Bibliography

In this section, you should give an alphabetical list of all published material you have read on the issue you intend researching. For the most part, you should confine your reading to academic research published in academic journals. (This section is not included in the total word count for the research proposal).

writing phd research proposal

How to Write a PhD Research Proposal

  • Applying to a PhD
  • A research proposal summarises your intended research.
  • Your research proposal is used to confirm you understand the topic, and that the university has the expertise to support your study.
  • The length of a research proposal varies. It is usually specified by either the programme requirements or the supervisor upon request. 1500 to 3500 words is common.
  • The typical research proposal structure consists of: Title, Abstract, Background and Rationale, Research Aims and Objectives, Research Design and Methodology, Timetable, and a Bibliography.

What is a Research Proposal?

A research proposal is a supporting document that may be required when applying to a research degree. It summarises your intended research by outlining what your research questions are, why they’re important to your field and what knowledge gaps surround your topic. It also outlines your research in terms of your aims, methods and proposed timetable .

What Is It Used for and Why Is It Important?

A research proposal will be used to:

  • Confirm whether you understand the topic and can communicate complex ideas.
  • Confirm whether the university has adequate expertise to support you in your research topic.
  • Apply for funding or research grants to external bodies.

How Long Should a PhD Research Proposal Be?

Some universities will specify a word count all students will need to adhere to. You will typically find these in the description of the PhD listing. If they haven’t stated a word count limit, you should contact the potential supervisor to clarify whether there are any requirements. If not, aim for 1500 to 3500 words (3 to 7 pages).

Your title should indicate clearly what your research question is. It needs to be simple and to the point; if the reader needs to read further into your proposal to understand your question, your working title isn’t clear enough.

Directly below your title, state the topic your research question relates to. Whether you include this information at the top of your proposal or insert a dedicated title page is your choice and will come down to personal preference.

2. Abstract

If your research proposal is over 2000 words, consider providing an abstract. Your abstract should summarise your question, why it’s important to your field and how you intend to answer it; in other words, explain your research context.

Only include crucial information in this section – 250 words should be sufficient to get across your main points.

3. Background & Rationale

First, specify which subject area your research problem falls in. This will help set the context of your study and will help the reader anticipate the direction of your proposed research.

Following this, include a literature review . A literature review summarises the existing knowledge which surrounds your research topic. This should include a discussion of the theories, models and bodies of text which directly relate to your research problem. As well as discussing the information available, discuss those which aren’t. In other words, identify what the current gaps in knowledge are and discuss how this will influence your research. Your aim here is to convince the potential supervisor and funding providers of why your intended research is worth investing time and money into.

Last, discuss the key debates and developments currently at the centre of your research area.

4. Research Aims & Objectives

Identify the aims and objectives of your research. The aims are the problems your project intends to solve; the objectives are the measurable steps and outcomes required to achieve the aim.

In outlining your aims and objectives, you will need to explain why your proposed research is worth exploring. Consider these aspects:

  • Will your research solve a problem?
  • Will your research address a current gap in knowledge?
  • Will your research have any social or practical benefits?

If you fail to address the above questions, it’s unlikely they will accept your proposal – all PhD research projects must show originality and value to be considered.

5. Research Design and Methodology

The following structure is recommended when discussing your research design:

  • Sample/Population – Discuss your sample size, target populations, specimen types etc.
  • Methods – What research methods have you considered, how did you evaluate them and how did you decide on your chosen one?
  • Data Collection – How are you going to collect and validate your data? Are there any limitations?
  • Data Analysis – How are you going to interpret your results and obtain a meaningful conclusion from them?
  • Ethical Considerations – Are there any potential implications associated with your research approach? This could either be to research participants or to your field as a whole on the outcome of your findings (i.e. if you’re researching a particularly controversial area). How are you going to monitor for these implications and what types of preventive steps will you need to put into place?

6. Timetable

PhD Project Plan - PhD research proposal

We’ve outlined the various stages of a PhD and the approximate duration of a PhD programme which you can refer to when designing your own research study.

7. Bibliography

Plagiarism is taken seriously across all academic levels, but even more so for doctorates. Therefore, ensure you reference the existing literature you have used in writing your PhD proposal. Besides this, try to adopt the same referencing style as the University you’re applying to uses. You can easily find this information in the PhD Thesis formatting guidelines published on the University’s website.

Finding a PhD has never been this easy – search for a PhD by keyword, location or academic area of interest.

Questions & Answers

Here are answers to some of the most common questions we’re asked about the Research Proposal:

Can You Change a Research Proposal?

Yes, your PhD research proposal outlines the start of your project only. It’s well accepted that the direction of your research will develop with time, therefore, you can revise it at later dates.

Can the Potential Supervisor Review My Draft Proposal?

Whether the potential supervisor will review your draft will depend on the individual. However, it is highly advisable that you at least attempt to discuss your draft with them. Even if they can’t review it, they may provide you with useful information regarding their department’s expertise which could help shape your PhD proposal. For example, you may amend your methodology should you come to learn that their laboratory is better equipped for an alternative method.

How Should I Structure and Format My Proposal?

Ensure you follow the same order as the headings given above. This is the most logical structure and will be the order your proposed supervisor will expect.

Most universities don’t provide formatting requirements for research proposals on the basis that they are a supporting document only, however, we recommend that you follow the same format they require for their PhD thesis submissions. This will give your reader familiarity and their guidelines should be readily available on their website.

Last, try to have someone within the same academic field or discipline area to review your proposal. The key is to confirm that they understand the importance of your work and how you intend to execute it. If they don’t, it’s likely a sign you need to rewrite some of your sections to be more coherent.

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