how to write a phd 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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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 PhD proposal

How to write a good PhD proposal

Study tips Published 3 Mar, 2022  ·  5-minute read

Want to make sure your research degree starts smoothly? We spoke with 2 PhD candidates about overcoming this initial hurdle. Here’s their advice for how to write a good PhD proposal.

Writing your research proposal is an integral part of commencing a PhD with many schools and institutes, so it can feel rather intimidating. After all, how you come up with your PhD proposal could be the difference between your supervisor getting on board or giving your project a miss.

Let’s explore how to make a PhD research proposal with UQ candidates Chelsea Janke and Sarah Kendall. 

Look at PhD proposal examples

Chelsea Janke quote

Look at other PhD proposals that have been successful. Ask current students if you can look at theirs.

Nobody’s asking you to reinvent the wheel when it comes to writing your PhD proposal – leave that for your actual thesis. For now, while you’re just working out how to write a PhD proposal, examples are a great starting point.

Chelsea knows this step is easier if you’ve got a friend who is already doing a PhD, but there are other ways to find a good example or template.

“Look at other PhD proposals that have been successful,” she says.

“Ask current students if you can look at theirs.”

“If you don’t know anyone doing their PhD, look online to get an idea of how they should be structured.”

What makes this tricky is that proposals can vary greatly by field and disciplinary norms, so you should check with your proposed supervisor to see if they have a specific format or list of criteria to follow. Part of writing a good PhD proposal is submitting it in a style that's familiar to the people who will read and (hopefully) become excited by it and want to bring you into their research area.

Here are some of the key factors to consider when structuring your proposal:

  • meeting the expected word count (this can range from a 1-page maximum to a 3,000-word minimum depending on your supervisor and research area)
  • making your bibliography as detailed as necessary
  • outlining the research questions you’ll be trying to solve/answer
  • discussing the impact your research could have on your field
  • conducting preliminary analysis of existing research on the topic
  • documenting details of the methods and data sources you’ll use in your research
  • introducing your supervisor(s)  and how their experience relates to your project.

Please note this isn't a universal list of things you need in your PhD research proposal. Depending on your supervisor's requirements, some of these items may be unnecessary or there may be other inclusions not listed here.

Ask your planned supervisor for advice

Alright, here’s the thing. If sending your research proposal is your first point of contact with your prospective supervisor, you’ve jumped the gun a little.

You should have at least one researcher partially on board with your project before delving too deep into your proposal. This ensures you’re not potentially spending time and effort on an idea that no one has any appetite for. Plus, it unlocks a helpful guide who can assist with your proposal.

PhD research isn’t like Shark Tank – you’re allowed to confer with academics and secure their support before you pitch your thesis to them. Discover how to choose the right PhD supervisor for you.

For a time-efficient strategy, Chelsea recommends you approach your potential supervisor(s) and find out if:

  • they have time to supervise you
  • they have any funds to help pay for your research (even with a stipend scholarship , your research activities may require extra money)
  • their research interests align with yours (you’ll ideally discover a mutual ground where you both benefit from the project).

“The best way to approach would be to send an email briefly outlining who you are, your background, and what your research interests are,” says Chelsea.

“Once you’ve spoken to a potential supervisor, then you can start drafting a proposal and you can even ask for their input.”

Chelsea's approach here works well with some academics, but keep in mind that other supervisors will want to see a research proposal straight away. If you're not sure of your proposed supervisor's preferences, you may like to cover both bases with an introductory email that has a draft of your research proposal attached.

Sarah agrees that your prospective supervisor is your most valuable resource for understanding how to write a research proposal for a PhD application.

“My biggest tip for writing a research proposal is to ask your proposed supervisor for help,” says Sarah.

“Or if this isn’t possible, ask another academic who has had experience writing research proposals.”

“They’ll be able to tell you what to include or what you need to improve on.”

Find the 'why' and focus on it

Sarah Kendall quote

One of the key aspects of your research proposal is emphasising why your project is important and should be funded.

Your PhD proposal should include your major question, your planned methods, the sources you’ll cite, and plenty of other nitty gritty details. But perhaps the most important element of your proposal is its purpose – the reason you want to do this research and why the results will be meaningful.

In Sarah’s opinion, highlighting the 'why' of your project is vital for your research proposal.

“From my perspective, one of the key aspects of your research proposal is emphasising why your project is important and should be funded,” she says.

“Not only does this impact whether your application is likely to be successful, but it could also impact your likelihood of getting a scholarship .”

Imagine you only had 60 seconds to explain your planned research to someone. Would you prefer they remember how your project could change the world, or the statistical models you’ll be using to do it? (Of course, you’ve got 2,000 words rather than 60 seconds, so do make sure to include those little details as well – just put the why stuff first.)

Proofread your proposal, then proof it again

As a PhD candidate, your attention to detail is going to be integral to your success. Start practising it now by making sure your research proposal is perfect.

Chelsea and Sarah both acknowledge that clarity and writing quality should never be overlooked in a PhD proposal. This starts with double-checking that the questions of your thesis are obvious and unambiguous, followed by revising the rest of your proposal.

“Make sure your research questions are really clear,” says Sarah.

“Ensure all the writing is clear and grammatically correct,” adds Chelsea.

“A supervisor is not going to be overly keen on a prospective student if their writing is poor.”

It might sound harsh, but it’s fair. So, proofread your proposal multiple times – including after you get it back from your supervisor with any feedback and notes. When you think you’ve got the final, FINAL draft saved, sleep on it and read it one more time the next morning.

Still feeling a little overwhelmed by your research proposal? Stay motivated with these reasons why a PhD is worth the effort .

Want to learn more from Chelsea and Sarah? Easy:

  • Read about Chelsea’s award-winning PhD thesis on keeping crops healthy.
  • Read Sarah’s series on becoming a law academic .

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How to Write a Dissertation or Thesis Proposal

Published on September 21, 2022 by Tegan George . Revised on July 18, 2023.

When starting your thesis or dissertation process, one of the first requirements is a research proposal or a prospectus. It describes what or who you want to examine, delving into why, when, where, and how you will do so, stemming from your research question and a relevant topic .

The proposal or prospectus stage is crucial for the development of your research. It helps you choose a type of research to pursue, as well as whether to pursue qualitative or quantitative methods and what your research design will look like.

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Table of contents

What should your proposal contain, dissertation question examples, what should your proposal look like, dissertation prospectus examples, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about proposals.

Prior to jumping into the research for your thesis or dissertation, you first need to develop your research proposal and have it approved by your supervisor. It should outline all of the decisions you have taken about your project, from your dissertation topic to your hypotheses and research objectives .

Depending on your department’s requirements, there may be a defense component involved, where you present your research plan in prospectus format to your committee for their approval.

Your proposal should answer the following questions:

  • Why is your research necessary?
  • What is already known about your topic?
  • Where and when will your research be conducted?
  • Who should be studied?
  • How can the research best be done?

Ultimately, your proposal should persuade your supervisor or committee that your proposed project is worth pursuing.

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Strong research kicks off with a solid research question , and dissertations are no exception to this.

Dissertation research questions should be:

  • Focused on a single problem or issue
  • Researchable using primary and/or secondary sources
  • Feasible to answer within the timeframe and practical constraints
  • Specific enough to answer thoroughly
  • Complex enough to develop the answer over the space of a paper or thesis
  • Relevant to your field of study and/or society more broadly
  • What are the main factors enticing people under 30 in suburban areas to engage in the gig economy?
  • Which techniques prove most effective for 1st-grade teachers at local elementary schools in engaging students with special needs?
  • Which communication streams are the most effective for getting those aged 18-30 to the polls on Election Day?

An easy rule of thumb is that your proposal will usually resemble a (much) shorter version of your thesis or dissertation. While of course it won’t include the results section , discussion section , or conclusion , it serves as a “mini” version or roadmap for what you eventually seek to write.

Be sure to include:

  • A succinct introduction to your topic and problem statement
  • A brief literature review situating your topic within existing research
  • A basic outline of the research methods you think will best answer your research question
  • The perceived implications for future research
  • A reference list in the citation style of your choice

The length of your proposal varies quite a bit depending on your discipline and type of work you’re conducting. While a thesis proposal is often only 3-7 pages long, a prospectus for your dissertation is usually much longer, with more detailed analysis. Dissertation proposals can be up to 25-30 pages in length.

Writing a proposal or prospectus can be a challenge, but we’ve compiled some examples for you to get your started.

  • Example #1: “Geographic Representations of the Planet Mars, 1867-1907” by Maria Lane
  • Example #2: “Individuals and the State in Late Bronze Age Greece: Messenian Perspectives on Mycenaean Society” by Dimitri Nakassis
  • Example #3: “Manhood Up in the Air: A Study of Male Flight Attendants, Queerness, and Corporate Capitalism during the Cold War Era” by Phil Tiemeyer

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The research methods you use depend on the type of data you need to answer your research question .

  • If you want to measure something or test a hypothesis , use quantitative methods . If you want to explore ideas, thoughts and meanings, use qualitative methods .
  • If you want to analyze a large amount of readily-available data, use secondary data. If you want data specific to your purposes with control over how it is generated, collect primary data.
  • If you want to establish cause-and-effect relationships between variables , use experimental methods. If you want to understand the characteristics of a research subject, use descriptive methods.

A thesis or dissertation outline is one of the most critical first steps in your writing process. It helps you to lay out and organize your ideas and can provide you with a roadmap for deciding what kind of research you’d like to undertake.

Generally, an outline contains information on the different sections included in your thesis or dissertation , such as:

  • Your anticipated title
  • Your abstract
  • Your chapters (sometimes subdivided into further topics like literature review , research methods , avenues for future research, etc.)

A well-planned research design helps ensure that your methods match your research aims, that you collect high-quality data, and that you use the right kind of analysis to answer your questions, utilizing credible sources . This allows you to draw valid , trustworthy conclusions.

The priorities of a research design can vary depending on the field, but you usually have to specify:

  • Your research questions and/or hypotheses
  • Your overall approach (e.g., qualitative or quantitative )
  • The type of design you’re using (e.g., a survey , experiment , or case study )
  • Your sampling methods or criteria for selecting subjects
  • Your data collection methods (e.g., questionnaires , observations)
  • Your data collection procedures (e.g., operationalization , timing and data management)
  • Your data analysis methods (e.g., statistical tests  or thematic analysis )

A dissertation prospectus or proposal describes what or who you plan to research for your dissertation. It delves into why, when, where, and how you will do your research, as well as helps you choose a type of research to pursue. You should also determine whether you plan to pursue qualitative or quantitative methods and what your research design will look like.

It should outline all of the decisions you have taken about your project, from your dissertation topic to your hypotheses and research objectives , ready to be approved by your supervisor or committee.

Note that some departments require a defense component, where you present your prospectus to your committee orally.

Formulating a main research question can be a difficult task. Overall, your question should contribute to solving the problem that you have defined in your problem statement .

However, it should also fulfill criteria in three main areas:

  • Researchability
  • Feasibility and specificity
  • Relevance and originality

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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

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how to write a phd proposal

Doctoral handbook

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  • Dissertation Proposal

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Proposal Overview and Format

Proposal committee, proposal hearing or meeting.

  • Printing Credit for Use in School of Education Labs

Students are urged to begin thinking about a dissertation topic early in their degree program. Concentrated work on a dissertation proposal normally begins after successful completion of the Second-Year Review, which often includes a “mini” proposal, an extended literature review, or a theoretical essay, plus advancement to doctoral candidacy. In defining a dissertation topic, the student collaborates with their faculty advisor or dissertation advisor (if one is selected) in the choice of a topic for the dissertation.

The dissertation proposal is a comprehensive statement on the extent and nature of the student’s dissertation research interests. Students submit a draft of the proposal to their dissertation advisor between the end of the seventh and middle of the ninth quarters. The student must provide a written copy of the proposal to the faculty committee no later than two weeks prior to the date of the proposal hearing. Committee members could require an earlier deadline (e.g., four weeks before the hearing).

The major components of the proposal are as follows, with some variations across Areas and disciplines:

  • A detailed statement of the problem that is to be studied and the context within which it is to be seen. This should include a justification of the importance of the problem on both theoretical and educational grounds.
  • A thorough review of the literature pertinent to the research problem. This review should provide proof that the relevant literature in the field has been thoroughly researched. Good research is cumulative; it builds on the thoughts, findings, and mistakes of others.
  • its general explanatory interest
  • the overall theoretical framework within which this interest is to be pursued
  • the model or hypotheses to be tested or the research questions to be answered
  • a discussion of the conceptual and operational properties of the variables
  • an overview of strategies for collecting appropriate evidence (sampling, instrumentation, data collection, data reduction, data analysis)
  • a discussion of how the evidence is to be interpreted (This aspect of the proposal will be somewhat different in fields such as history and philosophy of education.)
  • If applicable, students should complete a request for approval of research with human subjects, using the Human Subjects Review Form ( http://humansubjects.stanford.edu/ ). Except for pilot work, the University requires the approval of the Administrative Panel on Human Subjects in Behavioral Science Research before any data can be collected from human subjects.

Registration (i.e., enrollment) is required for any quarter during which a degree requirement is completed, including the dissertation proposal. Refer to the Registration or Enrollment for Milestone Completion section for more details.

As students progress through the program, their interests may change. There is no commitment on the part of the student’s advisor to automatically serve as the dissertation chair. Based on the student’s interests and the dissertation topic, many students approach other GSE professors to serve as the dissertation advisor, if appropriate.

A dissertation proposal committee is comprised of three academic council faculty members, one of whom will serve as the major dissertation advisor. Whether or not the student’s general program advisor serves on the dissertation proposal committee and later the reading committee will depend on the relevance of that faculty member’s expertise to the topic of the dissertation, and their availability. There is no requirement that a program advisor serve, although very often they do. Members of the dissertation proposal committee may be drawn from other area committees within the GSE, from other departments in the University, or from emeriti faculty. At least one person serving on the proposal committee must be from the student’s area committee (CTE, DAPS, SHIPS). All three members must be on the Academic Council; if the student desires the expertise of a non-Academic Council member, it may be possible to petition. After the hearing, a memorandum listing the changes to be made will be written and submitted with the signed proposal cover sheet and a copy of the proposal itself to the Doctoral Programs Officer.

Review and approval of the dissertation proposal occurs normally during the third year. The proposal hearing seeks to review the quality and feasibility of the proposal. The Second-Year Review and the Proposal Hearing are separate milestones and may not occur as part of the same hearing or meeting.

The student and the dissertation advisor are responsible for scheduling a formal meeting or hearing to review the proposal; the student and proposal committee convene for this evaluative period. Normally, all must be present at the meeting either in person or via conference phone call.

At the end of this meeting, the dissertation proposal committee members should sign the Cover Sheet for Dissertation Proposal and indicate their approval or rejection of the proposal. This signed form should be submitted to the Doctoral Programs Officer. If the student is required to make revisions, an addendum is required with the written approval of each member of the committee stating that the proposal has been revised to their satisfaction.

After submitting the Proposal Hearing material to the Doctoral Programs Officer, the student should make arrangements with three faculty members to serve on their Dissertation Reading Committee. The Doctoral Dissertation Reading Committee form should be completed and given to the Doctoral Programs Officer to enter in the University student records system. Note: The proposal hearing committee and the reading committee do not have to be the same three faculty members. Normally, the proposal hearing precedes the designation of a Dissertation Reading Committee, and faculty on either committee may differ (except for the primary dissertation advisor). However, some students may advance to Terminal Graduate Registration (TGR) status before completing their dissertation proposal hearing if they have established a dissertation reading committee. In these cases, it is acceptable for the student to form a reading committee prior to the dissertation proposal hearing. The reading committee then serves as the proposal committee.

The proposal and reading committee forms and related instructions are on the GSE website, under current students>forms.

Printing Credit for Use in GSE Labs

Upon completion of their doctoral dissertation proposal, GSE students are eligible for a $300 printing credit redeemable in any of the GSE computer labs where students are normally charged for print jobs. Only one $300 credit per student will be issued, but it is usable throughout the remainder of her or his doctoral program until the balance is exhausted. The print credit can be used only at the printers in Cubberley basement and CERAS, and cannot be used toward copying.

After submitting the signed dissertation proposal cover sheet to the Doctoral Programs Officer indicating approval (see above), students can submit a HELP SU ticket online at helpsu.stanford.edu to request the credit. When submitting the help ticket, the following should be selected from the drop-down menus for HELP SU:

Request Category :  Computer, Handhelds (PDAs), Printers, Servers Request Type :  Printer Operating System : (whatever system is used by the student, e.g., Windows XP.)

The help ticket will be routed to the GSE's IT Group for processing; they will in turn notify the student via email when the credit is available.

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Handbook Contents

  • Timetable for the Doctoral Degree
  • Degree Requirements
  • Registration or Enrollment for Milestone Completion
  • The Graduate Study Program
  • Student Virtual and Teleconference Participation in Hearings
  • First Year (3rd Quarter) Review
  • Second Year (6th Quarter) Review
  • Committee Composition for First- and Second-Year Reviews
  • Advancement to Candidacy
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  • Dissertation Content
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  • University Oral Examination
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Grad Coach

Research Proposal Example/Sample

Detailed Walkthrough + Free Proposal Template

If you’re getting started crafting your research proposal and are looking for a few examples of research proposals , you’ve come to the right place.

In this video, we walk you through two successful (approved) research proposals , one for a Master’s-level project, and one for a PhD-level dissertation. We also start off by unpacking our free research proposal template and discussing the four core sections of a research proposal, so that you have a clear understanding of the basics before diving into the actual proposals.

  • Research proposal example/sample – Master’s-level (PDF/Word)
  • Research proposal example/sample – PhD-level (PDF/Word)
  • Proposal template (Fully editable) 

If you’re working on a research proposal for a dissertation or thesis, you may also find the following useful:

  • Research Proposal Bootcamp : Learn how to write a research proposal as efficiently and effectively as possible
  • 1:1 Proposal Coaching : Get hands-on help with your research proposal

Free Webinar: How To Write A Research Proposal

FAQ: Research Proposal Example

Research proposal example: frequently asked questions, are the sample proposals real.

Yes. The proposals are real and were approved by the respective universities.

Can I copy one of these proposals for my own research?

As we discuss in the video, every research proposal will be slightly different, depending on the university’s unique requirements, as well as the nature of the research itself. Therefore, you’ll need to tailor your research proposal to suit your specific context.

You can learn more about the basics of writing a research proposal here .

How do I get the research proposal template?

You can access our free proposal template here .

Is the proposal template really free?

Yes. There is no cost for the proposal template and you are free to use it as a foundation for your research proposal.

Where can I learn more about proposal writing?

For self-directed learners, our Research Proposal Bootcamp is a great starting point.

For students that want hands-on guidance, our private coaching service is recommended.

Literature Review Course

Psst… there’s more!

This post is an extract from our bestselling Udemy Course, Research Proposal Bootcamp . If you want to work smart, you don't want to miss this .

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Example of a literature review

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  • Postgraduate Research

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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  • Writing a research proposal for a PhD application

How to write a research proposal for a PhD application

What is a research proposal.

A research proposal gives details of the direction of your future research, usually based on a research question and a chapter-by-chapter approach to answering it.

For PhD applications, this proposal will be assessed to see:

  • whether the project is likely to be completed within three years of full-time research
  • whether it can be effectively supervised at the university
  • whether you are competent and keen enough to complete it.

There may be other factors affecting whether you get a place at the University of Brighton:

  • whether the project fits a growing or established research priority of the university
  • how the proposal fits with a current cohort and the research environment

A successful proposal will leave the panel in no doubt on these, and you should prepare to show the strength of your idea and demonstrate your suitability.

Within the proposal, you should take the opportunity to clearly outline your research idea; your research methodology and critical approaches; your experience in this field of research where you can; and how your work will be offering an original contribution to knowledge, theories and/or practice. 

Find more details about a PhD in your discipline at the University of Brighton

How to get a prospective supervisor's help with your proposal

The strongest proposals are often ones that have been written jointly between a prospective student and prospective supervisor.

As Professor Pollen states in our film, supervisors have an understanding of the language used in proposals and the skillsets that asessors will want to see -- whether for a university position or a funding application.

To develop a strong proposal, we recommend you  work with a possible supervisor  at the University of Brighton who can help shape your project for feasibility and suitability within our institution. This person may then become your lead supervisor.

Please enable targeting cookies in order to view this video content on our website, or you can watch the video on YouTube .

What journey leads to a PhD application?  This film was made by the University of Brighton for UKRI and features University of Brighton students and academics as well as those from other partner universities.

Finding a PhD theme and understanding the university research environment

You may be responding to an advertised call for a particular project that has already achieved funding. Alternatively, you may want to propose a personally developed project. 

If you are responding to a call then the advertisement will have clear guidance as to what research experience and interest a candidate will need. This should help you structure your PhD research proposal.

If you are proposing a personally developed project then it should be carefully written to show the viability within the university's current research environment and a specific supervisory possibility at the university.

Some applicants have found our repository of theses helpful for the development and refinement of their research idea. You can find over 1000 theses completed at the University of Brighton over the past 40 years at our repository of successful PhD student theses . 

Our research database has useful leads to potential supervisory staff and a strong idea of the university's current research priorities online:

  • Explore our PhD disciplinary programme search tools including free search and A-Z 
  • Explore our research centres (COREs)  or our research groups (REGs) 
  • Visit our research database of staff, projects and organisational units.

Once you have identified a potential lead researcher of a research project most aligned to yours, do not hesitate to email them.

Explain who you are, your motivation to do a PhD in their field of study and with them. They will let you know if they are interested in your project and would be interested in potentially supervising your PhD. If they cannot commit, they may be able to help you identify another researcher who could be available and interested.

By liaising with a suitable supervisor, your proposal will benefit from expert help and be channelled towards the appropriate disciplinary environment.

If you are in doubt about whether we can offer the appropriate supervision, please contact the  Doctoral College .

Find out more about your opportunities for a PHD on our FAQ page

What should a research proposal contain?

A research proposal should include the following:

1. Indicative title of the topic area

This should accurately reflect what it is that you want to study and the central issues that you are going to address.

It may be useful to present this in the format of a statement (perhaps a quote) and a question, separated by a colon. For example: '"The tantalising future of research": how are research proposals developed and assessed?'

2. Context / rationale / why is this study important? (300 – 500 words)

Introduce your specific area of study. You should identify the theoretical context within which your research will be developed by discussing the discipline(s) and or field/s of study relevant to your research.

This means outlining the key theoretical area(s) you will draw upon to enable you to find out what it is that you want to know (for example, how it is underpinned from methods in the social sciences; arts and humanities; life, health and physical sciences).

What we are looking for here is an indication that you understand and have done some research into the wider theoretical context.

Developing the context is just one part of this section; you are building a case / rationale for the study area. Why is this study important, which theoretical areas support this? Can you identify any gaps in current understanding that help you build the case for this research study?

For example, this section might take the form of: a series of statements on the current landmark areas of thought; a recognition of what has not yet been done thoroughly enough or where there is territory for research between these landmark studies; and where your study will fill the gaps you have identified.

3. Literature review (approximately 700 – 900 words)

Here you are demonstrating that you are aware of what has been and what is currently being written about your topic.

It will certainly include the up-to-date and relevant past landmark academic literature. It may also include other evidence of current thought and attitude, for example, government documents or media coverage. Practice-led PhD studies may make reference to innovation and trends in industry or professional practice.

We are looking for you to make links between this body of literature and your proposed area of study. This will support the ways you have identified gaps in the current global knowledge-base. A PhD thesis arises from original research leading to new knowledge or a significant contribution to existing knowledge. If, at this stage, you have some thoughts on how your research is likely to contribute to knowledge then include details in your proposal.

This section should include citations which are compiled into a reference list at the end of the document (see point 7).

4. The research questions or hypotheses (approximately 200 words)

Having told us what you want to study and why, and then illustrated these ideas with reference to a body of literature, the next task is to distil your ideas into a tentative set of research questions, hypotheses, aims and objectives (as per the underpinning discipline requires) that are manageable and achievable within a normal PhD timeframe (see 6 below). There are typically between three and ten questions/aims of this kind.

5. Research approach/ methodologies / methods (approximately 400 words)

There will be many research approaches open to you. In your proposal, suggest the methodological approach that you might take and make a reasoned case as to why the research questions you have posed are best addressed by this approach.

You might also suggest what methods you would use to generate data that can help you address your research questions.

6. Timescale/research planning (approximately 200 words)

A full-time PhD should take three years to complete, although you may require more time to acquire the relevant skills prior to commencing your research. Part-time study will take longer (up to five - six years). Within this timeframe, you will need to demonstrate your awareness of time management and planning, for example the length of time for primary research/ fieldwork.

7. Reference list 

You should include a reference list of all the sources that you referred to in the text using a recognised referencing style appropriate to your discipline (for example Harvard or Vancouver for Sciences).

Evidence of thorough background reading might include between ten and twenty citations at this point. They should demonstrate to an expert that you are knowledgeable of the landmark work in your field.

There are a number of books widely available that may help in preparing your research proposal (as well as in completing your research degree), here are a couple to point you in the right direction:

Bell, J (2010, 5th edn) Doing Your Research Project: A Guide for First-time Researchers in Education & Social Science , Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baxter, L, Hughes, C and Tight, M (2007, 3rd edn) How to Research , Buckingham: Open University Press.

a man at a desk writing

Research proposals in practice-led and professionally-based disciplines

The University of Brighton prides itself on the quality of its research in areas that intersect with professional practices and direct impact through in-the-field relationships with co-producers.

We are very supportive of doctoral projects that bring positive results from these methodolgies and practices.

Some of the subject areas that have supported personal practice as research include: design, art, architecture, media production and creative writing, with successful approaches including autoethnographic methods and public participation or site-specific interventions. 

Some of the areas that have benefited from significant professional practice and industry relationship-focused research have included: engineering, nursing, business administration and teaching. 

The research proposal will still need to demonstrate your capability as a researcher with a project that is workable and fits with the university's interests and capacities. 

You should, however, adapt your proposal to demonstrate the value that your practice can bring to the research. This should be in tandem with a clear understanding of the relationship between practice and research.

A clear competence in practice should be evidenced, but do be aware that your proposal will be judged on its research and the new knowledge that is developed and shared, rather than the quality of practice in and of itself.

Personal practices, experiences and data gained through professional relationships may form part of a standard PhD thesis and proposal as description of work and resulting data. You will only be appyling for a practice-led component to be taken into account if this will form a significant part of the representation and examination of the knowledge-base. In such cases, the thesis is signficantly shorter.

Some pitfalls in the applications for practice-led or practice-focused research include:

  • An imbalance between the practical and theoretical elements
  • Too arbitrary a divide between the practice and theory
  • Using practice to simply provide personal illustrations of established theories or concepts
  • Insufficient sense of how the research knowledge will be held and disseminated
  • Insufficiently contained scope for a three-year project – for example, where the practice is described as a life-long investigation – with no clarity on an end-point
  • A project that could be better or similarly tackled through a standard PhD in terms of efficient response to the research questions. For example where the practice element might be represented as data or results instead of examined practice.

Your potential supervisor will be able to advise where a proposal will include significant elements beyond the traditional thesis. For further information, please contact the Doctoral College .

Hand gripping toothbrush designed with two flexible handles designed to be squeezed as help for rheumatoid arthritis sufferers

A set of designed objects submitted as part of a practice-led PhD project in medical therapeutic design, by Dr Tom Ainsworth, who went on to become a teacher, researcher and supervisor at the University of Brighton.

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Moray House School of Education and Sport

Writing your PhD research proposal

Find guidance on how to write your PhD research proposal and a template form for you to use to submit your research proposal.

By asking you for an outline  research proposal we hope to get a good picture of your research interests and your understanding of what such research is likely to entail.

The University's application form is designed to enable you to give an overview of your academic experience and qualifications for study at postgraduate level. Your outline research proposal then gives us an idea of the kind of research you want to undertake. This, together with information from your referees, will help us assess whether the Moray House School of Education and Sport would be the appropriate place for you to pursue your research interests.

At  the application stage you are unlikely to be in a position to provide a comprehensive research proposal; the detailed shaping up of a research plan would be done in conjunction with your supervisors(s). But it is important for us to appreciate what you are hoping to investigate, how you envisage carrying out the research, and what the results might be expected to contribute to current knowledge and understanding in the relevant academic field(s) of study. In writing your proposal, please indicate any prior academic or employment experience relevant to your planned research.

In your research proposal, please also ensure that you clearly identify the Moray House research cluster your proposal falls under, as well as two to three staff members  with expertise in this area. We also encourage you to contact potential supervisors within your area of proposed research prior to submitting your application in order to gauge their interest and availability.

How to write your research proposal

The description of your proposed research should consist of 4-5 typed A4 sheets. It can take whatever form seems best, but should include some information about the following:

  • The general area within which you wish to conduct research, and why (you might find it helpful to explain what stimulated your interest in your chosen research field, and any study or research in the area that you have already undertaken)
  • The kind of research questions that you would hope to address, and why (in explaining what is likely to be the main focus of your research, it may be helpful to indicate, for example, why these issues are of particular concern and the way in which they relate to existing literature)
  • The sources of information and type of research methods you plan to use (for example, how you plan to collect your data, which sources you will be targeting and how you will access these data sources).

In addition to the above, please include any comments you are able to make concerning:

  • The approach that you will take to analysing your research data
  • The general timetable you would follow for carrying out and writing up your research
  • Any plans you may have for undertaking fieldwork away from Edinburgh
  • Any problems that might be anticipated in carrying out your proposed research

Please note: This guidance applies to all candidates, except those applying to conduct PhD research as part of a larger, already established research project (for example, in the Institute for Sport, Physical Education & Health Sciences).

In this case, you should provide a two- to three-page description of a research project that you have already undertaken, as a means of complementing information given in the application form. If you are in any doubt as to what is appropriate please contact us:

Contact us by email: Education@[email protected]

All doctoral proposals submitted as part of an application will be run through plagiarism detection software.

Template form for your research proposal

All applicants for a PhD or MSc by Research are required to submit a research proposal as part of their application. Applicants  must   use the template form below for their research proposal. This research proposal should then be submitted online as part of your application. Please use Calibri size 11 font size and do not change the paragraph spacing (single, with 6pt after each paragraph) or the page margins.

how to write a phd proposal

The PhD Proofreaders

Learn how to write a PhD proposal that will stand out from the rest

Feb 27, 2019

phd proposal

Here, we show you how to write a PhD proposal that will stand out from the hundreds of others that are submitted each day.

Before we do though,  know one thing :

The research you describe when you write your PhD proposal won’t look anything like the research you finally write up in your PhD thesis.

Wait,  what ?

That’s not a typo.  Everyone’s research changes over time.  If you knew everything when you were writing up your proposal there wouldn’t be any point doing the PhD at all.

So,  what’s the point of the proposal?

Your proposal is  a guide, not a contract . It is a plan for your research that is necessarily flexible. That’s why it changes over time.

This means that the proposal is less about the robustness of your proposed research design and more about showing that you have

1. Critical thinking skills

2. An adequate grasp of the existing literature and know how your research will contribute to it

3. Clear direction and objectives. You get this by formulating clear research questions

4. Appropriate methods. This shows that you can link your understanding of the literature, research design and theory

5. An understanding of what’s required in a PhD

6. Designed a project that is feasible

how to write a phd proposal

Your PhD thesis. All on one page. 

Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis. 

What is a PhD proposal? 

Your PhD proposal is submitted as part of your application to a PhD program. It is a standard means of assessing your potential as a doctoral researcher.

When stripped down to its basic components, it does two things:

Explains the ‘what’-  t hese are the questions you will address and the outcomes you expect

Explains the ‘why’-  t his is the case for your research, with a focus on why the research is significant and what the contributions will be. 

It is used by potential supervisors and department admission tutors to assess the quality and originality of your research ideas, how good you are at critical thinking and how feasible your proposed study is.

This means that it needs to showcase your expertise and your knowledge of the existing field and how your research contributes to it. You use it to   make a persuasive case   that your research is interesting and significant enough to warrant the university’s investment.

Above all though, it is about   showcasing your passion for your discipline . A PhD is a hard, long journey. The admissions tutor want to know that you have both the skills and the resilience required.

What needs to be included in a PhD proposal?

Exactly what needs to be included when you write your PhD proposal will vary from university to university. How long your proposal needs to be may also be specified by your university, but if it isn’t, aim for three thousand words.

Check the requirements for each university you are applying for carefully.

Having said that, almost all proposals will need to have four distinct sections.

1. Introduction

2. the research context.

3. The approach you take

4. Conclusion

In the first few paragraphs of your proposal, you need to   clearly and concisely state your research questions, the gap in the literature your study will address, the significance of your research and the contribution   that the study makes.

Be as clear and concise as you can be.   Make the reader’s job as easy as possible   by clearly stating what the proposed research will investigate, what the contribution is and why the study is worthwhile.

This isn’t the place for lots of explanatory detail. You don’t need to justify particular design decisions in the introduction, just state what they are. The justification comes later.

In this section, you   discuss the existing literature and the gaps that exist within it.

The goal here is to show that you understand the existing literature in your field, what the gaps are and how your proposed study will address them. We’ve written a guide that will help you to   conduct and write a literature review .

Chances are, you won’t have conducted a complete literature review, so the emphasis here should be on the more important and well-known research in your field. Don’t worry that you haven’t read everything. Your admissions officer won’t have expected you to.  Instead, they want to see that you know the following:

1. What are the most important authors, findings, concepts, schools, debates and hypotheses?

2. What gaps exist in the literature?

3. How does your thesis fill these gaps?

Once you have laid out the context, you will be in a position to  make  your thesis statement . A thesis statement is a sentence that summarises your argument to the reader. It is the ‘point’ you will want to make with your proposed research.

Remember, the emphasis in the PhD proposal is on   what you   intend   to do,   not on results. You won’t have results until you finish your study. That means that your thesis statement will be speculative, rather than a statement of fact.

For more on how to construct thesis statements, read this  excellent guide  from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who, incidentally, run a great academic writing blog you should definitely visit.

3. The approach you will take

This is the section in which you discuss the overall research design and is the most important component of the proposal. The emphasis here is on five things.

1. The overall approach taken (is it purely theoretical, or does it involve primary or empirical research? Maybe it’s both theoretical and empirical?)

2. The theoretical perspective you will use when you design and conduct your research

3. Why you have chosen this approach over others and what implications this choice has for your methods and the robustness of the study

4. Your specific aims and objectives

5. Your research methodology

In the previous section you outlined the context. In this section you explain   the specific detail   of what your research will look like.

You take the brief research design statements you made in the introduction and go into much more detail. You need to be relating your design decisions back to the literature and context discussion in the previous section.

The emphasis here is on   showing that there is a logical flow.   There’s no point highlighting a gap in the literature and then designing a study that doesn’t fill it.

Some of the detail here will only become clear once you have started the actual research. That’s fine. The emphasis in your proposal should be on showing that you understand what goes into a PhD.

So,   keep it general.

For example, when talking about your methodology, keep things deliberately broad and focus on the overarching strategy. For example, if you are using interviews, you don’t need to list every single proposed interview question. Instead, you can talk about the rough themes you will discuss (which will relate to your literature review and thesis/project statement). Similarly, unless your research is specifically focusing on particular individuals, you don’t need to list exactly who you will interview. Instead, just state the types of people you will interview (for example: local politicians, or athletes, or academics in the UK, and so on).

4. Concluding paragraphs

There are a number of key elements to a proposal that you will need to put in the final paragraphs.

These include:

1. A discussion on the limitations of the study

2. A reiteration of your contribution

3. A proposed chapter structure (this can be an appendix)

4. Proposed month-by-month timetable (this can also be an appendix). The purpose of this timetable is to show that you understand every stage required and how long each stage takes relative to others.

Tips to turn an average proposal into one that will be accepted

1. be critical.

When you are making your design decisions in section three, you need to do so critically.   Critical thinking   is a key requirement of entry onto a PhD programme. In brief, it means not taking things at face value and questioning what you read or do. You can   read our guide to being critical   for help (it focuses on the literature review, but the take home points are the same). 

2. Don’t go into too much detail too soon in your proposal

This is something that many people get wrong. You need to   ease the reader in   gradually .   Present a brief, clear statement in the introduction and then gradually introduce more information as the pages roll on.

You will see that the outline we have suggested above follows an inverted pyramid shape.

1. In section one, you present the headlines in the introductory paragraphs. These are the research questions, aims, objectives, contribution and problem statement. State these without context or explanation.

2. When discussing the research context in section two, you provide a little more background. The goal here is to introduce the reader to the literature and highlight the gaps.

3. When describing the approach you will take, you present more detailed information. The goal here is to talk in very precise terms about how your research will address these gaps, the implications of these choices and your expected findings.

3. Be realistic

Don’t pretend you know more than you do and   don’t try to reinvent your discipline .

A good proposal is one that is very focused and that describes research that is very feasible. If you try to design a study to revolutionise your field, you will not be accepted because doing so shows that you don’t understand what is feasible in the context of a PhD and you haven’t understood the literature.

4. Use clear, concise sentences

Describe your research as clearly as possible   in the opening couple of paragraphs. Then write in short, clear sentences. Avoid using complex sentences where possible. If you need to introduce technical terminology, clearly define things. 

In other words,   make the reader’s job as easy as possible.

5. Get it proofread by someone else

We’ve written a post on  why you need a proofreader .

Simple: you are the worst person to proofread your own work.

6. Work with your proposed supervisor, if you’re allowed

A lot of students fail to do this. Your supervisor isn’t your enemy. You can work with them to refine your proposal. Don’t be afraid to reach out for comments and suggestions. Be careful though. Don’t expect them to come up with topics or questions for you. Their input should be focused on refining your ideas, not helping you come up with them. 

7. Tailor your proposal to each department and institution you are applying to

Admissions tutors can spot when you have submitted a one-size-fits-all proposal. Try and tailor it to the individual department. You can do this by talking about how you will contribute to the department and why you have chosen to apply there. 

Follow this guide and you’ll be on a PhD programme in no time at all. 

If you’re struggling for inspiration on topics or research design, try writing a rough draft of your proposal. Often the act of writing is enough for us to brainstorm new ideas and relate existing ideas to one another. 

If you’re still struggling, send your idea to us in an   email   to us and we’ll give you our feedback. 

Hello, Doctor…

Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Be able to call yourself Doctor sooner with our five-star rated How to Write A PhD email-course. Learn everything your supervisor should have taught you about planning and completing a PhD.

Now half price. Join hundreds of other students and become a better thesis writer, or your money back. 

Share this:

13 comments.

Moazzam

A wonderful guide. I must say not only well written but very well thought out and very efficient.

Dr. Max Lempriere

Great. I’m glad you think so.

Musonda

Thanks for sharing. Makes navigating through the proposal lot easier

Great. Glad you think so!

S. U. Tanko

An excellent guide, I learned a lot thank you

Simeon Sebastian Kormon

Great job and guide for a PhD proposal. Thank you!

You’re welcome!

Lameck Bonaventure Luwanda

I am going to start writing my Ph.D. proposal. This has been so helpful in instructing me on what to do. Thanks

Thanks! Glad you thought so.

Fiona Lynne GALLIANO

A very reassuring guide to the process. Thank you, Max

ilan

I appreciate the practical advice and actionable steps you provide in your posts.

Glad to hear it. Many thanks.

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How To Write A PhD Proposal

Writing a PhD research proposal may seem like a daunting task when you are used to writing essays, reports and other short coursework pieces for your undergraduate degree.

However, the success of your PhD application largely depends on the quality of your thesis proposal, so it's important to try and do this part of your application as well as possible.

What is a PhD research proposal?

A PhD proposal is a an outline of your proposed project that should:

  • Define a clear question and approach to answering it
  • Highlight its originality and/or significance
  • Explain how it adds to, develops (or challenges) existing literature in the field
  • Persuade potential supervisors and/or funders of the importance of the work, and why you are the right person to undertake it

Research proposals may vary in length, so it is important to check with the department(s) to which you are applying to check word limits and guidelines. Generally speaking, a proposal should be around 3,000 words which you write as part of the application process.

What is the purpose of my PhD research proposal?

Potential supervisors, admissions tutors and/or funders use research proposals to check:

  • the quality and originality of your ideas
  • your expertise in your chosen topic
  • your skills in critical thinking, analysis and communication
  • your knowledge of exisitng literature (and how your work will contribute to it)
  • your enthusiasm and passion for your area
  • your research project is feasible and what you can achieve.

It's important that you are able to complete your PhD within 3 years (full-time) or 6 years (part-time), so make sure you are able to explain how you will complete it within this timeframe.

This is your opportunity to convince tutors that your project is important and they should offer you a place at their university.

The proposal will also be used to assign supervisors, so if you are interested in the work of a particular member of staff (especially if you have already discussed your work with this person), make sure you mention this in your proposal. 

It's usually a good idea to scope out prospective supervisors and get in touch with them to discuss your proposal informally before submitting your application, as this will give you a better chance of it being accepted. However, remember that there is no guarantee you will be supervised by a particular academic.

Do I have to stick to my PhD research proposal?

No - not all research proposals are set in stone.

In fact, quite the opposite, since they will often be a work in progress and be amended further down the line as more information comes to light through literature, experiments, input from other academics, etc.

So try not to worry about this too much as you are writing, as there is room for flexibility later on.

What should I include in my PhD proposal?

Overall your proposal needs to explain what exactly you want to research for three or four years, and the reasons why. However, you will also need to include other details, such as why your area of research is important, what gap(s) in the literature you hope to fill, and what broader relevance your ideas have to your chosen field. You will need to make your application stand out from the crowd with a well-written proposal, so they will be more likely to consider you for the place over someone else. The task of writing a proposal is very different from writing an essay. You need to think about the questions you want to answer through your research, rather than putting forward an argument.

Consider how the data you will gather may lead you to a particular line of argument to answer your research questions.

How should I structure my PhD research proposal?

This varies a great deal from institution to institution, and between different subjects. This means you need to find out in advance what the guidelines are for the departments you would be interested in studying at. For example, the faculty of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick require prospective PhD students to write a statement of research from 500 to 1000 words long, whereas the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford do not ask for a formal research proposal, just a statement of why their programmes are of interest to you and the particular areas of research that appeal to you most. However, the things you need to include in the proposal are usually very standard. These include:

  • A clear working title that includes relevant keywords relating to your proposal and potential supervisors.
  • A clear statement of your research topic and hypotheses, plus any questions and sub-questions you wish to try and answer.
  • Background knowledge and context, including how your research fits in with the existing key literatures, and an awareness of current developments in the field.
  • How you aim to make an original and necessary contribution to the current literature and details of the gap you hope to fill with your own research.
  • Explain why is it important that this gap is filled both in academic terms and in terms of general public knowledge.
  • An outline of the methods or approaches you plan to use to answer the proposed questions in your research topic.
  • An idea of the timescale involved, including an overall strategy and the stages of your research.
  • What resources you intend to use.
  • References that demonstrate your grasp of the current literature and how your project will contribute to this, listed in the appropriate convention, e.g. Harvard. These should be used throughout your proposal to demonstrate you have read and understood the work of others.

You do not need to have full details of the methods you will use to answer your research questions but you need to demonstrate that you have already given some thought about how you will do things. The important thing is that you show the institution you are applying to that your project is feasible in the time period available - it's good to show ambition, but make sure you have thought about the methodological issues. If your proposal is too elaborate and not feasible within 3 or 4 years, your application is likely to be unsuccessful. If you are asked to submit quite a long proposal, make sure it is sub-headed so it is more readable for potential supervisors.

Tips for writing your PhD research proposal

1. think about your main research question.

How could it be broken down into a chain of manageable chunks that are all connected?

Drawing a flowchart or spider diagram may help you with this initial step.

2. Get started early

Since your proposal is likely to go through a significant number of drafts, it’s best to give yourself as much time as possible to write it.

Obviously, if you start only a week or 2 from the application deadline, it's unlikely you will write something good enough to get accepted.

From getting down your first ideas to completing your final draft can take up 2 or 3 months if you’ve done it to the best of your ability.

Ask your tutors who taught you during your undergraduate degree to help you, as usually they are only too happy to encourage good students to pursue doctoral study.

3. Do your homework

It's important to research the departments you are thinking about applying to ensure that there are staff interested in your topic and available to supervise your project.

As mentioned above, we recommend you contact potential supervisors beforehand with a completed draft of your proposal to check it is viable and you have a good chance of being considered.

4. Don't ramble

Long-winded and poorly constructed proposals won't help you win points with faculty staff.

As mentioned earlier, structure your statement well to make your proposal clear and easy to read, otherwise you are more likely to be rejected.

5. Let your passion show

Make sure your enthusiasm for your chosen research area shows through in the structure and arguments presented in your proposal.

What excites you about this project, and how does it add value to your field?

Not all readers will know everything about your field, so it is up to you to make your research proposal engaging and make them want to offer you a place in their department.

6. Be persuasive

This means stating your research problem as clearly as possible, and how it will address gaps in current knowledge.

Thinking about the questions you wish to answer early on will help you gain the results you're looking for later on.

If you aren't convinced there is a project there, your potential supervisors won't be either!

7. Ask for feedback

Taking a draft of your proposal to a tutor who will give you some constructive advice can help you develop your ideas and guide you with the structure and formatting.

If you have any friends who are also looking to apply for a PhD, a few group sessions on looking at each other’s proposals and suggesting improvements could prove to be very useful. Talking to people who are currently studying for a PhD will also help, as they can explain about their experience of the application process and what they wrote for their research proposal. Hopefully they will provide you with some useful tips on how to make your application successful and general advice for getting together that final draft of your proposal.

8. Don't stress

Try not to worry about your proposal as you continue to re-draft to it.

Supervisors know that the course of your research will change as your studies progress, so don’t panic about what you write in the proposal will be exactly what you will do over the next 3 or 4 years. The most important thing is that you are able to demonstrate a well thought out idea and evaluate how you will contribute to the current knowledge and literature. You need to make sure you are able to show this first time in your proposal, as there are no second chances to prove you are good enough to study at a particular institution.

Further information

For more tips and advice on applying for a PhD, please see:

  • PhD entry requirements
  • How to apply for a PhD
  • Choosing a topic
  • Choosing a supervisor
  • Writing a personal statement
  • Writing a CV
  • 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

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How to Write a Research Proposal

As part of the application for admission onto our MJur, MPhil and PhD programmes, you must prepare a research proposal outlining your proposed area of study.

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What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is a concise and coherent summary of your proposed research. It 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 also demonstrates the originality of your proposed research.

The proposal is the most important document that you submit as part of the application process. It gives you an opportunity to demonstrate that you have the aptitude for graduate level research, for example, by demonstrating that you have the ability to communicate complex ideas clearly, concisely and critically. The proposal also helps us to match your research interest with an appropriate supervisor.

What should you include in the proposal?

Regardless of whether you are applying for the MJur, MPhil or PhD programmes, your research proposal should normally include the following information:

This is just a tentative title for your intended research. You will be able to revise your title during the course of your research if you are accepted for admission.

Examples of the thesis titles of some of our current and recent research students can be seen on our Current Projects page .

2. Abstract

The proposal should include a concise statement of your intended research of no more than 100 words. This may be a couple of sentences setting out the problem that you want to examine or the central question that you wish to address.

3. Research Context

You should explain the broad background against which you will conduct your research. You should include 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. This will allow you to demonstrate a familiarity with the relevant field as well as the ability to communicate clearly and concisely.

4. Research Questions

The proposal should set out the central aims and questions that will guide your research. Before writing your proposal, you should take time to reflect on the key questions that you are seeking to answer. Many research proposals are too broad, so reflecting on your key research questions is a good way to make sure that your project is sufficiently narrow and feasible (i.e. one that is likely to be completed with the normal period for a MJur, MPhil or PhD degree).

You might find it helpful to prioritize one or two main questions, from which you can then derive a number of secondary research questions. The proposal should also explain your intended approach to answering the questions: will your approach be empirical, doctrinal or theoretical etc?

5. Research Methods

The proposal should outline your research methods, explaining how you are going to conduct your research. Your methods may include visiting particular libraries or archives, field work or interviews.

Most research is library-based. If your proposed research is library-based, you should explain where your key resources (e.g. law reports, journal articles) are located (in the Law School’s library, Westlaw etc). If you plan to conduct field work or collect empirical data, you should provide details about this (e.g. if you plan interviews, who will you interview? How many interviews will you conduct? Will there be problems of access?). This section should also explain how you are going to analyse your research findings.

6. Significance of Research

The proposal should demonstrate the originality of your intended research. You should therefore explain why your research is important (for example, by explaining how your research builds on and adds to the current state of knowledge in the field or by setting out reasons why it is timely to research your proposed topic).

7. Bibliography

The proposal should include a short bibliography identifying the most relevant works for your topic.

How long should the proposal be?

The proposal should usually be around 2,500 words. It is important to bear in mind that specific funding bodies might have different word limits.

Can the School comment on my draft proposal?

We recognise that you are likely still developing your research topic. We therefore recommend that you contact a member of our staff with appropriate expertise to discuss your proposed research. If there is a good fit between your proposed research and our research strengths, we will give you advice on a draft of your research proposal before you make a formal application. For details of our staff and there areas of expertise please visit our staff pages . 

Read a sample proposal from a successful application  

Learn more about Birmingham's doctoral research programmes in Law:

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University of Lincoln

Managing research - how to write your research proposal

The writing of a research proposal is generally understood to be a part of the process for registering for a higher degree or PhD with an educational establishment. There are other reasons why a proposal may be written for example, such as an academic exercise, as an application for funding or simply, as an educational exercise.The purpose of writing the proposal must drive the way in which the proposal is set out. The proposal must therefore be tailored to the audience to secure the appropriate approval. The aim of this particular guide is to consider the research proposal as a part of the process of registering for a higher degree of PhD.

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  • B700 - Nursing

How to Write a Winning Grant Proposal: A Nonprofit’s Guide to Securing Funding

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Grants, which are funds awarded by an outside source and typically earmarked for a particular use, are incredibly valuable for nonprofit organizations to achieve their missions. In fact, it is not uncommon for organizations to rely on this type of funding to cover operating expenses, pay workers, and launch initiatives.

Common sources of grants include public and private institutions, including government departments, family trusts, foundations, and the like.

Because of the competitive nature of the grant process, it’s important to know how to write a grant proposal, how to evaluate which opportunities are worth pursuing, and how to effectively communicate your organization’s intentions.

What Is Grant Writing?

Grant writing is the application process required of an organization seeking certain financial awards. Crafting an impactful grant proposal takes compelling communication, clear language, and an understanding of the funding landscape. To start, it is useful to differentiate between funding sources and the types of grants they offer.

  • Federal grants are a way in which the U.S. government contributes to a wide range of ideas and projects that provide public services or stimulate the economy.
  • State grants vary from federal grants when it comes to administration. For example, a state grant is typically geared toward local needs as opposed to national or international causes.
  • Local (city or county) grants are useful for an even smaller scope. This level of targeted support typically involves the improvement of community development, infrastructure, public services, and individual efforts by community members.
  • Private grants can come from corporate or non-corporate entities, family trusts, foundations, financial institutions, or individuals. When it comes to these types of non-government grants, Candid keeps a global database of opportunities.

How to Write a Grant

These six steps will help you create a strong grant proposal, increasing your chances of achieving the funding and recognition that can drive your organization forward.

Dedicate ample time to analyzing your needs, including what areas of your organization will benefit from grants, exactly how much funding is needed, and realistic outcomes. You will want to thoroughly explore opportunities you qualify for, and allocate resources — time and personnel — to thoughtfully write your grant proposal.

2. Know what sets you apart

Grants are often highly sought after, so you’ll need to be well-versed on the ins and outs of what makes your organization unique and deserving. Conduct thorough research about your field, including the needs you serve and the impact you can make with grant funding. Share specific stories, testimonials, and experiences that stand out to you and the community at large that you serve.

3. Utilize facts and figures

Data will help prove your organization’s worth. Consider providing financial insights, information about existing partnerships, and budgeting outlooks. Use numbers to show the needs of populations you serve and project how beneficial grant funding will be, including plans for allocation.

4. Communicate clearly

Be highly sensitive to each and every requirement. These will vary by grant and must be followed. You’re the expert in your field, but your reader might not be. Write your grant proposal using clear, concise language without industry jargon if it’s not well-known. It’s important to also abide by any word counts or length requirements.

5. Fact-check and proofread

Get another set of eyes on the application to ensure nothing was overlooked, preferably someone with grant writing experience. Spelling errors, misrepresentations, and room for interpretation could all sway a grantor from accepting your proposal.

6. Educate yourself

For those interested in learning the latest nonprofit grant writing practices, USD offers a 100% online course focused on the step-by-step process of grant preparation, organization, and detailed evaluation. This course is best suited for nonprofit professionals and volunteers of all levels, including CEOs, executive directors, grant writers, and fundraising coordinators.

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Grant Writing Do’s & Don’ts

It’s probably clear by now that there are certain actions that will improve your chances of obtaining grant funding or quickly eliminate you from consideration. Here’s a simple breakdown of some of the most common habits to consider (and to avoid) when grant writing.

How do I know if I should apply for a grant?

Start by taking a close look at your organization’s circumstances — financial and otherwise — to evaluate exactly what areas need support. This will allow you to seek grant opportunities that are the right fit, also helping to ensure that you’ll stand out from other applicants.

Where do I find grant opportunities?

Resources like Grants.gov , Candid.org , and the Council on Foundations have searchable databases of grant opportunities. Consult your local network as well to learn about any community resources that might be available.

What are grant writing best practices?

Being prepared with facts and figures to prove your organization’s needs is important. Communicating clearly, knowing the latest industry trends, and setting yourself apart are also best practices when it comes to grant writing.

Where do I learn how to write a proposal for funding?

Courses such as USD’s online Nonprofit Grant Writing are incredibly useful to stay up to date on the latest, most effective methods. Students learn how to identify grant opportunities, step-by-step processes of grant preparation, how to integrate budgeting, and more.

What makes a grant proposal stand out?

Get specific during the grant writing process about how you will use grant funds and what beneficial outcomes are imminent. Make the grantor connect with your cause, even if this is the first time they’re learning about what you do. Include standout stories and examples to paint a clear picture of your circumstances.

What are some common mistakes in grant writing?

All too often, grant proposals include unrealistic asks, industry buzzwords that lack real meaning, and too much room for interpretation. Instead, it’s best to be as straightforward as possible and make clear what good you will be able to achieve with grant funding.

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