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  • How to Write a Research Proposal | Examples & Templates

How to Write a Research Proposal | Examples & Templates

Published on October 12, 2022 by Shona McCombes and Tegan George. Revised on November 21, 2023.

Structure of a research proposal

A research proposal describes what you will investigate, why it’s important, and how you will conduct your research.

The format of a research proposal varies between fields, but most proposals will contain at least these elements:

Introduction

Literature review.

  • Research design

Reference list

While the sections may vary, the overall objective is always the same. A research proposal serves as a blueprint and guide for your research plan, helping you get organized and feel confident in the path forward you choose to take.

Table of contents

Research proposal purpose, research proposal examples, research design and methods, contribution to knowledge, research schedule, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about research proposals.

Academics often have to write research proposals to get funding for their projects. As a student, you might have to write a research proposal as part of a grad school application , or prior to starting your thesis or dissertation .

In addition to helping you figure out what your research can look like, a proposal can also serve to demonstrate why your project is worth pursuing to a funder, educational institution, or supervisor.

Research proposal length

The length of a research proposal can vary quite a bit. A bachelor’s or master’s thesis proposal can be just a few pages, while proposals for PhD dissertations or research funding are usually much longer and more detailed. Your supervisor can help you determine the best length for your work.

One trick to get started is to think of your proposal’s structure as a shorter version of your thesis or dissertation , only without the results , conclusion and discussion sections.

Download our research proposal template

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Writing a research proposal can be quite challenging, but a good starting point could be to look at some examples. We’ve included a few for you below.

  • Example research proposal #1: “A Conceptual Framework for Scheduling Constraint Management”
  • Example research proposal #2: “Medical Students as Mediators of Change in Tobacco Use”

Like your dissertation or thesis, the proposal will usually have a title page that includes:

  • The proposed title of your project
  • Your supervisor’s name
  • Your institution and department

The first part of your proposal is the initial pitch for your project. Make sure it succinctly explains what you want to do and why.

Your introduction should:

  • Introduce your topic
  • Give necessary background and context
  • Outline your  problem statement  and research questions

To guide your introduction , include information about:

  • Who could have an interest in the topic (e.g., scientists, policymakers)
  • How much is already known about the topic
  • What is missing from this current knowledge
  • What new insights your research will contribute
  • Why you believe this research is worth doing

As you get started, it’s important to demonstrate that you’re familiar with the most important research on your topic. A strong literature review  shows your reader that your project has a solid foundation in existing knowledge or theory. It also shows that you’re not simply repeating what other people have already done or said, but rather using existing research as a jumping-off point for your own.

In this section, share exactly how your project will contribute to ongoing conversations in the field by:

  • Comparing and contrasting the main theories, methods, and debates
  • Examining the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches
  • Explaining how will you build on, challenge, or synthesize prior scholarship

Following the literature review, restate your main  objectives . This brings the focus back to your own project. Next, your research design or methodology section will describe your overall approach, and the practical steps you will take to answer your research questions.

To finish your proposal on a strong note, explore the potential implications of your research for your field. Emphasize again what you aim to contribute and why it matters.

For example, your results might have implications for:

  • Improving best practices
  • Informing policymaking decisions
  • Strengthening a theory or model
  • Challenging popular or scientific beliefs
  • Creating a basis for future research

Last but not least, your research proposal must include correct citations for every source you have used, compiled in a reference list . To create citations quickly and easily, you can use our free APA citation generator .

Some institutions or funders require a detailed timeline of the project, asking you to forecast what you will do at each stage and how long it may take. While not always required, be sure to check the requirements of your project.

Here’s an example schedule to help you get started. You can also download a template at the button below.

Download our research schedule template

If you are applying for research funding, chances are you will have to include a detailed budget. This shows your estimates of how much each part of your project will cost.

Make sure to check what type of costs the funding body will agree to cover. For each item, include:

  • Cost : exactly how much money do you need?
  • Justification : why is this cost necessary to complete the research?
  • Source : how did you calculate the amount?

To determine your budget, think about:

  • Travel costs : do you need to go somewhere to collect your data? How will you get there, and how much time will you need? What will you do there (e.g., interviews, archival research)?
  • Materials : do you need access to any tools or technologies?
  • Help : do you need to hire any research assistants for the project? What will they do, and how much will you pay them?

If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Methodology

  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility

 Statistics

  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

Once you’ve decided on your research objectives , you need to explain them in your paper, at the end of your problem statement .

Keep your research objectives clear and concise, and use appropriate verbs to accurately convey the work that you will carry out for each one.

I will compare …

A research aim is a broad statement indicating the general purpose of your research project. It should appear in your introduction at the end of your problem statement , before your research objectives.

Research objectives are more specific than your research aim. They indicate the specific ways you’ll address the overarching aim.

A PhD, which is short for philosophiae doctor (doctor of philosophy in Latin), is the highest university degree that can be obtained. In a PhD, students spend 3–5 years writing a dissertation , which aims to make a significant, original contribution to current knowledge.

A PhD is intended to prepare students for a career as a researcher, whether that be in academia, the public sector, or the private sector.

A master’s is a 1- or 2-year graduate degree that can prepare you for a variety of careers.

All master’s involve graduate-level coursework. Some are research-intensive and intend to prepare students for further study in a PhD; these usually require their students to write a master’s thesis . Others focus on professional training for a specific career.

Critical thinking refers to the ability to evaluate information and to be aware of biases or assumptions, including your own.

Like information literacy , it involves evaluating arguments, identifying and solving problems in an objective and systematic way, and clearly communicating your ideas.

The best way to remember the difference between a research plan and a research proposal is that they have fundamentally different audiences. A research plan helps you, the researcher, organize your thoughts. On the other hand, a dissertation proposal or research proposal aims to convince others (e.g., a supervisor, a funding body, or a dissertation committee) that your research topic is relevant and worthy of being conducted.

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How to nail your PhD proposal and get accepted

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Bethany Fagan Head of Content Marketing at PandaDoc

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Olga Asheychik Senior Web Analytics Manager at PandaDoc

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A good PhD research proposal may be the deciding factor between acceptance and approval into your desired program or finding yourself back at the drawing board. Being accepted for a PhD placement is no easy task, and this is why your PhD proposal needs to truly stand out among a sea of submissions.

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

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

→DOWNLOAD NOW: FREE PHD PROPOSAL TEMPLATE

Key takeaways

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

What is a PhD proposal?

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

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

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

Your research into the topic will provide that answer.

Usually, a PhD proposal contains the following elements:

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

In terms of length when writing a PhD proposal, there isn’t a universal answer.

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

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

Benefits of a strong PhD application

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

Better funding opportunities

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

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

Enhanced academic credentials

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

Opportunities for networking and research

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

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

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

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

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

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

how to write proposal for phd research

Research Proposal Template

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Legally reviewed by Olga Asheychik

How to write a Phd proposal with a clear structure

We know that the prospect of writing a research proposal for PhD admission may appear the stuff of nightmares. Even more so if you are new to producing a piece such as this.

But, when you get down to the nitty gritty of what it is, it really isn’t so intimidating. When writing your PhD proposal you need to show that your PhD is worth it, achievable, and that you have the ability to do it at your chosen university.

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

1. Front matter

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

Project title

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

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

Contact information

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

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

Research supervisor

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

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

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

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

2. Goals, summaries, and objectives

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

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

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

Overall aims, objectives, and goals

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

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

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

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

Significance

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

How will your proposed PhD research do those things?

Background details

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

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

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

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

3. Methodologies and plans

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

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

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

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

Research methods

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

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

Benefits and drawbacks of your approach

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

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

Choice of methodology

Why did you choose a given methodology?

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

Outline of proposed work

What work is required for PhD research to be complete?

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

Schedule of work (including timelines/deadlines)

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

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

There is some flexibility here.

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

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

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

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

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

4. Resources and citations

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

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

Estimated costs and resources

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

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

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

Citations and bibliographies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using PhD proposal templates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing a PhD proposal that convinces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Research proposals for PhD admission: tips and advice

One of the most important tips for any piece of writing is to know your audience. The staff reviewing your PhD proposal are going through a pile of them, so you need to make sure yours stands within a few seconds of opening it.

The way to do this is by demonstrating value and impact. Academic work is often written for a niche community of researchers in one field, so you need to demonstrate why your work would be valuable to people in that area.

The people reviewing your proposal will likely be in that field. So your proposal should be a little like a sales pitch: you need to write something engaging that identifies with the “customer”, speaks to a problem they’re having, and shows them a solution.

Taking some inspiration from the former University of Chicago professor Larry McEnerney , here are some ideas to keep in mind…

  • It’s common for undergraduates and even seasoned academics to write in a specific format or style to demonstrate their understanding and signal that they’re part of the academic community. Instead, you want to write in such a way that actually engages the reader.
  • Identify an uncharted or underexplored knowledge gap in your field, and show the reader you have what it takes to fill in that gap.
  • Challenge the status quo. Set up an idea that people in your field take for granted — maybe a famous study you think is flawed — and outline how your project could knock it down.
  • This is why it’s important to understand who your audience is. You have to write your proposal in such a way that it’s valuable for reviewers. But within your proposal, you should also clearly define which community of researchers your project is for, what problems they have, and how your project is going to solve those problems.
  • Every community of researchers has their own implicit “codes” and “keywords” that signal understanding. These will be very different in each field and could be very subtle. But just by reading successful PhD research proposal examples in your field, you can get a sense of what those are and decide how you want to employ them in your own work.
  • In this model authors start “at the bottom of the glass” with a very narrow introduction to the idea of the paper, then “fill the glass” with a broader and broader version of the same idea.
  • Instead, follow a “problem-solution” framework. Introduce a problem that’s relevant to your intended reader, then offer a solution. Since “solutions” often raise their own new problems or questions, you can rinse and repeat this framework all the way through any section of your proposal.

But how can you apply that advice? If you’re following something like our research proposal template , here are some actionable ways to get started.

  • Your title should be eye-catching , and signal value by speaking to either a gap in the field or challenging the status quo.
  • Your abstract should speak to a problem in the field, one the reviewers will care about, and clearly outline how you’d like to solve it.
  • When you list the objectives of your proposal , each one should repeat this problem-solution framework. You should concretely state what you want to achieve, and what you’re going to do to achieve it.
  • While you survey your chosen field in the literature review, you should refer back to the knowledge gap or status quo that you intend to work on. This reinforces how important your proposed project is, and how valuable it would be to the community if your project was successful.
  • While listing your research limitations , try to hint at new territory researchers might be able to explore off the back of your work. This illustrates that you’re proposing boundary-pushing work that will really advance knowledge of the field.
  • While you’re outlining your funding requirements , be clear about why each line item is necessary and bring it back to the value of your proposed research. Every cent counts!

Frequently asked questions

How long should a phd proposal be.

There really isn’t a specific rule when it comes to the length of a PhD proposal. However, it’s generally accepted that it should be between 1,000 and 2,000 words.

It’s difficult to elaborate on such a serious project in less than 1,000 words but going over 2,000 is often overkill. You’ll lose people’s attention and water down your points.

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

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

Does a PhD proposal include budgeting?

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

How is a PhD proposal evaluated?

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

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

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Originally published June 9, 2023, updated February 6, 2024

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how to write proposal for phd research

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 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 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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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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How to write a successful research proposal

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

What is a research proposal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aims and objectives

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

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

Literature review

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

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

Methodology

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

Final checks

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

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

Research proposal examples

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

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

Find out more

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

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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 proposal for phd research

  • 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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School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies

How to write a phd research proposal.

In order to help you with your application, the information below aims to give some guidance on how a typical research proposal might look.

Your research proposal is a concise statement (up to 3,000 words) of the rationale for your research proposal, the research questions to be answered and how you propose to address them. We know that during the early stages of your PhD you are likely to refine your thinking and methodology in discussion with your supervisors.

However, we want to see that you can construct a fairly rigorous, high quality research proposal.

We use your research proposal to help us decide whether you would be a suitable candidate to study at PhD level. We therefore assess your proposal on its quality, originality, and coherence. It also helps us to decide if your research interests match those of academics in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS) and whether they would be able to provide suitably qualified supervision for your proposed research.

Format of the research proposal

Your proposal should include the following:

Title. A short, indicative title is best.

Abstract. This is a succinct summary of your research proposal (approximately 200-300 words) that will present a condensed outline, enabling the reader to get a very quick overview of your proposed project, lines of inquiry and possible outcomes. An abstract is often written last, after you have written the proposal and are able to summarise it effectively.

Rationale for the research project. This might include a description of the question/debate/phenomenon of interest; an explanation of why the topic is of interest to you; and an outline of the reasons why the topic should be of interest to research and/ or practice (the 'so what?' question).

Aims and initial research question. What are the aims and objectives of the research? State clearly the puzzle you are addressing, and the research question that you intend to pursue. It is acceptable to have multiple research questions, but it is a good idea to clarify which is the main research question. If you have hypotheses, discuss them here. A research proposal can and should make a positive and persuasive first impression and demonstrate your potential to become a good researcher. In particular, you need to demonstrate that you can think critically and analytically as well as communicate your ideas clearly.

Research context for your proposed project. Provide a short introduction to your area of interest with a succinct, selective and critical review of the relevant literature. Demonstrate that you understand the theoretical underpinnings and main debates and issues in your research area and how your proposed research will make an original and necessary contribution to this. You need to demonstrate how your proposed research will fill a gap in existing knowledge.

Intended methodology. Outline how you plan to conduct the research and the data sources that you will use. We do not expect you to have planned a very detailed methodology at this stage, but you need to provide an overview of how you will conduct your research (qualitative and/or quantitative methods) and why this methodology is suited for your proposed study. You need to be convincing about the appropriateness and feasibility of the approaches you are suggesting, and reflective about problems you might encounter (including ethical and data protection issues) in collecting and analysing your data.

Expected outcomes and impact. How do you think the research might add to existing knowledge; what might it enable organisations or interested parties to do differently? Increasingly in academia (and this is particularly so for ESRC-funded studentships), PhD students are being asked to consider how their research might contribute to both academic impact and/or economic and societal impact. (This is well explained on the ESRC website if you would like to find out more.) Please consider broader collaborations and partnerships (academic and non-academic) that will support your research. Collaborative activity can lead to a better understanding of the ways in which academic research can translate into practice and it can help to inform and improve the quality of your research and its impact.

Timetable. What is your initial estimation of the timetable of the dissertation? When will each of the key stages start and finish (refining proposal; literature review; developing research methods; fieldwork; analysis; writing the draft; final submission). There are likely to overlaps between the stages.

Why Bristol? Why – specifically – do you want to study for your PhD at Bristol ? How would you fit into the School's  research themes and research culture . You do not need to identify supervisors at the application stage although it can be helpful if you do.

Bibliography. Do make sure that you cite what you see as the key readings in the field. This does not have to be comprehensive but you are illustrating the range of sources you might use in your research.

We expect your research proposal to be clear, concise and grammatically correct. Prior to submitting your research proposal, please make sure that you have addressed the following issues:

  • Have you included a clear summary of what the proposed research is about and why it is significant?
  • Have you clearly identified what your proposed research will add to our understanding of theory, knowledge or research design?
  • Does it state what contributions it will make to policy and/or practice?
  • Does the proposal clearly explain how you will do the research?
  • Is the language clear and easy to understand by someone who is not an expert in the field?
  • Is the grammar and spelling correct?
  • Department of Sociological Studies

Writing a research proposal

Guidelines on preparing a thesis proposal to support your application.

Student in seminar typing on laptop

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

Your proposal will help us to make sure that:

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

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

The research proposal – an outline

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

Your proposal should contain at least the following elements:

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

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

Three additional points:

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

Examples of Successful PhD Proposals

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

Related information

Applying for a PhD

Our Research Themes

Our Research Areas

Search for PhD opportunities at Sheffield and be part of our world-leading research.

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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.

Student enjoying a seminar

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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  1. How to write research proposal for PhD admission? Some important points for PhD aspirants

  2. How to make a research proposal for PhD Admission ? (Important tips)

  3. Writing Research Proposals

  4. How to Write a Good Research Proposal ?

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  6. How to write a research Proposal

COMMENTS

  1. How to Write a Great PhD Research Proposal

    A good PhD proposal outlines the scope and significance of your topic and explains how you plan to research it. It's helpful to think about the proposal like this: if the rest of your application explains your ability to do a PhD, the proposal demonstrates the actual PhD you plan to do.

  2. How to Write a Research Proposal

    Introduction Literature review Research design Reference list While the sections may vary, the overall objective is always the same. A research proposal serves as a blueprint and guide for your research plan, helping you get organized and feel confident in the path forward you choose to take. Table of contents Research proposal purpose

  3. How to nail your PhD proposal and get accepted

    3. Methodologies and plans Try PandaDoc A good PhD research proposal may be the deciding factor between acceptance and approval into your desired program or finding yourself back at the drawing board. Being accepted for a PhD placement is no easy task, and this is why your PhD proposal needs to truly stand out among a sea of submissions.

  4. PDF A Guide to Writing your PhD Proposal

    Writing a PhD research proposal: A 6‐step general guide for prospective PhD researchers Introduction This short guide is aimed at helping you to write a good research proposal. It is intended to help you to think about your proposed PhD research in a clear, structured and meaningful way.

  5. How to Write a PhD Research Proposal

    Advice Applying to a PhD How to Write a PhD Research Proposal Summary 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.

  6. How to write a good PhD proposal

    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.

  7. How to write a research proposal

    Process_ How to write a research proposal A guide to preparing a strong research proposal Applying for a PhD or research master's degree and not sure where to start with your research proposal? Follow our guide. What is a research proposal?

  8. Research Proposal Example (PDF + Template)

    Downloads: 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:

  9. How to write a successful research proposal

    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.

  10. Writing your PhD 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.

  11. How to Write a Successful PhD Research Proposal

    10 Jan 2022 Home Articles After you get accepted How to Write a Successful PhD Research Proposal One of the most common questions asked by PhD applicants is "How do I write a research proposal"? In order to answer this question it is important to understand the following. What is a research proposal?

  12. PDF Writing a research proposal

    The topic that you propose to research: provide a clear title for your study; outline and provide a motivation for your proposed research question(s); offer a justification of your choice of topic with reference to academic or other relevant literature.

  13. How to write a PhD research proposal

    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

  14. How to write a research proposal for a PhD application

    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.

  15. How To Write a PhD Proposal in 10 Steps (With Tips)

    Including a timeline in your proposal can illustrate your time management capabilities to the Ph.D. program faculty. 9. Include a bibliography. At the end of your proposal, include a bibliography that lists all the sources you've used while creating the document. Include links to the sources if they're available.

  16. How to write a PhD research proposal

    Your proposal should include the following: Title. A short, indicative title is best. Abstract. This is a succinct summary of your research proposal (approximately 200-300 words) that will present a condensed outline, enabling the reader to get a very quick overview of your proposed project, lines of inquiry and possible outcomes.

  17. PDF How To Write a Good PhD Research Proposal

    PhD proposal is an outline of your proposed project. It needs to: 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 of the importance of the work, and why you are the right person ...

  18. (PDF) How to Write a PhD Proposal

    A PhD proposal is a focused document that introduces your PhD study idea and seeks to convince the reader that your idea is interesting, original and viable within the allocated study period...

  19. How to Write a Research Proposal

    Introduces your topic. States your problem statement and the questions your research aims to answer. Provides context for your research. In a research proposal, an introduction can be a few paragraphs long. It should be concise, but don't feel like you need to cram all of your information into one paragraph.

  20. PDF How to Write Your PhD Proposal: A Step-By-Step Guide

    Keywords: PhD, Proposal, methodology, research, Proposal writing process Introduction Research is defined as a premeditated investigations using scientific methodology (quantitative, qualitative, experimental, observation and so on) to solve a severe problem (not ordinary problem) thus creating a second (new) knowledge. Research is further ...

  21. Writing a research proposal

    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:

  22. How to Write a Research Proposal in 2024: Structure, Examples & Common

    II. Research Proposal Writing A. Introduction. A research proposal is commonly written by scholars seeking grant funding for a research project when enrolling for a research-based postgraduate degree. Graduate and post-graduate students also embark on a university dissertation to obtain a degree or get that Ph.D. Although it is just a course ...

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    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 ...

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