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Writing a research proposal

Your research proposal is the most important part of your doctoral application. Find out how to write a proposal for your own research, for advertised PhD projects, and for Professional Doctorates.

Researcher working at a desk

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is the beginning of your doctoral project. The proposal outlines the intended focus of your research, the question you intend to explore, and the possibilities.

Doctoral research should be an original contribution to an academic field, and the research proposal should demonstrate that.

Research proposal structure

A research proposal should be concise and direct - the panel won’t be expecting you to know all the answers yet, but they need to see the need for the project, your planned approach or methodology, and its potential impact. Make sure your proposal includes these elements:

  • a relevant title for the project - the first step in writing your proposal is to decide on a title that clearly indicates the focus of your research.
  • an outline of your chosen research question or focus - this should be outlined at the beginning of your proposal, clearly stating any factors that make the project unique.
  • a brief overview of existing academic work on or connected to your topic - all proposals should include this, and a clear reason as to why your project will differ or add something new.
  • details of the methodology you intend to use - your proposal should also include your plan for the research over the course of your degree and what's called your 'research impact' - the effect your research will have beyond academia.

Your research proposal should be no more than 1500 words (not including references). Once you’ve drafted your proposal, ask your potential supervisor for feedback and work on any edits alongside them. Once both you and your supervisor are happy with the proposal, you can submit your application.

Top three tips for your research proposal

1. Be distinct

Amplify the originality of your research, particularly if your work will spotlight an underrepresented area of research or offer a new perspective on a major issue. Outline the need for your research and any elements that might facilitate real-world change.

2. Maximise the potential

How will your project contribute to the research community? Will it have potential for public engagement or be of benefit to a certain community? What could the outcomes be?

Demonstrate your project's scope in your proposal to help it stand out to a decision panel, and to highlight your potential as a researcher.

3. Show your skill

Use your proposal to demonstrate your knowledge of the field, your grasp of methodologies and key concepts, and your abilities as a researcher. Make sure your research plan is feasible and shows your understanding of research practice. The panel will be looking out for good planning and project management.

Research proposals for named PhD projects

Academic support

Make sure you state which of the projects you are choosing to apply for. Your statement should be concise, with your key points clearly emphasised and detailed. This will help you make a strong impression on the application panel.

Your proposal should provide an outline that demonstrates your understanding of the research project you are applying for, its goals and potential impact, and the approach that you would take as a doctoral candidate. Demonstrate your knowledge of the field and current academic work on the topic and outline what sort of methodology you would choose.

For example, what do you think would be the best way to collect data for the project, and why? Include any potential avenues you would pursue, sharing the project’s research outcomes and possible long-term impacts you could facilitate. Make sure that your proposal has a clear plan for undertaking the research in the proposed timeframe. Your potential supervisor may be able to offer guidance on this.

The statement should be 1500 words, not including any references or appendices.

Personal statements for Professional Doctorates

The researcher is at the heart of any research project -  what is about this research that inspires you? Does your personal or professional background give you a unique insight?

Your personal statement should be a snapshot of you as an individual, your professional identity and your experience. The purpose is to demonstrate to the panel that you have the potential to be an excellent researcher and that you are the right person for your proposed project.

Ready to apply?

When you’ve thought about your proposal, the next step is to submit your application. Read our guide on how to apply.