How do I write a PhD research proposal?

Ask An Academic: How Do I Write A PhD Research Proposal?

Question: Help! I’m hoping to be accepted onto a PhD programme, and have been asked to write a research proposal. I’ve been told it forms the most important part of my application, but I have no idea what it is or how to start.

Answer: A PhD research proposal is an outline of the research you will be pursuing as a doctoral candidate. It’s by far the most important part of a PhD application.

A research proposal needs to:

1. Formulate and define a clear, novel research question; this may take the form of a hypothesis to be tested, or an open-ended enquiry.

2. Articulate the relevance and importance of the proposed research question in the context of contemporary intellectual tradition, illustrating its context in terms of originality and importance.

3. Outline a practical methodology which enables you to respond to the research question while simultaneously being able to evaluate the resulting data you collect.

4. Suggest what you would like to discover at the end of your research.

5. Provide a preliminary timeline for writing a PhD thesis.

Generally speaking, a PhD research proposal should ring up to between 1,500-2,000 words in length (not counting your references or abstract). It’s best to get in touch with prospective supervisors beforehand so you can discuss the relevancy of your proposal and get them on your side on the admissions committee.

Structuring a PhD Research Proposal

Unless you are provided with a specific template (do check!), the following elements should form the main structure of your research proposal:

1. Title Page – A working title of your proposed work; this may not be the final title of your research project, but must demonstrate that you have thought about your objectives.

2. Abstract – A brief overview of the general area of study (of roughly 300 words) that summarises the what, why and how in what you are proposing.

3. Literature Review – You should develop your proposal to demonstrate that you are aware of the important issues, themes and debates in the relevant literature, identifying existing gaps (both theoretical and practical). You must refer to key articles and texts and briefly show that you understand how they are relevant to your research area. A PhD is an original piece of work and so you should demonstrate that your proposed area has not been studied before.

4. Key Research Questions – In this section you need to outline the aims and objectives of the research. What are the key questions your research will be focusing on and seeking to answer? If you have an hypothesis, what is it?

5. Methodology – You need to explain what methods of investigation you are planning to leverage within the research (whether quantitative or qualitative or both), providing some justification for why they are most appropriate, and the limits and potential you envision.

6. Timeline / Research Planning – An outline of the timescale of the research, indicating how long different tasks are expected to take, and the sequence of the project in the time available.

7. References – You need to include a list of references to key articles and texts that are both cited within the research proposal and provided as a bibliography at the end of the proposal.

Good luck!

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Photo: Markus Spiske


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