Writing A PhD Research Proposal

The success of your PhD application largely depends on the quality of your thesis proposal.

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

What should I include in my proposal?

Overall your proposal needs to explain what exactly you want to research for three or four years, and the reasons why.

However, you will also need to include other details, such as why your area of research is important, what gap(s) in the literature you hope to fill, and what broader relevance your ideas have to your chosen field.

You will need to make your application stand out from the crowd with a well-written proposal, so they will be more likely to consider you for the place over someone else.

The task of writing a proposal is very different from writing an essay. You need to think about the questions you want to answer through your research, rather than putting forward an argument.

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

How should I structure my research proposal?

This varies a great deal from institution to institution, and between different subjects. This means you need to find out in advance what the guidelines are for the departments you would be interested in studying at.

For example, the faculty of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick require prospective PhD students to write a statement of research from 500 to 1000 words long, whereas the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford do not ask for a formal research proposal, just a statement of why their programmes are of interest to you and the particular areas of research that appeal to you most.

However, the things you need to include in the proposal are usually very standard. These include:

  • A clear statement of your research topic and hypotheses, plus any questions and sub-questions you wish to try and answer.
  • How your research fits in with the existing key literatures, including an awareness of current developments in the field.
  • How you aim to make an original and necessary contribution to the current literature and details of the gap you hope to fill with your own research.
  • Explain why is it important that this gap is filled both in academic terms and in terms of general public knowledge.
  • An outline of the methods you plan to us to answer the proposed questions in your research topic.
  • An idea of the timescale involved, including the stages of your research.
  • What resources you intend to use.

You do not need to have full details of the methods you will use to answer your research questions but you need to demonstrate that you have already given some thought about how you will do things.

The important thing is that you show the institution you are applying to that your project is feasible in the time period available - it's good to show ambition, but make sure you have thought about the methodological issues.

If your proposal is too elaborate and not feasible within 3 or 4 years, your application is likely to be unsuccessful.

If you are asked to submit quite a long proposal, make sure it is sub-headed so it is more readable for potential supervisors.

Tips to help you start writing your research proposal

As it's pretty difficult to try and formulate some sort of proposal from scratch, we have a few tips to help you start putting it together.

First of all, think about your main research question, and how it could be broken down into a chain of manageable chunks that are all connected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you have any friends who are also looking to apply for a PhD, a few group sessions on looking at each other’s proposals and suggesting improvements could prove to be very useful.

Talking to people who are currently studying for a PhD will also help, as they can explain about their experience of the application process and what they wrote for their research proposal.

Hopefully they will provide you with some useful tips on how to make your application successful and general advice for getting together that final draft of your proposal.

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

Supervisors know that the course of your research will change as your studies progress, so don’t panic about what you write in the proposal will be exactly what you will do over the next 3 or 4 years.

The most important thing is that you are able to demonstrate a well thought out idea and evaluate how you will contribute to the current knowledge and literature.

You need to make sure you are able to show this first time in your proposal, as there are no second chances to prove you are good enough to study at a particular institution.