How To Write A PhD Proposal

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

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

What is a PhD research proposal?

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

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

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

What is the purpose of my PhD research proposal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do I have to stick to my PhD research proposal?

No - not all research proposals are set in stone.

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

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

What should I include in my PhD proposal?

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

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

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

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

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

How should I structure my PhD research proposal?

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

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

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

  1. A clear working title that includes relevant keywords relating to your proposal and potential supervisors.
  2. A clear statement of your research topic and hypotheses, plus any questions and sub-questions you wish to try and answer.
  3. Background knowledge and context, including how your research fits in with the existing key literatures, and an awareness of current developments in the field.
  4. 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.
  5. Explain why is it important that this gap is filled both in academic terms and in terms of general public knowledge.
  6. An outline of the methods or approaches you plan to use to answer the proposed questions in your research topic.
  7. An idea of the timescale involved, including an overall strategy and the stages of your research.
  8. What resources you intend to use.
  9. References that demonstrate your grasp of the current literature and how your project will contribute to this, listed in the appropriate convention, e.g. Harvard. These should be used throughout your proposal to demonstrate you have read and understood the work of others.

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

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

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

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

Tips for writing your PhD research proposal

1. Think about your main research question

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

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

2. Get started early

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

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

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

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

3. Do your homework

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

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

4. Don't ramble

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

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

5. Let your passion show

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

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

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

6. Be persuasive

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

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

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

7. Ask for feedback

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

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

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

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

8. Don't stress

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

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

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

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

Further information

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