Guidelines to write a PhD proposal

Purpose of a research proposal

A PhD is awarded mainly as the result of you making an original contribution to the knowledge in your research field. At the application stage for a PhD you are asked to write a research proposal so that you can present and justify your research idea and to describe the practical ways in which you intend to conduct this research.

Your research proposal will be used, along with your academic credentials and references, to decide whether you are a suitable candidate for PhD studies. It will help the selectors (academics in the Department you are applying to) decide if your research interests match the Department is whether they will be able to provide suitably interested and qualified supervisor/s; and whether you have provided evidence of possessing the ability to identify and develop an interesting research question

Overall your objective is to communicate that you are proposing to undertake an academic piece of research which will be: original; based on critical assessment; add to the existing body of knowledge; and doable in the required timeframe. The research proposal should describe the research problem you plan to address (question/s or hypothesis), state why it is important and outline the research methods you plan to use and why they are appropriate and feasible. The research hypothesis or question/s must be sufficiently narrow and specific to be answerable within the period available for completing your thesis.

It is generally accepted that if you are given a place on a PhD programme then the research you undertake may differ in some respects from that outlined in your research proposal so you are likely to be able to develop and refine your thinking and methodology in the early stages of the PhD. However, you will still be expected to stay within the research interests of the Department and your supervisor/s, so it is rare for the PhD research to radically diverge from the original proposal without very good reason, e.g. the unforeseeable loss of access to a core data source. This means that you need to be genuinely interested in and confident about completing the research you are proposing.

Content of the Research Proposal

There is no one right way to write a research proposal and it is very important that you first check to see if either the University or Department you are applying to have any requirements in terms of format, length and/or content.

Notwithstanding, any specific requirements, your proposal should aim to cover

  • The overall theme of your topic and why it is of interest to you.

  • The hypothesis that you will test, or the research question or questions you plan to answer.

  • Why you think the research is worth doing.

A brief, selective and critical review (assessment of strengths and weaknesses) of the Relevant literature: to show your understanding of the main debates and issues in your research area (this also provides evidence of how you have begun to prepare for your research); and how your proposed research will add to, or re-conceptualise this.

  • How you will do the research the methodology you propose to use, and its appropriateness for answering your research question /s or testing your hypothesis. This section will vary significantly for empirical and theoretical/philosophical research. In the case of the former, you will need to say wheather your research will be descriptive or exploratory, what data you will use and how you will you collect analyse and measure it, what problems you might encounter and how will you overcome them. Are there any ethical issues to be considered? Will you need any additional training?

  • Include a timeline which shows you will be able to complete your research within the allocated time. Key stages (which may overlap) are likely to include: refining the research proposal; literature review; developing research methods; data collection/fieldwork; analysis; writing the draft; final submission

  • State how your research will fit within the established or developing specialist research areas of the Department you are applying to

  • If you have been in contact with a member of the academic staff to discuss your proposed Research topic (a highly recommended tactic) you should say so and give their name/s

When you have written your first full draft read back over it and critically assess whether you have answered the following questions in a clear and concise way:

  • What is the research about?

  • Why do you want to do it?

  • Why you believe you will be able to do it?

  • Why it is significant?

  • What you aim to achieve by completing it?

  • Have you shown that you understand how your research will contribute to the conceptual understanding and /or knowledge of your topic, e.g. expand knowledge or theory, improve research design, and improve analysis?

  • Have you explained how you plan to conduct the research, e.g. empirical or theoretical, qualitative and/or quantitative, will you use existing data/sources or collect your own, the tools you will use, e.g. modelling surveys interviews observation case studies

  • Is it clear how your research will fit within, and contribute to the Department

If you have access to a friendly academic do ask them to read through your draft and comment on its academic credibility


While content is of primary importance the format of your research proposal also needs attention If you are not given a word limit you should aim to write around 1,000 -1,500 words but no more than 2,000. However, it is possible that you will be given a word limit lower than this, especially for a funding application, in which case still aim to say something about each of the main points above.

  • Unless otherwise stated use 1.5 spacing, at least font size 10 and leave standard margins at the sides, top and foot of the pages. Number the pages, e.g. 1of 3 and include your name and proposal title in a header or footer on each page

  • Use headings for each of the major sections and sub headings where you think these are necessary

  • Avoid jargon, use clear simple English, it should be understandable by non-experts

  • Ensure you use correct grammar and spelling

  • Attach a properly referenced bibliography for the books and papers you have read It is a good idea to have a friend read through your draft for sense and to help you pick up errors and typos.

Personal Statements

You may also be asked to provide a personal statement as part of your PhD application. In this you should cover the following (and anything else you are specifically asked for):

  • Why you want to do a PhD

  • Why you want to do it in the Department you are applying to

  • Why you want to do it at their University

  • Why you are a suitable candidate for a PhD programme and in particular for the programme of study (e.g. quality and relevance of your academic credentials, any research experience you have, any research papers you have written, presented or had published, evidence of your ability to work on your own, accept supervision, handle a heavy work load, manage your time, engage in departmental life

  • The reasons for your choice of research project and why it is of interest to you

  • How your research and doing a PhD fits in with your career plans

  • Depending on where you are applying, the funding they offer and how this is applied for, and your specific needs and circumstances, it may also be appropriate to mention something about your funding needs here, e.g. reiterate that you would like to be considered for all /some/specific funding options they offer that you are eligible for, or that you have already sourced funding.

The focus of a personal statement for a PhD application should be communicating that you are committed to your research area and to doing a PhD, that you understand the level, quantity and type of work involved, and that you are equipped to complete an original piece of research, to a high academic standard within the required timescale. In short, you want the selectors to conclude that giving you a place on the PhD programme (and/or access to funds) will be a good investment of their time and resources.