Your research proposal is your opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge of your subject and how you intend to influence your desired research area. We match your research proposal with the appropriate supervisors to ensure you have the best support during your PhD so before you apply you should find out which researchers are working in your subject area and contact them with any questions. Or, you can get in touch with the relevant graduate school to find out more about available supervisors. 

Do you need to write a proposal?

If you are applying for an advertised research opportunity, such as a project with guaranteed funding, or one that is in competition for the NERC Doctoral Training Awards, you do not need to write a research proposal unless specifically requested. When completing the application form, in the section which asks for a research proposal, include the full project title and the names of the supervisors involved. If you’re not sure contact your graduate school

If you do need to write a proposal, make sure you read through our general guidance and contact your academic department before you apply to find out whether they have any additional requirements. 

You should ask:

  • do you require a proposal?
  • how long does the proposal need to be?
  • do you require any additional evidence? 

Proposal structure

Your research proposal should normally include the following information, but this may vary according to which school you are applying to: 

Title

A working title of your research; this will change over the course of your research as your project develops but it is good to have a starting point.    

Context and literature

Set the scene of your research clearly. Show that you understand the research area and have started to develop an understanding of your research topic.  Review current literature related to your intended project to demonstrate understanding of the subject.

Make sure that you:

  • show awareness of current knowledge and debates 
  • make reference to key articles and texts
  • demonstrate your own expertise gained from previous study or employment 

If you have identified academics involved in your research area you should contact them to discuss their work. This would be a good opportunity to get further advice about your proposal and to potentially start building a supervisor relationship. 

It is your chance to explain where there is a gap in current understanding while leading on to how your original research can push knowledge forward. 

Aims of your research

Your research aims show the overall purpose of your study and need to be carefully considered. Keep your research proposal concise, focus on one or two key research aims and then plan how research questions can achieve the aims. This will help you, and potential supervisors, to determine if they are achievable during your research degree.

Methodology

Consider how you intend to carry out your research, and address this in your proposal.

  • what type of data do you require, for example qualitative, quantitative or a combination of both. 
  • how are you going collect and then analyse the data?
  • how will these methods address your research aims, relating to current literature?

If you are applying for practice-led research you should explain why you decided to do so and provide evidence of your previous experience, or how you can develop your skills in this area.  

Plan your timescale

Plan a realistic timescale for your project so that your potential supervisors can ensure that they are available to support you. This will also demonstrate that you have thought out an achievable research project. You should consider:  

  • possible challenges you could encounter and how you aim to overcome them
  • what you believe will be the milestones of your research 
  • what you wish to achieve each year of your research project

Expected outcomes

Explaining potential outcomes shows you have thought through your research and why it should be undertaken. This may include how your research builds on current knowledge and what new understanding you will bring to your field. 

References

Focus your reading so that your references are relevant and up-to-date. References should be in the Harvard style

Proofreading your proposal

Your proposal is your chance to show how accurately, coherently and concisely you can present information. It would also be a good idea to let other people proofread it and check it for clarity.

When proofreading, ask yourself:

  • is your proposal clear and easily understood?
  • have you written in a focused and concise way? 
  • does your proposal follow a logical progression that tells the reader a short story about your research intentions, your justification for them, your methods, and what you hope to find out?

After submission

The research proposal you submit is the start of the research process and you are not bound by the methodology you outline. Once you are accepted onto a PhD programme, you will refine and develop your original proposal as your knowledge grows and regular discussions begin with your supervisory team.