How to...
Prepare a proposal for a research degree

This page is intended as a useful guide, but does not replace your university’s regulations.

What is a research proposal?

Paul Oliver (2004) describes a research proposal as a synopsis of proposed research which has to be submitted for approval before data collection can be started, and should set out clearly the research intended and the methods to be used.

Walliman (2001) considers it as an explanation of the nature of research, why it is needed, the likely outcomes and the resources needed. Sharp et al. (2003) see the research proposal as a document which finally establishes both the need for the study and confirms that the student has or can acquire the skills or other resources required, while Punch (2000) views it as an opportunity for the student to present ideas and share in the decision-making process.

Depending on the stage when the proposal is written it can be either a discussion document, intended to act as a matchmaker between students' interests and the research facilities of the university, or a contract between the university and the student as to the scope and nature of the research to be undertaken.

Why do a research proposal?

A research proposal is a useful quality and reality check and because it will be seen and approved by others, it gives you the assurance that you are not doing a piece of research in isolation. Likewise, it makes your university aware of the research being carried out in its name.

The research proposal also clarifies expectations and acts as a record for all concerned of the research to be carried out.

You will usually need a research proposal:

  1. Prior to registration: when you are applying to study for a research degree. 
  2. Post-registration: when you are registered for a research degree.

There are several types of research degree:

  1. MPhil/MRes – the object is to show mastery of the main research techniques, and in the case of the MPhil, to offer research which is a new perspective rather than a new contribution to knowledge.
  2. MPhil/MRes transfer – provides the foundation for PhD research, which should be an original contribution to knowledge.
  3. PhD direct – you would probably only go down this route if you’ve got a substantial amount of research training such as in an MPhil or an MBA, and a readily defined problem that you wanted to investigate.

Your starting point will be to study your university regulations, which may be university-wide or may be specific to your department. These documents may well have very specific requirements such as the number of pages or the house style and may also indicate the sort of questions you should tackle in the research proposal.

While you are in the process of developing your proposal, get feedback and input from your supervisor, experts in the area, and your PhD student colleagues.

Your research proposal should be written clearly enough to be understood by the non-expert and without reference to other documents.

If you need inspiration for finding a problem to tackle, start by taking a broad area that interests you and refine it further through a study of the literature. Other sources of topics include (Dunford, 2004):

  • Interests arising from previous years of study, or from the workplace
  • Research articles, which often list areas for further research
  • Media reports, both general and professional, may stimulate ideas for applied research
  • Insights from practitioners
  • Advertisements from those who want people to research in a particular topic

Punch (2000) proposes writing a two-page document which focuses on the basic questions – what is your topic, how are you going to research it, why is it important. The approach involves going through a number of stages:

  • Select a research area
  • Develop a topic within that area 
  • Select the most promising topic 
  • Develop the research questions, both general and specific
  • Determine the type of data needed
  • Select the research design, data collection methods and data analysis techniques

At the stage prior to registration, university departments are probably only concerned that you have thought about the area, have some basic research aptitude, and are interested in an area that they can support. At the post-registration stage, they will be looking for assurances:

  • That the subject is worth researching, lends itself to being researched, is sufficiently challenging, can be completed in the right amount of time, and can be adequately resourced. 
  • That you have the necessary ability to develop a complex research topic, the expository skills to explain what you are doing, and the thoroughness to collect and analyse the data.

  • Dunford, R. (2004), "Developing a Research Proposal", in Burton, S. and Steane, P. (eds.), Surviving Your Thesis, Routledge, London, UK
  • Oliver, P. (2004), Writing Your Thesis, Sage, London, UK
  • Punch, K.F. (2000), Developing Effective Research Proposals, Sage, London, UK
  • Sharp, J.A., Peters, J. and Howard, K. (2003), The Management of a Student Research Project, 3rd ed., Gower, Aldershot, UK
  • Walliman, N. (2001), Your Research Project - A Step-by-Step Guide for the First Time Researcher, Sage, London, UK

Writing an initial research proposal to gain a place

Where the PhD is taught by research, prospective students will almost certainly be required, prior to registration, to write an outline proposal. This is less likely to be the case for a US-style PhD which follows the route of two years coursework and two years dissertation.

In such cases, you may be required to support your application with an essay/statement of purpose that describes your research interests, your particular desire to study at the university concerned, your employment experiences, and anything else that may have developed you to the point where you wish to do a PhD.

The guidelines below, with suggested structure and questions, have been compiled after a study of a number of institutions, including those rated in the top 20 for doctoral studies by the Financial Times.

They may provide a good framework for you to firm up your ideas for doctoral research. However, the final proposal you submit with your application should follow the style proposed by the institution in its web pages and prospectus.

This type of proposal will be relatively short – an average stipulation is 4-5 pages, 1,500 to 2,000 words.

At that length, it clearly cannot be definitive, and the purpose is to provide a general description of the research, as a document which can serve as a basis for further discussion rather than a contract. It is expected that the area will change and evolve as you get further into the subject.

The title should be descriptive of the area to be covered. State the broad field of the topic and how it relates to the research question. 

It might also be useful to think about: Why this area is important? Why you are interested and how your qualifications/experience match this area? What are the objectives of your research? Are there any particular problems? Are you drawing on different disciplines?

The literature review should evaluate and focus on cutting-edge research and key studies. 

It is particularly important to appreciate the main theoretical/conceptual contributions to the area, and how sound these are. Will your thesis build on these? If there are various theoretical perspectives, do you intend to use one in particular, if so, why?

You should also include important practitioner contributions to the research. For example, do such contributions propose a particular model that could benefit from serious research?

Reference should be made to key texts, and you should provide a bibliography. State the significance of your own research for the field, such as how will it add to the debate.

What are the research questions you will be considering? How do these relate to the literature? Are you able to develop a hypothesis? Why are the questions important and interesting? How do they relate to the published literature? You will also need to demonstrate that the topic is manageable in the timeframe.

This section looks at how you intend to carry out the research. What methods and techniques (questionnaires, experiments, observations etc.) you intend to use to investigate the problem, and how you will design the research. 

What outcomes do you expect from your study? Think particularly about new knowledge, implications for practice, contribution to debates, filling a gap in research.

A PhD should be an original contribution to knowledge, so it is important that you give some indication of how your research will do this.

Provide a brief timetable of the major stages of the research over a three-year period. What are the main goals and milestones?

You don't need to list these in a formal sense – they will be covered elsewhere in the application. But this is an opportunity for you to say why you are particularly interested in the topic and well qualified to pursue it.