Research proposal guidelines

the strongest proposals are likely to contain many of the following:


This can change, but make sure to include important ‘key words’ that will relate your proposal to relevant potential supervisors, funding schemes and so on. Make sure that your title goes beyond simply describing the subject matter – it should give an indication of your approach or key questions.

Background – You should establish the context to, and rationale for, your research based on a reading of the relevant academic and/or practitioner literature. Where possible, cite relevant authors and studies, and explain how this research builds on your previous academic work or professional experience. You should discuss the intellectual importance of your work, its contribution to your subject area, and its originality, which, in time, form three of the four main criteria for assessing your PhD.

Aims and objectives – Set out the central aims and research questions that guide your research. What hypothesis or argument are you trying to explore and what questions are you trying to answer? Set out your terms of reference clearly and precisely. These may cover what you intend to achieve by the research in general and, more specifically, how the research fits the background and the outcomes from the project. 

Methods and techniques – Explain how your approach to collecting and analysing information will help you satisfy your aims and objectives. Potential data collection methods and possible analytical techniques give a sense of the direction of the research. Explain the choices behind case study organisations or locations, as well as sampling strategies or particular computer-based techniques.

Rationale – contextualise your questions/aims in a broader field of study, identifying the main literature that you are addressing. You need to explain why your research questions/hypotheses are important and topical.

Project management – You don’t need to produce a detailed time plan because research projects evolve. However, it is extremely useful to explain in general terms what you are proposing to do, and when, in order to get a sense of the scale of the task. This is especially important if you are proposing to undertake case study work or fieldwork.

Ethics – Almost inevitably your research will raise some ethical issues and you should aspire to conduct your research with the highest ethical standards.

Health and safety – All types of research have implications for health and safety, albeit some types of work are more risky than others. Where appropriate your proposal should seek to identify any issues and explain how you may address them.

References – Please enter a reference list using Harvard Notation. It is useful for potential supervisors to better understand the breadth and depth of your reading to date.

Appendices – These are a useful way of including additional supporting material while keeping the main body of the proposal succinct.

Timeline – You don’t need to produce a detailed time plan, but it is helpful to provide a summary of what you are planning to do and when. You will be expected to submit your thesis within three years (six years for part-time students) so it is important you have a feasible timeline. This section is especially important if you are proposing to undertake case study work or fieldwork.

Bibliography – a short bibliography of relevant works in your research area.

6 steps to a successful research proposal

A good research proposal should not be complicated. However, it can be challenging to write and it is important to get right. A PhD is challenging, so it is good training working on your research proposal. Although there is no exact prescribed format for a general research proposal (across all subjects), a research proposal should generally include six main sections, as detailed below:

1:  A clear working title for your research project

  • What will you call your project?
  • What key words would describe your proposal?

2:  A clear statement about what you want to work on and why it is important, interesting, relevant and realistic

  • What are your main research objectives? These could be articulated as hypotheses, propositions, research questions, or problems to solve
  • What difference do you think your research will make?
  • Why does this research excite you?
  • What research ‘gaps’ will you be filling by undertaking your project?
  • How might your research ‘add value’ to the subject?
  • Is your research achievable in the time allocated? (e.g. 3 years full‐time)

3:  Some background knowledge and context of the area in which you wish to work, including key literature, key people, key research findings

  • How does your work link to the work of others in the same field or related fields?
  • Would your work support or contest the work of others?
  • How does your work relate to the expertise within the department you are applying to?

4:  Some consideration of the methods/approach you might use

  • How will you conduct your research?
  • Will you use existing theories, new methods/approaches or develop new methods/approaches?
  • How might you design your project to get the best results/findings?

5:  Some indication of the strategy and timetable for your research project and any research challenges you may face

  • What would be the main stages of your project?
  • What would you be expecting to do in each year of your PhD?
  • What challenges might you encounter and how might your overcome these?

6:  A list of the key references which support your research proposal

  • References should be listed in the appropriate convention for your subject area (e.g. Harvard). Such references should be used throughout your research proposal to demonstrate that you have read and understood the work of others
  • Other relevant material that you are aware of, but not actually used in writing your proposal, can also be added as a bibliography

All of the above six sections are important but section 2 is particularly important because in any research project, establishing your main purpose represents the whole basis for completing the research programme. Therefore, the value of your proposed research is assessed in relation to your research aims and objectives.