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How to Write a Great PhD Research Proposal

Written by Mark Bennett

You'll need to write a research proposal if you're submitting your own project plan as part of a PhD application. A good PhD proposal outlines the scope and significance of your topic and explains how you plan to research it.

It's helpful to think about the proposal like this: if the rest of your application explains your ability to do a PhD, the proposal explains the actual PhD you plan to do. Of course, being able to effectively plan and explain a research project is one of the key qualifications for being able to complete one, which is why the proposal is such an important part of the PhD application process.

Thankfully, the secret to writing a good research proposal isn't complicated. It's simply a case of understanding what the proposal is for, what it needs to do and how it needs to be put together.

On this page

What is a PhD research proposal?

First things first, is a research proposal actually necessary for your PhD? It depends on the kind of project you want to do:

  • If your PhD is advertised by a university, you probably won't need to submit a research proposal for it. The broad aims and objectives for your PhD will already be defined: you just need to prove you're the right person to do it.
  • But, if you're proposing your own research topic to research within a university's PhD programme, you will need to write a proposal for it (the clue is in the word "proposing")

As a rule, advertised projects are very common in STEM subjects, whereas Arts, Humanities and Social Science students are more likely to propose their own PhDs.

Some PhD programmes actually wait and ask students to develop their research proposal during the degree (usually after they've completed some initial training). This is normal in the USA, but it's becoming more common for some UKRI-funded UK PhDs.

For the purposes of this guide we're going to assume that you do need to write a good research proposal as part of a successful PhD application. So let's explore what's involved in that.

What should a PhD research proposal include?

It's natural to be a little intimidated at the thought of structuring a PhD proposal, particularly if you've never planned and written anything like this before.

But here's the thing: a research proposal isn't a fiendish test designed to catch you out and stop you ever doing a PhD. It's actually much more boring than that.

All a research proposal really is is a document that demonstrates three things:

  • Your PhD is worthwhile
  • Your PhD is feasible
  • You are capable of completing it at this university

Or to put it even more simply: the PhD is worth doing, it's doable and you can do it.

Demonstrate your PhD is worthwhile (the what and the why)

A successful PhD project has to make a significant original contribution to knowledge – if it doesn't do that it won't meet the criteria for a doctoral degree and will probably fail the viva exam.

Your PhD proposal itself doesn't have to meet those criteria (or pass a viva!) but it does need to indicate that your PhD project eventually will.

It does that by first demonstrating that your research topic is original. That means nobody else has studied this same topic (or one very similar) before.

There are all sorts of ways a PhD can be original, from examining new data or primary sources to looking at existing material from a fresh perspective, or dealing with the impact of new events. It doesn't matter how your project is original, so long as your proposal is really specific about what makes it original.

You also need to explain why your proposed research will be academically significant. To do this properly, you'll need to acknowledge relevant existing scholarship and explain how your research will relate to it. You don't need to be exhaustive at this point, but you should be able to show how your PhD will contribute to its field and – ideally – indicate some of the gaps in knowledge it will aim to fill.

The final step in demonstrating your PhD is worthwhile is to suggest what will become possible as a result of your research. How could other researchers use or build upon your results? What might closing those gaps in academic knowledge mean for audiences outside the unviversity?

Demonstrate your PhD is feasible (the how)

It isn't enough just to show that your research is worth doing; it also needs to actually be doable.

The length of a full-time PhD is around three to four years in most countries (it's longer in for a PhD in the USA, but you don't spend all that time doing research).

Three years may seem like a long time, but researching a PhD is a lot of work and you'll probably spend at least some of your time on other activities like teaching, conference presentations or even publication.

So, one of the things your proposal needs to do is demonstrate that your project is feasible: that it fits within the scope of a PhD.

The most important criteria for this is to be clear about what you plan to do. It should be obvious from your proposal what the scope of your project is – what is and isn't included within it.

You also need to outline how you plan to go about your research. Where will you start and what order do you expect to proceed in? Is the logic for that obvious? If not, it's probably a good idea to explain it.

Finally, you need to explain the methodology you plan to use. This could include techniques for collecting data and sources or theoretical perspectives for analysing them – or both. You may also need to detail specific equipment you expect to use or fieldwork you'll need to undertake (including trips to archives or other external resources).

None of this needs to be exact or completely final. The key word here is 'plan' – but you do need to have one.

Demonstrate that you can complete it at this university (the who and the where)

So far we've thought about the project itself: what makes it worth doing and how it's going to get done. But your proposal also needs to address the who and the where: why are you the right person to carry out this research, and why do you want to do it at this particular university?

The first part of this is easier than it probably looks. Writing a good research proposal demonstrates enthusiasm for your project much more convincingly than simply saying you're very interested in it (a classic case of 'show, don't tell').

You also don't need to repeat your grades and academic achievements (other parts of your PhD application will cover those). Instead, try to underline experiences that relate to this project. Has a particular module or Masters dissertation topic prepared you with useful subject knowledge or methodological skills? If so, highlight it.

It's also fine, within reason, to be honest about the skills you don't have and to identify your training needs. This shows you're being practical about your project and thinking seriously about what it will require. Just make sure you can realistically acquire the skills and training you need within the time available (this goes back to the feasibility).

Showing your project is a good fit for the university is also relatively simple. There should already be some reasons why you've chosen this university for your PhD so make sure you explain what they are. Perhaps there's a particular supervisor you'd like to work with, or facilities and resources your research could use. The key is to emphasise the fit between the project and the university – so don't just say you want to research there because it's highly ranked.

PhD research proposal structure

Hopefully the above sections have given you a few ideas for the things your proposal needs to include. Let's be honest though, the scariest thing about a proposal isn't deciding what to include: it's actually writing it.

But, if we flip that on its head, we remember that all a research proposal really is is a piece of writing that follows a pretty standard format. And that's a lot less scary.

Research proposal structure

Because PhD proposals all have to do the same things, they mostly follow a similar structure. Yours will probably go something like this:

  • Title – Keep it simple and descriptive: the clever alliteration and quotes can come later when you write up your thesis. For now, you just want the person reading this to know exactly what your research is about and, perhaps, which prospective supervisor to send it to.
  • Overview – Start by defining your research question (the what) and explaining how it contributes to current work in your field (the why). This is also a good place to reference one or two pieces of scholarship: the full literature review can wait until your PhD begins, but you should show that you have some understanding of relevant academic research.
  • Methodology – Make sure the reader understands the practical and / or theoretical approaches you'll take to your research. What data will you collect, how will you collect it and how will you analyse it? Ideally refer to relevant research methods and models. It's also a good idea to provide some sort of roadmap for how you'll go about things. Don't worry, you can change it later (and you will).
  • Outcomes and impact – What will exist as a result of your research (other than just another PhD on a library shelf) and what will it make possible? You don't need to identify every specific outcome from your project (blue sky research is fine) but you should think about what some potential outcomes might be.

Chances are you may not need to include a specific conclusion as it should be obvious, by now, what your project is doing, how you're going to do it and why that matters. A quick summary sentence is fine though, if you think it will help.

Writing tips

Being able to effectively communicate academic concepts, ideas and results is a key skill for PhD research in all subjects, so think of your proposal as a chance to demonstrate this.

The good news is that the key principles of good proposal writing aren't that different from other work you've probably done as a Bachelors or Masters student:

  • Be clear – The person reading your research proposal should know exactly what it is you're proposing to research, with no room for ambiguity and confusion. This is important on a practical level (they need to know where to send it) but it's also important to the success of your application: a confusing proposal suggests a confused project. Try having a friend read it and ask them "do you know what it is I'm proposing to do here?" (even if they don't understand the details).
  • Be concise – You will have more ideas than you can include in your proposal. That's fine. Choose the best ones and leave the others for your interview.
  • be coherent – Follow something like the structure above. Don't start with your methodology, then say what it is you want to research.

How long should a PhD research proposal be?

Honestly? As long as the university asks for it to be. Most will have guidelines and you should follow them closely if so.

If you honestly can't find a suggested word count for your proposal, then consider asking a prospective supervisor. If you still aren't sure, aim for somewhere between 1,000-2,000 words.

As a very general rule, Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences are a bit longer than STEM proposals (and a lot of STEM students don't have to write one anyway, as we've explained).

Writing tips

Research proposals are a popular topic over on the FindAPhD blog, where we've shared stories of how students wrote theirs, along with mistakes to avoid and a counter-intuitive look at the things a PhD proposal doesn't actually need to do.

Here are a few general tips:

#1 Give yourself enough time to do a good job

Preparing to write a proposal takes time and effort. None of this is wasted as the process of evaluating and framing your ideas for a proposal will improve your project plan immensely. So will the need to decide which ideas to include.

But you need time and space to do that, so make sure you get it. Work backwards from PhD application deadlines and give yourself at least a few weeks to do a good job.

#2 Set out to impress

A good proposal isn't a begging letter. You're approaching the university with a great idea that's going to contribute to and enhance their research. Be honest, be realistic, but don't be unnecessarily humble. They should want you and your project.

#3 Demonstrate original thinking!

You may not need to present original research findings yet, but your proposal does need to present original ideas – and it should be clear why and how those ideas are original.

Make sure you indicate how your project is going to expand, enhance or even correct existing work in your field. Remember that making an "original contribution to knowledge" is a key part of what a PhD is.

Mistakes to avoid

Before you submit your research proposal, check that you haven't fallen into any of these common errors.

#1 Don't send the same proposal to several universities

A good proposal needs to explain why you want to do your research at a particular university. That's a big part of the feasibility (the fit between project, person and place) and methodology (how are you going to use this university's equipment and archives; when and where will you need to travel).

It's OK to apply to more than one university in parallel, but, in that case, you're writing research proposals.

#2 Be wary of using a PhD proposal template

It can be tempting to search for PhD proposal samples on the internet, but make sure you evaluate what you find. Some websites may host old proposals from previous PhD students, but there's no way of knowing how relevant these are to your subject and university – or if they were even successful! More 'generic' research proposal examples can offer guidance, but they won't be tailored to your specific project.

The best place to look for a PhD proposal sample is your university. Consider asking your supervisor if they can share a good proposal from a previous student in your subject – or put you in touch with a current student you can ask.

#3 Don't confuse the proposal with the PhD

We've covered this on the blog, but it's simple enough to include here too.

You're setting out to do a PhD, but you (probably!) haven't done one yet. So you don't need to include research findings, in-depth analysis or a comprehesive literature review. You need to make a case for the research and analysis you want to do.

#4 Don't ignore your university's help and guidance

The advice on this page is necessarily quite general. We're considering adding guides to writing PhD proposals in specific subjects in future but, for now, the best place to get specific advice for your academic field is probably the university you're applying to.

See if you can get some subject-specific tips by contacting a supervisor, or just checking with the admissions team for your department.

And remember: if they give you a structure and a word count, stick to it.

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Last Updated: 22 July 2022