How to write a successful research proposal

Author
Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
Posted
November, 2016

Your research proposal can make or break your PhD application. Discover how you can make the strongest possible impression

Research proposals are used to persuade potential supervisors and funders that your work is worth their support. They're typically between 1,500 and 3,000 words in length.

Your research proposal must passionately articulate what you want to research and why, convey your understanding of existing literature, and clearly define at least one original question and your approach to answering it. While it must be well-structured, your research proposal should retain sufficient flexibility to comfortably accommodate any changes that you need to make as your PhD progresses.

Layout and formats vary, so it's advisable to consult your potential supervisor before beginning. Here's what most research proposals include…

Title page

Your provisional title should be around ten words in length, and clearly and accurately indicate your area of study and/or proposed approach. It should be catchy, informative and - most importantly - interesting.

The title page should also include personal information, such as your name, academic title, date of birth, nationality and contact details.

Aims and objectives

This is a short summary of your project. Your aims should be two or three broad statements that emphasise what you ultimately want to achieve, complemented by several focused, feasible and measurable objectives - the steps that you'll take to answer each of your research questions. This involves clearly and briefly outlining:

  • how your research addresses a gap in or builds upon existing knowledge;
  • how your research links to the department that you're applying to;
  • the academic, cultural, political and/or social significance of your research questions.

Literature review

This section discusses the most important theories, models and texts that surround and influence your research questions, conveying your understanding and awareness of the key issues and debates.

It should also focus on the theoretical and practical knowledge gaps that your work aims to address, as this ultimately justifies and provides the motivation for your project.

Methodology

This section outlines how you'll answer each of your research questions. A strong, well-written methodology is always crucial, but especially so if your project involves extensive collection and significant analysis of primary data.

The methodology identifies the data collection and analytical techniques that are available to you, before justifying the ones you'll use in greater detail. You'll also define the population that you're intending to examine.

You should also show that you're aware of the limitations of your research, qualifying the parameters that you plan to introduce. Remember: it's more impressive to do a fantastic job of exploring a narrower topic than a decent job of exploring a wider one.

Timetable

Concluding or following on from your methodology, your timetable should identify how long you'll need to complete each individual step - perhaps using bi-weekly or monthly timeslots. This helps the reader to evaluate the feasibility of your project.

Bibliography

Finally, you'll provide a list of the most significant texts, plus any attachments such as your academic CV. Demonstrate your skills in critical reflection by selecting only those resources that are most appropriate.

Final checks

Before submitting your research proposal, you should ensure that:

  • every page is numbered;
  • it is professional, interesting and informative;
  • the proposal is proofread by both an experienced academic (to confirm that it conforms to academic standards) and a layman (to correct any grammatical or spelling errors);
  • you've included a contents page;
  • you've used a clear and easy-to-read structure, with appropriate headings.