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Writing your research proposal

When you apply for a research degree at the 鶹AV, you may have to submit a research proposal that outlines, among many other things, the nature of your research, and why it's important. 

To help make yours as compelling as possible, read our helpful hints for creating a clear, concise and engaging research proposal.

Prospective supervisors will not be expecting you to have all the answers at this stage; if accepted onto a research degree, your ideas will develop throughout the course of your studies.

What should a research proposal contain?

  • Your title should be clear and easy-to-understand.
  • The abstract is a concise and engaging summary of your research question and approach (around 300 words). It should be written as a standalone piece so that any prospective supervisor can understand what you plan to do, and why, from the abstract alone.

  • This section should provide a background to your research - what you want to investigate and why the research is important/needed.

  • You should clearly communicate the research question(s) you would seek to answer in your intended research proposal. Depending on your chosen subject area you may also wish to specify some aims, objectives and hypotheses. If you are not sure whether this is necessary, discuss this with your potential supervisor.

  • In this section you will need to demonstrate your understanding of the key literature that relates to your research question(s), and outline your critical understanding of what previous research has found. You may also have identified any gaps in the current knowledge related to your area of research, and you can highlight these here.

  • A rationale and description of the approach you would intend to take to answer your research question(s). You should discuss the general approach you would take to answering your research question(s) e.g. in a Social Science PhD, whether you’d take a qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods approach, as well as considering the more specific issues e.g. would you use interviews or focus groups.
  • Clearly outline any separate studies you expect to conduct and how they link or relate to each other. As a rule of thumb, most Science, Social Science and Engineering PhDs research proposals would be expected to contain 3-4 separate studies, each approximately equivalent to a Masters thesis project in size.

  • What ethical considerations do you anticipate within your research, and how might you approach these?

  • Sharing the findings of your research is a fundamental part of being a researcher, and prospective supervisors will be interested to know how you anticipate disseminating your research findings.

  • A research degree can take between 3-6 years to complete, so a timeline of the key stages of your research should be included.

  • Don't forget to include your  

How long should my research proposal be? 

Most proposals are between 1,500-4,000 words, but the exact length will vary depending on which research area you're applying to join. 

Your potential supervisor can let you know any specific requirements for the area you’re applying to.

You are strongly encouraged to work with your potential supervisor to refine your proposal before you make a formal application. This way, you can make sure the project is a good fit with their interests and expertise.

Top tips

Do your homework - make sure your problem hasn't already been solved.

Engage the reader - you don't want the reader to switch off!

Be realistic - especially about timescales and accessing data

Take your time - it's important not to rush writing your research proposal 

Seek feedback - it's always a good idea to get others to read your research proposal

Prepare to be flexible, your project can evolve or change

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Important do’s and don’ts

Do:

  • Write your research proposal in your own words.
  • Acknowledge any sources you used for information or ideas presented in your research proposal.
  • Make sure the research proposal you are about to submit looks fantastic - first impressions count!

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  • Copy and paste text directly from sources such as journal articles without acknowledging them in the text. Some universities use plagiarism checking software on the research proposals submitted to them.
  • Use AI or similar tools to produce your finished proposal.

My PhD supervisor supported my career ambitions and has been crucial in getting me where I am today.

Robert Lawerence, PhD Molecular Microbiology

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Postgraduate Research Proposal Guide

Learn more about research proposals and the process involved in creating the perfect application. 

Follow our step by step guide

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