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Writing a research proposal

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Advice and guidance on writing your research proposal

If you’re thinking of applying to do an MPhil and/or PhD, you will need to write a research proposal. The prospect of writing a research proposal can be daunting. Writing a good research proposal is challenging, but it shouldn’t be complicated. With the right advice and guidance, you can make a success of it.


The basic principles of a research proposal

A research proposal is primarily about the art of persuasion: persuading your audience that what you are proposing is interesting and feasible, and convincing them you have the knowledge, skills and stamina to work through your ideas to a satisfactory conclusion.

In all cases, your proposal:

  • should signal the importance of what you want to do 
  • communicate the intellectual content in relation to existing research and its topicality 
  • demonstrate that your research strategy is feasible and that you can take the project from proposal to thesis stage 

Think of yourself as the researcher in relation to a specific audience, for example the tutor or members of the awards panel. As the researcher, you need to develop your idea and communicate it in terms how it relates to the department. To do this, think about your proposal’s originality, visibility and worth and how these levels evolve and develop.

For example, why not think about it in relation to the public interest, or how it relates to literature. Where are the spaces and justifications for your idea? What would your research be worth? How would it contribute to its field?

This thinking helps you define the anatomy of the proposal itself: its content, what it needs to communicate, what you need to address, and the content of your work.


Writing your proposal

One of the most important things to do is to make sure you put forward your case in clear and accessible terms. Steer clear of disciplinary jargon or academic shorthand unless it is absolutely necessary to effectively communicate your thinking.

Essentially you are writing yourself into a scholarly community, so as well as stating what you want to do and why, you need to make sure that your proposal fits with the ethos and aims of the intellectual community, department and supervisors that you are applying to be a part of. Therefore it’s really important that you research the community and make contact with your prospective supervisor prior to writing and submitting your proposal. 

You should check your subject’s particular conventions and expectations, but the following are always important considerations:

  • Stay within the length stipulated. For example, researchers applying to Goldsmiths’ Doctoral Centre are required to submit a proposal of 1,500 words. Don’t alienate the reader by ignoring guidelines.
  • Remember it’s a proposal, not an essay. Stick to the basic principles as outlined above. 
  • Your proposal should be realistic and plausible. Remember you are proposing a piece of work that needs to be delivered within a specific period of time. 

Structuring your proposal 

Although there is no prescribed format, general (across all subjects) research proposals have similar structures. If external funding is sought, then it's usually known as ‘case for support’.

Our top recommendations are:

  • Formulate your problem or identified ‘gap’ as a question.
  • Set aims and objectives. The aims are the principal directions and themes of your work. The objectives are the specific, reliable outcomes you will achieve.
  • Demonstrate an awareness of the academic literature around the project itself and the question you have set; this means defining the intellectual landscape that you want to work and intervene within.
  • Show that you’ve given some thought about how you’ll use the time period for your studies. Define the stages of your research, showing how you will organise your work and the achievement of your key objectives. For full-time research this will be 3-4 years and for part-time 7-8 years. 
  • If relevant, outline the kind of materials you will work with, what you are going to make and/or create, and how they connect. 

The key qualities of a good proposal

Remember that a research proposal instantly reflects your potential competence to undertake a PhD effectively. A proposal is ultimately about your ability to demonstrate that you are capable of PhD study, so you should put time and effort into it.

Our academics look for a proposal that:

  • Is persuasive, with a clearly defined problem or issue
  • Is interesting and imaginative; it should enable the reader to grasp the point and understand and get excited about what is being proposed 
  • Presents an issue that adds value to debates that are topical and/or just emerging 
  • Provides intellectual excitement
  • Demonstrates that you are capable of independent critical thinking and analysis
  • On a more practical level, is realistic and can be delivered

Extra help

The following books are widely available from bookshops and libraries and may help in preparing your research proposal (and doing your research degree): 

  • Bell, J. (1999): Doing Your Research Project: A Guide for First-time Researchers in Education & Social Science, (Oxford University Press, Oxford) 
  • Baxter, L., Hughes, C. and Tight, M. (2001): How to Research, (Open University Press, Milton Keynes) 
  • Cryer, P. (2000): The Research Student’s Guide to Success, (Open University, Milton Keynes) 
  • Delamont, S., Atkinson, P. and Parry, O. (1997): Supervising the PhD, (Open University Press, Milton Keynes) 
  • Philips, E. and Pugh, D. (2005): How to get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors, (Open University Press, Milton Keynes) 

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