Writing a research proposal

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What is a research proposal?

If you’re thinking of applying to do an MPhil and/or PhD, you will need to write a research proposal. 

The proposal is your chance to demonstrate that you are capable of PhD study and persuade academics that you have the knowledge, skills and stamina to work through your ideas to a satisfactory conclusion.

It needs to:

  • 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 
  • demonstrate how it relates to the department you want to study in (make sure you research the community and make contact with your prospective supervisor prior to writing and submitting your proposal)
  • be original
  • show the contribution your research would make to its field
  • stay within the length stipulated
  • be persuasive, with a clearly defined problem or issue
  • be interesting and imaginative
  • provide intellectual excitement 

Writing your proposal

Although there is no prescribed format, most research proposals have similar structures.

You should formulate your problem or identified ‘gap’ as a question and make sure to 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.

Throughout the proposal you need to 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.

You also need to 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, you should also outline the kind of materials you will work with, what you are going to make and/or create, and how they connect. 

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.

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