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How to prepare a proposal for a research degree

This page is intended as a useful guide, but does not replace your university’s regulations.

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What is a research proposal?

Paul Oliver (2004) describes a research proposal as a synopsis of proposed research which has to be submitted for approval before data collection can be started, and should set out clearly the research intended and the methods to be used.

Walliman (2001) considers it as an explanation of the nature of research, why it is needed, the likely outcomes and the resources needed. Sharp et al. (2003) see the research proposal as a document which finally establishes both the need for the study and confirms that the student has or can acquire the skills or other resources required, while Punch (2000) views it as an opportunity for the student to present ideas and share in the decision-making process.

Depending on the stage when the proposal is written it can be either a discussion document, intended to act as a matchmaker between students' interests and the research facilities of the university, or a contract between the university and the student as to the scope and nature of the research to be undertaken.

Why do a research proposal?

A research proposal is a useful quality and reality check and because it will be seen and approved by others, it gives you the assurance that you are not doing a piece of research in isolation. Likewise, it makes your university aware of the research being carried out in its name.

The research proposal also clarifies expectations and acts as a record for all concerned of the research to be carried out.

Writing an initial research proposal to gain a place

Where the PhD is taught by research, prospective students will almost certainly be required, prior to registration, to write an outline proposal. This is less likely to be the case for a US-style PhD which follows the route of two years coursework and two years dissertation.

In such cases, you may be required to support your application with an essay/statement of purpose that describes your research interests, your particular desire to study at the university concerned, your employment experiences, and anything else that may have developed you to the point where you wish to do a PhD.

The guidelines below, with suggested structure and questions, have been compiled after a study of a number of institutions, including those rated in the top 20 for doctoral studies by the Financial Times.

They may provide a good framework for you to firm up your ideas for doctoral research. However, the final proposal you submit with your application should follow the style proposed by the institution in its web pages and prospectus.