Preparing a Research Proposal

Generic Advice on Preparing Research Proposals for Entry to PhD Programmes

Your proposal should clearly indicate the area within which your research will fall and should demonstrate your ability to develop and execute a three year (full-time PhD study) or five year (part-time PhD study) programme of independent research.

Do not worry if you are not completely sure about certain aspects of your proposal at this stage. The School of Modern Languages will be looking for evidence that you already know the broad field within which your research will fall, and that you have read a fair amount of relevant literature. We will want to see evidence that you can make a convincing case for the topic you are proposing, and that you have a good grasp of an appropriate methodology to investigate your topic.

Your research proposal may contain the elements listed and described below. This structure is intended as a guide only, and should be adapted to the requirements of the subject area you are working in.

Working title

Your title should clearly reflect what you expect to be the main focus of your thesis. You may want to use a title and a subtitle, separated by a colon. You will need to write down this title many times during the course of your career as a research student, and it is preferable that it be memorable and not unnecessarily long.


(suggested word count: 750-1,000 words)

Outline the academic context from which your research emerges, and demonstrate that you know the most important literature in the area. Crucially, establish how your proposed thesis would make an original contribution to this area of investigation. That is: make it clear what new insights you hope to produce, either through your investigation per se, or by the juxtaposition or critical investigation of currently available knowledge.

Research questions or aims

(suggested word count: 100-300 words)

Provide a statement of your research questions and of the aims of your investigation. There may be one overriding aim which will require answers to several more specific questions, but make sure that these are truly specific – one of the reasons why many PhD applications are not successful is because the terrain outlined in the relevant proposal is too broad for a doctoral project. Please also remember that a PhD thesis is first and foremost an academic endeavour, not a survey or description of current practice.

Research methods

(suggested word count: 750-1,000 words)

This section should outline the empirical work you plan to undertake, whether this will take the form of an experiment or of an analysis of a visual or textual artwork. You may want to refer to existing studies from which you have taken your inspiration. You should identify the method or methods you propose to use, and justify these choices (i.e. explain why this method is being used in preference to others). You should also provide details of your proposed texts or sample/s (numbers of respondents and type of sample) and/or secondary data sets, and again offer justification for these choices.

Further you should indicate how and why you will achieve empirical access, if this is a pertinent issue (will you need to access archives? Will you need to gather data from respondents?). Finally you may also indicate the status of the data you will gather – eg, to what extent will these data capture or mirror the ‘reality’ of the phenomena under examination? How objective can you as a researcher expect to be?, and so on. You will certainly need to refer to the literature on research methods.

Please be aware that another reason why many applicants are rejected at proposal stage is because they fail to offer sufficient detail of their proposed methodology, or indeed to defend the choices they have made, or to demonstrate any engagement with the relevant literature in this regard.

In some disciplines, it may be possible for a thesis to be based on theoretical research where neither primary nor secondary data will be used. Here, the methods section should explain exactly how the relevant theory will be cross-examined in order to answer the research questions. Theoretical research typically involves an analysis of a chosen research issue/question which engages critically with appropriate theorists or theoretical traditions. You should explain what these traditions or theorists are and why they have been selected to address your research question.


(suggested word count: 300-500 words)

Here you should include reflections on potential practical and empirical obstacles, conceptual/ theoretical problems and difficulties, ethics, your own perspective on the issues at hand – and how these issues may impact on your studies. One of the things the School will look for in a potential PhD student is an awareness of some of the challenges you will face in progressing your proposed thesis project and of the extent to which these represent unavoidable limitations.


(suggested word count: 100-200 words)

This should be a very brief wrap-up of your proposed thesis project, which summarizes its key contributions and how you intend to realise them.

Proposed research timetable

A brief outline of the timetable for completion of the thesis, remembering that activities can run concurrently and ensuring that you include any mandatory research training. Ideally this timetable should be presented in three monthly segments.


A list of all and only works referred to in your proposal. Quality is more important than quantity, demonstrating engagement with relevant literatures, both subject-specific and methodological, as appropriate.

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