Writing a PhD research proposal

If you’re looking to apply for a PhD program, one of the key requirements is writing a research proposal.

This document is essential, as it outlines your plans and will serve as a roadmap for the next few years. 

You won’t be completely bound to the contents of your proposal if you are successful in your application, there are many reasons your project might change and evolve over time.

You will be expected to stick broadly to what you originally proposed though, especially if you secure external funding.

Read on to find our top tips and advice on how to write a successful research proposal for your PhD application.

Once you’ve pulled a draft together, you may want someone at the Careers Service to check this over for you. If so, book a Careers Information and Advice appointment with us, or drop in to see us at 5 Tyndall Avenue.

What are your intentions?

Your research proposal needs to be convincing as a statement of intent and convey that you are serious about taking on a research project and training as a researcher. This means your proposal also needs to be tailored to the specific University and position you are applying for. Make sure you check their own specific advice and guidance on applications

Start early

Writing a research proposal can be a lengthy process, so it’s crucial to start early.

Give yourself plenty of time to conduct background research, refine your research question, and write the proposal itself.

Don’t leave it close to the deadlines for applying, as this could lead to unnecessary stress and a weaker proposal. Try to think through how you might structure your PhD thesis in advance.

The more work you do to define the scope and approach of your research upfront, the less time you’ll need to spend on doing this during the PhD itself when the clock will already be ticking towards submission.

Conduct thorough background research 

Before you can write a research proposal, you must first conduct thorough background research on your chosen topic. This will enable you to refine your research question, identify gaps in the existing literature, and establish the importance of your research. It’s crucial to use and highlight credible sources such as peer-reviewed journal articles and books from reputable publishers. 

You will also need to research the University you are applying to and tailor your application to them. Do they have a specific research focus or purpose? Do they favour certain methodologies over others? 

Define your research question 

Once you have conducted your background research, you should be able to clearly define a research question.

It’s important to make sure your research question is clear, specific, achievable within the time and resources available to you, and contributes something new to your field of study. 

Be aware that PhD-level research needs to make an original contribution. This is the main criteria that will be assessed at the end of the process, so in a way, this is the most important part of your proposal. 

Justify your research 

Originality is not enough, especially in today’s competitive research environment, so you’ll also need to provide a clear justification for why your research is important and why it should be undertaken. This could involve discussing the gap in the literature that your research aims to fill, and why.  

Depending on your project and discipline you may also want to outline a hypothesis about your results, covering potential outcomes you expect in terms of practical applications or contributions to theory. 

Outline your methodology 

Your research methodology is the approach you’ll take to answer your research question. You’ll need to provide a clear outline of this in your proposal, including details of any data collection methods, sampling techniques, and data analysis methods you plan to use.

This can be refined over time, but make sure you choose an appropriate methodology for your question, and justify your choice. 

If there are any budgetary implications to your research, you should also include these. If you think this will be the case, talk to academics in your field to get a sense of what the appropriate spend looks like. 

Consider any ethical implications 

Depending on your topic and methodology, there may be ethical implications to consider. For example, if you’re conducting research with human participants, you’ll need to obtain ethical approval from your university’s ethics committee, and possibly elsewhere. It’s crucial to be aware of any ethical issues related to your research and address them appropriately in your proposal. 

Provide a timeline

Finally, you’ll need to provide a timeline for your research.

This should include details of when you plan to complete each stage of your research, from data collection to data analysis to writing up your findings.

Ensure your timeline is realistic and includes some slack to account for potential delays and unexpected issues that may arise (they will).


Writing a research proposal can be a challenging task but with sufficient time and awareness of the requirements you will get there.

By following the tips and advice outlined in this blog post, you’ll be well on your way to writing a successful proposal that showcases your research plan and sets you up for success in your PhD program. 

Best of luck!