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  1. Arts and Social Sciences
  2. Research degrees
  3. Preparing your research proposal
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Preparing your research proposal

What is a PhD?

Before beginning the writing of the proposal – your provisional plan and design of work and research to be done – it is crucial to understand what studying for a PhD involves.

The primary purpose of PhD study is the preparation and presentation of a substantial piece of original and individual research. You will be expected to research largely self-directed and on your own initiative, with the support of academic supervisors offering their advice and guidance.

A good grasp of what studying for a PhD will involve will not only allow you to understand whether or not a PhD is right for you, but it should also greatly enhance the quality of the proposal you write.

Preliminary enquiries

A good research proposal that gets you noticed and likely earns you a PhD place will take some time to plan and to write. To ensure this time is not wasted on a research proposal which is either inappropriate or for which there exists no supervisory expertise, it is strongly recommended you contact the School directly to make preliminary enquiries and begin initial discussion on your proposed research topic. The PhD Supervisors page lists the research interests of each academic in the School, while further information can often be found under individual listings under the School People directory. You should contact the relevant academic to discuss your interests and proposed research area. If you have more general enquiries, however, you can alternatively contact the relevant Senior Tutor for Research.

What is a research proposal?

Broadly, your proposal should explain the following:

* what the proposed research is about;
* why is the subject worth learning and understanding more about and what is the intended outcome of the research; and
* how you will go about planning for and conducting your research and write-up.

A research proposal taking on these considerations will provide a clear indication of your ability to undertake research study and the originality of your topic to the assessors. Bear in mind that the assessment and approval process will involve your work being read by those who have not discussed your research; it is therefore important that the proposal is 'stand-alone' – that is, that it is easily accessible and understandable to those other than the academic or academics with whom you have initially consulted on applying. A well written proposal will of course also demonstrate competence of your English language and grammar, necessary for taking on – and completing – a substantive piece of writing, such as a PhD thesis.

During the course of your academic experience to-date, it is expected that you will have learned skills in writing rigorously and in a style appropriate to your discipline. Make good use of these skills when drafting and writing-up your proposal. Not only will reading the relevant literature as you research your proposal help you in developing the proposal's content, but you will also become further acquainted with the style and referencing practice (discussed further below) used in your subject area.

Try not to become intimidated by the task at hand and bear in mind that you are competing not with established researchers, but only with other prospective students at a similarly early stage of their research career. The evidence of aptitude and genuine potential for research, rather than something close to perfection, is what the assessors will be looking for. Also, do not fixate on committing to a very precise thesis topic; while a good research proposal will give a good 'flavour' of what and how you wish to research, it remains a 'road map' for what will likely be a somewhat organic process of reviewing and developing work and research once the PhD starts.

How to write your research proposal

Your proposal will likely comprise the headings listed below, though exactly how much importance you give to each section, and whether you include all these sections, will depend on your area of academic interest and your specific research topic.

As already indicated above, note that PhD proposals are not fully binding. As your work progresses, your ideas will mature, resulting in your research taking a slightly different form from that which you envisaged at the start. Nonetheless, you will be committed to the area – in broad terms – that you identity in your proposal.

Working title/abstract

The title should describe the nature of your project. Do not give uninformative titles. Often students indicate the nature of their approach in the title – for example, indicating a comparative study or if a particular theoretical framework is adopted. Being clear helps the School identify appropriate supervisors.

An abstract – should you wish to include one – should be included immediately following the title and should be a succinct summary of the proposal.

Overview (statement of topic and problem)

This section should identify the general subject area and how your proposed thesis fits in with this general field, explaining why it is significant/important and stating briefly what contribution to the field it will make and what its impact may be. Assessors will be looking for clear focus, identifying the problem.

Aims and research questions

Having identified your research topic, you should specify the aims of your research, what research questions or hypotheses you will address, and how answering these will contribute to your chosen field.

Literature review

A critical, initial review of the relevant and related literature is required, to indicate your understanding of what is already known and understood, and how this in-turn informs your research questions.

Methods/approach and timescale of research

An important aspect of your proposal is to identify how you intend carrying out your research, to address its aims and questions. Different research topics will use different methods, which you should describe and justify. For example, you might develop and evaluate a novel algorithm, tool or method; you might undertake detailed quantitative or qualitative studies of technologies in use. Be clear regarding the outcome of the various methods you will apply and demonstrate that you have considered the feasibility of your chosen approach.

It is important at this stage for you to demonstrate that the research you intend to undertake can be realistically fit within the time frame of a PhD, which is three years full-time (plus writing-up, submission, and viva). Different academics will likely have different expectations here. Some will likely require quite a detailed plan of how you will conduct your research over the course of a PhD, while others will require less detail.

References and bibliography

You should list all the publications and any other sources you have cited in your proposal as references at the end; you should also include a bibliography of any other sources which you have read in preparing your proposal (but not cited). The Harvard referencing system is used in the School and should be used for the proposal; it is likely that you will be familiar with this system as it is widely used. If, however, you have not used this system before, or feel you need to refresh your knowledge, there is plenty of information on the Harvard system available online, including here.

Further reading

Bentley, P.J. (2006) The PhD application handbook (Maidenhead, Open University Press)

Punch, K.F. (2009) Developing effective research proposals (London, SAGE)