How to write your best postgraduate research proposal

Updated on 18 March 2024

What your research proposal should include and guidance on what we look for when selecting our research students.

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This should be a really clear sentence that describes your research project (write this after you have written your abstract i.e. last)


A paragraph or two, no more than 200-300 words, that summarises everything that you have written in your proposal in as concise a fashion as possible (write this after you have written the main body of your proposal)


This should be the first thing you write. It needs to be a description of the perceived research problem or gap in knowledge that you want to address. It should clearly state what that problem or gap in knowledge might be and how you aim to contribute new knowledge towards understanding/solving it. Give this a subheading of your ‘research aim’, It is often also advisable to describe this in terms of a research question (or questions) you want to answer or investigate.

After you have described this, you should try and outline 3 or 4 ‘objectives’ that you want to achieve that will help you reach the goal of your research aims. These are often practical activities you need to do; places you need to go or people you need to meet in order to achieve your overall goal.

It would be helpful in this section to identify who in our institution you think would be a good supervisor and why? We expect you to have some understanding of our research community and the kind of projects we support. Demonstrating this is very helpful for us in terms of having your proposal reviewed and providing feedback.

You should also be really clear up front about your funding situation. E.g. Do you have funding in place already? If not are you applying to funding providers/research councils? Or are you going to fund the research yourself? Knowing this in advance can help us tailor our support to you.

Research context (literature reviewed so far)

This section should demonstrate the knowledge you already have about the field in which you are working. It should contextualise your research by starting to lay out what other academics and researchers have said about the issues/problem you are aiming to address. It should allow you to cross reference their work exploring differing opinions, data and potential inconsistencies or gaps in knowledge where you can make a difference by investigating these issues. Material for this section often comes from previous work you have done like and UG or Masters thesis that has enabled you to explore this knowledge landscape. There is no expectation that it will be exhaustive (part of your project will be to do more of this anyway).

Methodological approach and/or possible methods of investigation

In this section you should explain a little bit about how you want to go about your investigation for example, do you envisage using quantitative or qualitative methodology. Will you formulate a hypothesis and perform experiments to try and disprove it? Will you be engaging with human participants through observation and interview? Are you a practitioner that will investigate through practical making activities and learn through reflecting on the outcomes? Thinking and writing about these things will really help us to understand where you are coming from and what the practical aspects of your project might entail.

Timeline (a plan of activity mapped out over 3 years)

It is important to think about how long it might take to do the work you are proposing. The classic structure for a PhD is usually timetabled over a 3-year period. Roughly this translates as performing a contextual/literature review in year 1, practical research activities and data gathering in year 2 and then writing everything up in year 3. It doesn’t always follow this structure but as a rule of thumb it can be helpful to map out your plan for research with this in mind. Providing us with a credible realistic timeline is much more convincing to us and potential funders than an open-ended project that is too ambitious or too vague to complete. Such a timeline is not set in stone, it just lets us know that you have thought about what you plan to do and are setting realistic and achievable goals. (This section would tie back to what you have said about aims and objective previously).


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