Writing a Research PhD Proposal

By Dr Nicola Bown

About the author

Dr Nicola Bown is a Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology and was previously the Deputy Director of theGraduate School for four years.

Dr Nicola Bown

When applying for the Leeds University Business School PhD programme, applicants need to produce a document that outlines their proposed research topic and programme of research. Part of my role as Deputy Director of the Graduate School was to oversee the application process. I’ve reviewed many hundreds of proposals – some excellent and others not so good, but most have some potential. Here is my advice to those hoping to join us as postgraduate researchers at Leeds and who want to make a contribution to world class academic research.

Your topic:

  • When you are writing a research proposal, the subject matter, above all, must excite and be interesting to you – it has to maintain your interest for at least the next three years.
  • However, that’s only the start – the subject matter must also excite a potential supervisor, and later, a wider academic and professional audience.
  • You have to be able to sell your proposal to potential supervisors who will judge if it is timely and of interest. Your research proposal is your sales pitch – it really is worth the time and effort to make this as good as you can.

What is expected in a research proposal:

  • Title: A clear and succinct description of your research. Although during the course of your candidature your research will undoubtedly develop organically, and this may not be the title of your final thesis, your research proposal title should give a clear indication to supervisors of the area you are interested in exploring. We often see titles of research proposals that are either far too vague or broad, or too narrow and niche.
  • Introduction: A brief explanation of what you propose to research, why the research is of value and how you propose to go about it. Set the scene for your research – what you are proposing, and critically, why is it important, and to whom?
  • Literature Review: A thorough examination of key, recent contributions in research periodicals relating to the area of research in question. You should use the literature review to identify gaps in, or problems with, existing research to justify why further or new research is required. This must be relevant and up to date, otherwise how will you know if what you’re proposing is original? Even if you are basing this on work that you may have done at Masters level, you should ensure that you have updated it with the latest developments in the literature since you wrote it. It is through the literature review that you lay the foundations for your research questions, by critically evaluating what has already been done, how it could be improved, where the gaps are, or what the new frontiers are that your research will address.  
  • Research Methods: A clear description of your choice of methodology, including details of methods of data collection and analysis. A time schedule showing key activities would be useful. We frequently receive feedback from potential supervisors that although they like the research idea, the applicant has not appreciated or understood the appropriate research methods to conduct the research. Although you will receive training on the programme about research methods, it is important that some awareness is demonstrated in the proposal, because this will determine if your project is feasible within the standard period of study (three years for full time students).
  • References: Any literature cited in the proposal should be listed at the end of the document. Use of the Harvard style of referencing is preferred at Leeds University Business School.

As mentioned above, a good research idea is not enough, you need to write a good research proposal which attracts a supervisor:

  • Locate your research: Even with an excellent, original proposal, it may not be possible to offer you a place of study if a suitable, available supervisor cannot be identified. It is vital that your project appeals to potential supervisors who are willing and able to supervise so make sure that you spend time locating your research on the relevant form so that it fits with our academics’ interests and research centres. Although you will be working on your original ideas, they need fit with supervisors’ interest/expertise in order for us to provide appropriate supervision.
  • Existing research interests: Browse the current research interests and activities of the School’s divisions and research centres to see if your PhD could contribute to an established area of research priority in the School.
  • Look at potential supervisors’ web pages: Consult individual staff members’ or research centres’ web pages to see if they indicate areas in which they are willing to supervise PhDs, or whether they wish to hear from prospective candidates before application. You are more likely to excite a potential supervisor if your topic is close to their interests, and they feel able to offer appropriate supervision.

Please remember that each academic discipline will have slightly different expectations about what a good proposal includes.

Evaluating a research proposal:

At the end of your studies, a PhD is examined for:

  • originality; contribution to the field
  • independent critical ability and
  • suitability for publication

At the application stage, therefore, we are looking for candidates with proposals who demonstrate the potential to meet these criteria within the standard three years of full-time PhD study (five years for part-time). Your acceptance and an offer of a place to study at Leeds University Business School will depend on a number of factors (such as your qualifications, supervision capacity and current research priorities) but the better your proposal, the higher your chances of being accepted.

Good luck!

This blog post is based on a webinar Dr Bown gave recently to prospective postgraduate researchers. Keep an eye out on our website for future webinars. 

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