Writing a research proposal

Male PhD student sat upstairs in the private study room

When applying for a research degree you will need to produce a document that outlines your proposed research topic and programme of research. Getting your PhD proposal right is a critical part of the application process. It is important that you communicate the right messages about why your research is important and why you are the person to carry it out. Quality rather than quantity is key to a good proposal. Below is an outline of the elements a research proposal might typically contain.

  • Title - A clear and succinct description of your research
  • Introduction -  A brief explanation of what you propose to research, why the research is of value and how you propose to go about it.
  • 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.
  • Research Method- A description of your choice of methodology, including details of methods of data collection and analysis. A time schedule showing key activities would be useful.
  • 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.
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Vedran Lesic talks about his experience of studying a research degree at Leeds University Business School 

Whilst there is no right or wrong way to produce a research proposal you may find our hints and tips, produced by our Deputy Director, of the Graduate School, Dr Nick Williams, useful.

1. Make the contribution clear

This cannot be stressed enough. You need to demonstrate your knowledge of current literature on your topic and how your research would contribute to it. What would your research add to current literature and what would make a unique contribution to study on the topic? To do this, you need to draw on relevant research (not everything ever written on the topic but key articles/texts) and demonstrate critical reflection on this work and how your own study would add to it. 

2. Have a good, specific title

Be sure to include important keywords that relate to your research and make sure your title goes beyond just describing the topic. It should give a clear indication of your approach and research questions.

3. Define a clear aim and your objectives

This should provide you with a clear framework for undertaking the research, so be clear and concise. You cannot cover everything on the topic within a PhD so be specific about what you are seeking to explore. Typically an overarching aim and 3 or 4 objectives works well, and then use these to justify the major approaches you will take, in terms of concepts, theory, empirics etc.

4. Have a strong research design and methodology

Of course, PhDs often evolve as a result of developing the literature review, but having a clear method at the start will help you and potential supervisors determine the viability of your research. Set out in clear terms your overall approach (i.e. does it involve primary data collection and if so, what methods will you use?). Justify your approach by engaging in literature on the pros and cons of your specific methodological choices so that you can, for example, justify why survey data might be appropriate, or in-depth interviews are the best approach, or indeed a combination of different methods. Also include a clear timeline for completing these tasks along with the other elements of your PhD (literature review, analysis, writing up etc.). A well-developed methodology section is crucial, so include how you will get the data you require and techniques regarding analysis and a rationale for these choices.

5. Don’t produce a proposal for ‘mass consumption’

If you are applying to multiple institutions make sure you understand and tailor your proposal to the relevant research being undertaken there. Research the department you are applying to, its staff and the research they are undertaking related to your topic. Readers can easily spot if a proposal has been produced for mass consumption.

6. Keep things short and simple

We recommend a proposal of between 1,000-2,000 words. Within that, as a general rule, keep things concise. Use sentences that are 8-10 words long and avoid long, rambling paragraphs. You are trying to sell the importance of the study to potential supervisors, so be specific and don’t meander off topic.

7. Avoid plagiarism

This one should be obvious. Make sure that all of your work is your own, written in your own words. You need to ensure that the literature review and the way the contribution is defined and developed, as well as all other elements, are correctly cited using appropriate references and that they are written by you. If not, your application will not succeed.

8. Let your passion for the topic shine through

By constructing a clear and well-written proposal, your interest in the topic should be clear. Demonstrate your interest in the topic and what the study aims to achieve – this should include contributions to theory, but might also have practical applications such as recommendations for policy and/or practice. 

You may also find our blog, written by the former Deputy Director of the Graduate School, Dr Nicola Brown useful too. 

Further guidance

You might find the following books useful in preparing your research proposal:

Saunders, M., Lewis, P. and Thornhill, A. (2000) Writing your research proposal, Pearson Education.

Easterby-Smith, M., Thorpe, R. and Lowe, A. (2002) Management Research: An Introduction. Sage Publications.

Riley, M., Wood, R.C., Clark, M.A., Wilkie, E. and Szivas, E. (2000) Researching and Writing Dissertations in Business and ManagementThomson Learning.