Writing a research proposal

When applying for a research degree you will need to produce a document that outlines your proposed research topic and programme of research.

Watch our step-by-step guide on how to write your research proposal.

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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. 

Step 1: Create your title 

A clear and succinct description of your research to use as a working title. Include relevant keywords that relate to your research and ensure your title goes beyond just describing the topic. It should give a clear indication of your approach and research questions. 

Step 2: Write your introduction 

Explain your research problem and outline why the research is of value and where its originality lies. You should clearly explain how your research will address a real-world problem and how it will meaningfully contribute to the area of research. You’ll need to clearly define your aim and objectives, using concepts, theories and empirics. Remember, 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, then use these to justify the major approaches you will take. Keep this between 250 and 350 words. 

Step 3: Write your literature review 

Demonstrate your knowledge of current literature surrounding your topic, and your ability to critically reflect on and select it. Ensure you identify existing research gaps or problems, and highlight how your research will contribute to it. You’ll need to provide a clear statement of your research question and thoroughly examine key recent academic contributions within your research areas. It’s crucial that you make your contribution clear. Your literature review should be between 1,200 and 1,400 words. 

Step 4: Outline your research method 

A well-developed methodology section is crucial. Clearly describe and justify your methodology and overall approach, to help you and potential supervisors determine the viability of your research. You’ll need to include data collection and analysis methods and techniques. Justify your approach and rationalise your choices by engaging with the literature on the pros and cons of your specific methodological choices. Keep it between 1,200 and 1,400 words. 

Step 5: Complete your references 

Any literature cited in the proposal should be listed at the end of the document. Use of the Harvard referencing style is preferred. Also include a clear timeline for completing key activities (literature review, analysis, writing up etc.). 

Step 6: Proofread your research proposal 

This is your opportunity to show how you can present information accurately, coherently and concisely.

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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 useful.

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.

Keep things short and simple 

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.  

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. 

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.