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How To Write a Research Proposal for PhD (Tips & Guide 2024)

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Dr Kin Boon TANG
Director of PhD Programme



Research proposal tips: How to write a research proposal?

A typical research proposal will be somewhere between 1,000-2,000 words. While we do not insist on a definite format for admission onto the doctoral programme, we encourage students to keep the following in mind while writing a PhD research proposal:

The introduction

The proposal should begin by explaining the subject area in which the research is to be located and providing an indication of the key theoretical, policy or empirical debates it plans to address.

Review of literature

The proposal should then present a brief review of the literature you plan to contribute to in conducting your own research. You need to demonstrate a familiarity with the relevant academic literature and theories relating to your research proposal, and an awareness of the major lines of argument that have been developed in your chosen research field. You then need to discuss the research questions you plan to address.

Importantly, you need to demonstrate the manner in which your research questions emanate from: gaps in the existing empirical literature; the application of a particular theory in a specific industry or national context; or a synthesis of a number of bodies of literature, for example. Although not essential, research questions that are topical or have policy relevance will be particularly welcome.

Be as specific and focused as possible

Your proposal should be as specific and focused as possible. If your research is being driven by gaps in the existing literature, which of these gaps will you attempt to address? If your research is being driven by theoretical or policy debates, which specific points of these debates are you going to focus on?

Motivation for pursuing the topic

The proposal can also provide some explanation of what led you to the topic. Thus, if your topic emerges from a long-standing interest or from interests you developed while studying for a former qualification, do not hesitate to impart this information - it will help to convey your motivation for pursuing doctoral studies.

Research methods

Depending on the nature of your subject, it is desirable to give some indication of the research methods that will be used to conduct the research. A variety of different research methods exists, so you should seek to identify the method that is most suited to your area of research - econometric modelling, participant observation, survey data analysis, case-study analysis, the analysis of historical records, for example.

Empirical research

Most doctoral work involves empirical research. The successful completion of doctoral work in the time allotted thus often depends on the ability to obtain the data needed. If your proposed research involves empirical work you should provide an indication of how you might collect any relevant data.

For example, you might like to say something about access to particular sources of information (whether you will need on-line access to databases, whether you can use relevant archives etc). You could also comment on the country or geographical region in which the study will take place and explain why you have chosen this country/ region. It might also be worth saying something about the unit of analysis for the research (whether you are looking at individuals, groups, workplaces, companies etc) and provide some justification for your choice of unit of analysis. Importantly, you need to explain the manner in which the data you collect will enable you to address your research questions.

Feasibility of data collection

You should give special attention to the feasibility of data collection. Your proposal may contain interesting and highly relevant research questions, and it may be well grounded in the literature, but it may not be a practical research enterprise. You must balance the scope of your proposal against the practical problems of data gathering.

Does your research proposal call for special access to managers or organisations? How many potential variables or factors does it require you to address? Can you examine all of them? Students whose projects involve data gathering in countries other than the UK are advised to pay close attention to the issue of feasibility. Students whose projects depend on data that are not available in the UK should indicate in their proposal how they propose to finance their data gathering.

Contributions and practical implications

Although no indication of the research findings can be presented at this stage, it is often beneficial to conclude the research proposal by indicating the contribution you envisage that your research will make to the literature in your particular subject area, or by indicating the potential practical or policy implications of your research. This means providing an indication of the extent to which you feel your research will make an original contribution, suggesting how it may fill gaps in existing research, and showing how it may extend understanding of particular topics.

Presentation and writing style

While your research proposal is judged mainly on content, it must also look professional. It should be typed and written in good English. If you are submitting a photocopy, make sure it is of the highest quality. Particular attention will be paid to the clarity of expression and also the structure, coherence and flow of argument. Finally, always include a bibliography (in a standard format – e.g. Harvard) with your research proposal that lists books and articles to which you make reference in your proposal.

Room for change?

Finally, it is natural for ideas to evolve and change, so you will not be obliged to adhere to the specifics of your proposal if you are offered a place in the Doctoral Programme. However, the proposal is the foundation of your working relationship with your supervisors and thus it cannot be radically altered without discussion and consultation with your supervisors.

Common mistakes to avoid when writing a research proposal

Vague objectives

One of the most common mistakes is not clearly defining the objectives of your research. Your objectives should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).

Lack of literature review

A research proposal without a comprehensive literature review may seem uninformed. The literature review demonstrates your familiarity with existing work in the field and how your research will contribute to it.

Poorly defined research methodology

Your research methodology should be clearly defined and appropriate for your research question. A common mistake is not adequately explaining why the chosen methodology is suitable and how it will be implemented.

Unrealistic scope

It's important to ensure that your research proposal is realistic and manageable. A common mistake is proposing a project that is too broad or ambitious for the time and resources available.

Ignoring ethical considerations

Any research involving human or animal subjects must address ethical considerations. Failing to do so can lead to your proposal being rejected.

Inadequate attention to practical implications

Research is not just about theory. Your proposal should clearly state the practical implications and potential applications of your research.

Poor presentation

Even if your research idea is sound, poor spelling, grammar, and formatting can create a negative impression. Be sure to proofread your proposal and adhere to any formatting guidelines.

Not following guidelines

Each institution or funding body has its own guidelines for research proposals. Failing to follow these can lead to your proposal being rejected. Always ensure you understand and adhere to these guidelines.


What is the ideal length for a research proposal? 

The ideal length of a research proposal can vary depending on the requirements of the specific programme. However, a typical research proposal is usually between 1,000-2,000 words.

Can I change my research topic after the proposal has been accepted? 

Changes to the research topic after the proposal has been accepted are generally discouraged as it may affect the scope and direction of your research. However, minor adjustments may be permissible with the approval of your supervisor.

What kind of support is available to me as I write my research proposal? 

At UNM, you are always free to ask for any required guidance from your supervisor, attend workshops or seminars offered by the university, and make use of resources available in the library or online. You may also ask for feedback from peers or academic advisors.

What are the most common reasons for a proposal being rejected?

Common reasons for a proposal being rejected include a lack of clear objectives, a poorly defined research methodology, unrealistic scope, ignoring ethical considerations, inadequate attention to practical implications, poor presentation, and not following guidelines.

How detailed should the methodology section of the proposal be? 

The methodology section should ideally be detailed enough to demonstrate that you have a clear and feasible plan for conducting your research. Additionally, it should explain what methods you will use, why these methods are suitable, and how you plan to implement them.

What happens if my proposal is not accepted? Can I resubmit it? 

If your proposal is not accepted, you will typically receive feedback on why it was rejected. You can use this feedback to improve your proposal and resubmit it. However, do check with your specific programme for policies on resubmission.

Who should I contact if I have questions during the proposal writing process? 

If you have questions during the proposal writing process, you may want to reach out to your supervisor or advisor. 


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