Writing a research proposal
Research proposal tips
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:
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.
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; from the application of a particular theory in a specific industry or national context; or from 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 on 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.