Research proposal

As part of your application you need to write a research proposal so that we can properly assess whether our expertise, facilities and supervisory capacity can support your research needs. This may be the first time you have done this so we have provided the following guidance to help you through the process.

Your PhD proposal should:

  • Define a research question clearly
  • Highlight the originality and/or significance of your research
  • Explain how it adds to, develops (or challenges) existing literature in the field
  • Persuade potential supervisors and/or funders of the importance of the work, and why you are the right person to undertake it

Proposals vary in length, but approximately 3,000 words is generally a good guide.

What is the research proposal for?

Potential supervisors use research proposals to assess the quality and originality of your ideas; your skills in critical thinking; and the feasibility of the research project. Please bear in mind that PhD programmes in the UK are designed to be completed in three years (full-time) or five years (part-time). So think carefully about the scope of your research and be prepared to explain how you will complete it within this timeframe.

Research proposals are also used to assess your expertise in the area in which you want to conduct research, your knowledge of the existing literature and how your project will advance knowledge in your chosen research area.  

We strongly encourage you to try to identify a prospective supervisor and get in touch with them to discuss your proposal informally before making a formal application, to ensure it is of mutual interest and to gain help on the design, scope and feasibility of your project.

Developing a proposal is also an opportunity for you to communicate your passion in the subject area and to make a persuasive argument about what your project can accomplish. Although the proposal should include an outline, it should also be approached as a persuasive essay – use it as an opportunity to establish the attention of readers and convince them of the importance of your project.

Your proposal will not be perfect to begin with. In fact, we don’t expect it to be. Good PhD proposals evolve as the work progresses. It is normal for students to refine their original proposal in light of detailed literature reviews, further consideration of research approaches and comments received from the potential supervisors. The proposal you need to submit should be regarded as an initial outline rather than a summary of the ‘final product’.


Structuring a research proposal


This can change, but make sure to include important ‘key words’ that will relate your proposal to specific subject areas or supervisors research interests. Make sure that your title goes beyond simply describing the subject matter – it needs to give an indication of your approach or key questions.

Overview of the research

In this section you should provide a short overview of your research and explain where it fits within the existing academic discourses, debates or literature. Be as specific as possible in identifying influences or debates you wish to engage with. You need to sketch out the context into which your work will fit.

You should also use this section to make links between your research and the existing strengths of the University. Visit the DMU research web pages to find out about existing research taking place in De Montfort University.

Develop a framework for your research.

This should include:

  • research questions (usually, 1-3 should suffice) and the reason for asking them;
  • the major approach(es) you will take (conceptual, theoretical, empirical and normative, as appropriate);
  • spell out the significance of the research (in academia and, if appropriate, in other fields)

Positioning of the research

This section should discuss the texts which you believe are most important to the project, demonstrate your understanding of the research issues, and identify existing gaps (both theoretical and practical) that the research is intended to address. This section is intended to ‘sign-post’ and contextualize your research questions.  You don’t need to develop a detailed analysis of existing debates.

Research design and methodology

This section should explain clearly, the way in which you will structure your research and the specific methods you will use. Research design should include (but is not limited to):

  • The parameters of the research (ie the definition of the subject matter),
  • A discussion of the overall approach (e.g. is it solely theoretical, or does it involve primary/empirical research) and your rationale for adopting this approach,
  • Specific aims and objectives
  • A brief discussion of the timeline for achieving your research aims and objectives

A well developed methodology section is crucial, particularly if you intend to conduct significant empirical research. You should include: the kinds of resources you will consult; the methods for collecting and analysing data; specific techniques (ie statistical analysis; semi-structured interviewing; participant observation); and a brief rationale for adopting these methods.


Your reference should provide the reader with a good sense of your grasp on the literature and how you can contribute to it. Be sure to reference texts and resources that you think will play a large role in your analysis. This section needs to demonstrate critical reflection in the selection of appropriate texts.

Possible pitfalls

  • Make sure that your research idea, question or problem is clearly stated, persuasive and addresses a demonstrable gap in the existing literature.
  • Put time into formulating the questions in the early stages of a project, they can be as important as the projected results.
  • Make sure that you have researched the institutes to which you are applying to ensure that there are staff interested in your subject area and available to supervise your project. As mentioned above, it is strongly advised that you contact potential supervisors in advance, and provide them with a polished version of your proposal for comment.
  • Make sure that your proposal is well structured.
  • Ensure that the scope of your project is reasonable, and remember that there are significant limits to the size and complexity of a project that can be completed and written up in three years. We assess proposals not only for their intellectual ambition and significance, but also for the likelihood that the candidate can complete their proposed projects.
  • Make sure that your passion for the subject matter shines through in the structure and arguments presented within your proposal. Remember that we may not be experts in your field – it is up to you to make your project and subject matter engaging to your readers!

Please note that a poorly written proposal is likely to end with your application being rejected so please do seek advice if you need it.