How To Write A PhD Proposal

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Most lecturers see dozens of PhD proposals annually. Some are obvious winners, some are promising but need additional work before approval, and some are rejected out of hand. What can you do to make yours rise to the top?

Follow directions.

Many prospective students fall at the first hurdle: they fail to read and follow the guidance given to PhD applicants by the university they are targeting. Most have specific forms you need to fill in as part of your application, and many have a specific format that your proposal must follow. Miss either step, and you have no chance.

This means that if you are applying to more than one university, you must package your proposal separately for each.

Tailor your proposal.

It’s not just the format that needs to be distinct for each application, it’s the content itself. The proposal must help academics make a judgment about your suitability for PhD research, particularly in relation to:

  • The originality and rationale of your proposed area of study: it must show that you have begun to identify and develop an interesting and original research question in relation to your chosen topic
  • The clarity of your argument
  • The alignment of your proposed research with the interests and expertise of available supervisors

Your proposal should show that you know what resources are available at that university and you have chosen to apply there in order to make good use of them. Include references to anything from specific pieces of lab kit or library collections to staff expertise. Play up the importance of any advantages the geographic location has for your work.

Research the members of the academic team who will read your proposal. Read their research papers. Think about ways to incorporate their interests and passions into your proposal. This step is especially crucial if you are applying to join an existing project as a PhD student.

Provide complete details.

Most PhD proposals follow roughly the same structure (as noted above, however, details may differ by institution):


Explain what the research objective is, why the research is needed and what original contribution it will make to existing knowledge. Place your proposal in context by discussing its relevance to theoretical and conceptual debates, practice or policy. Include a concise review of the most relevant literature—incidentally, one of the best ways to immediately demonstrate your proposal’s worth is showing how your research will address a gap in the existing literature.


Provide as much detail as possible about the methodology you intend to use, and give a clear rationale for why it is suitable. Name-drop software programmes, technical processes and specific research methods, don’t just say something meaningless like “I will use both quantitative and qualitative methods.” It should include attention to ethics as well as processes: if you will work with human populations, for example, spell out what guidelines you will adhere to.

Research plan:

Provide a trajectory of how you will actually carry out the work, from start to finish. Give clear evidence of strong project-management skills, identifying any areas where you anticipate possible difficulties and suggesting how these could be addressed. Include a reasonable time scale for each part of the work, including write-up. If you are unsure about how long any part of the process might take, ask a colleague or a researcher at your current or former university for advice.


Restate how the work you have proposed will address the topic of your research, and reiterate the original contribution to knowledge that will result. Explain in this section what the potential impact of your research will be.

Tips for stronger applications:

Your proposal should be typed. Some universities provide forms on paper or as a non-fillable PDF. Unless these are triplicate-style forms, either one can be turned into a fillable PDF using software like Adobe Acrobat Pro. Alternatively, fill in the basic fields and attach typed pages for the actual proposal.

If you have concerns about the quality of your English, ask a native speaker with a postgraduate qualification to proofread your work: hire a professional proofreader if necessary. Ensure that your references are formatted in the style used by the department you are applying to.

PhD Section

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