Programmes | Postgraduate Degrees | Writing Research Proposal

A General Guide to Writing a MA / PhD Research Proposal:

A research proposal is intended to help you to think about your proposed MA/PhD research in a clear, structured and meaningful way.


The following is only a general guide and it does not guarantee acceptance onto an MA/PhD programme. It must be noted that accepting MA/PhD students onto a research programme depends on many factors, including the nature of your proposed research, the quality of your ideas, your ability to commit to an intensive period of research study, the effectiveness of your research proposal in communicating your ideas, the “match” between the proposed research and the potential supervisor and the capacity of the research department.



Nevertheless, your research proposal is an integral part of the MA/PhD application process, so you need to invest time and energy into it. The proposal must outline the nature of your proposed MA/PhD study and give some indication of how you will conduct your research. It also immediately reflects your initial understanding of, and commitment to, MA/PhD study. A research proposal can and should make a positive and powerful first impression about your potential to become a good researcher.


Therefore, in a good research proposal you will need to demonstrate two main things:

- The capability of independent critical thinking and analysis

- The capability of communicating your ideas clearly

What should a research proposal contain?

A proposal should follow the traditional format for presenting and describing research ideas or projects, starting with an outline of the background or context of the research and knowledge of the literature; followed by consideration of the participants and methods you may wish to focus on; and then an assessment of why the research is important and how it could influence or impact areas such as educational theory, policy or practice.


The sections should include the following:

1. Title and Abstract

In the case of predefined PhD projects, a title is usually provided by the university. But in most other cases, an applicant is expected to provide a preliminary title which will be further elaborated in the process of their thesis writing. An abstract should usually be no longer than a page, and provide a brief summary of what you are going to cover in your research proposal.


2. Introduction and Context

Use this section to introduce the questions and issues central to your research. Identify the field of study in broad terms and indicate how you expect your research to intervene in the field.


3. Knowledge of Literature and Theoretical Understanding

The introduction and context should be followed by a concise (not exhaustive) review of relevant literature and theories relating to the research area. The literature review demonstrates the applicant’s knowledge of the main research achievements in the area of study. You should pay attention to providing some of the key references in your area of research which requires doing extensive research on your part.


4. Research Problem, Aim and Objectives

As a result of your literature review, you should identify the main gap in your research area on which you are going to focus in your PhD project. Once the research problem is identified, you will be able to pose the main aim and objectives of your project.


5. Research Methods and Methodological Appreciation

This section demonstrates your knowledge of the existing research methodologies in your area of study. Although the specific methods of your research may change during the course of your studies it is important at this stage to provide a well-reasoned suggestion for how you could conduct research on your chosen topic.


This should demonstrate to potential supervisors that you already have a good understanding of research methods and how they may be applied in particular or varied settings.  This section should therefore provide an outline of the methods that could be used and a rationale for why these are best suited to your area of research.


6. Contribution to Knowledge and Impact

Clearly it is not possible at this stage to know what your findings will be but on the basis of the rationale you have provided about the background literature, gaps in the knowledge base and proposed methods, it should be possible to speculate about the ways in which your research will make a contribution to knowledge. You should seek to explain in this section what the potential impact of your research could be and for whom.


7. Other additional information

There should be some indication of the strategy and timetable for your research project and any research challenges you may face. Preparing a Gantt chart or milestone for your research is important. This helps you in time management. What would you be expecting to do in each year of your PhD? What challenges might you encounter and how might you overcome these?


8. References

A list of the key references which support your research proposal should be listed in the appropriate convention for your subject area. Such references should be used throughout your research proposal to demonstrate that you have read and understood the work of others.