Postgraduate research application tips: How to write a research proposal

What to include

Your research proposal should provide a clear outline of the research and the context in which it sits.

Your application should answer:

  • what is the research
  • why is it being undertaken
  • how is it going to be carried out
  • how the Masters by Research, MPhil or PhD submission is going to be presented

Make the language accessible to non-specialists. And in the case of an MPhil/PhD or PhD registration, indicate the anticipated contribution to knowledge.

Four essential points to cover

  1. Set out the research question and/or the context in which it sits. Justify why the research is worth carrying out and include a statement of aims and objectives

  2. Detail the work that is going to be undertaken, the methodologies and why they are being used. Define aims and objectives and add a provisional timescale which breaks down into sections. For an MPhil/PhD proposal, indicate when transfer would be expected to take place

  3. Define the nature of the submission. Most submissions will include a substantial piece of written work but for certain subjects, such as creative industries or humanities, it could include other outputs, such as a live performance, a script or film. It is accepted that the nature of the submission may change as the research progresses, but it is helpful to indicate current thinking

  4. Include references or information sources referred to in the text, if applicable. Lists of references and/or a reading list may not be appropriate in some areas of research

Detail is vital

Applications that are not approved tend to fall down in one or more of the areas above.

For example, in a scientific or technological project, a particular quantity is proposed for measurement but it is not clear how it will be measured or why this quantity is important.  This is just a question of getting the level of detail right.

The same is true of projects involving questionnaires, where it is often unclear as to how many people will be polled and the anticipated response rate.

For creative projects, a good indication of the number of artefacts and their complexity may be appropriate.

If in doubt, include more detail but exercise common sense. A research proposal which runs to up to two pages of single-spaced A4 (possibly with an appended reading list and/or a project management sheet such as a Gantt chart) is fine but a ten-sheet application of unfocussed repetition is not!

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Student tips

Omoboyede Alalabiaye, Nigerian PhD

Omoboyede is a PhD student from Nigeria in South Wales Business School. He says: “Before you start writing your proposal, do as much research as possible into the topic, including reading through publications, working papers and abstracts. Search and understand relevant methodologies and decide on which one to adopt in your research.

“Before applying to USW, it is a good idea to search for academics / researchers who might be interested in your topic. Email these potential supervisors with your abstract to ask for their initial thoughts and guidance. Finally, if you are an international student, ensure you can pay half of the fees upfront if you are successful or have a reliable funding sponsor.”

Rachel Rogers, Masters by Research English

Rachel, a Masters by Research in English Literature student, said: "The application process was easy to follow, with the bulk of the application lying in my research proposal. Proposal writing is not something I had done before, and at first I was apprehensive. I soon found that the process of writing a research proposal was not dissimilar to writing my undergraduate essays. It involved an extensive literature search on the novels I was interested in writing about and seeing where my ideas could fit in in the existing work.

"After the initial research was done, I drafted my research proposal, making sure to make clear what my methodology for the research project would be, and how my work would fit in to the wider literary sphere.”