Generic guidelines for full doctoral research proposals


The doctorate is a degree that links the student, the Faculty of Education and Social Work, and the University to the international scholarship in their field of study. It is an activity that is intellectually demanding and time-consuming.

The first stage of doctoral work (the provisional year) is the production of a substantial and scholarly research proposal of about 20-30 pages (approximately 10,000 words) plus a reference list. A proposal is more than a “good idea for research”: it should provide details of why the idea is a good one (how it fits with previous research and how it will contribute to new knowledge) and how you will explore your good idea (your research design). The full research proposal is also a University-required output for the doctoral student’s provisional year and has to be approved by two reviewers (as well as your supervisors) before the student can move from provisional to full registration.

The transition from an idea for a doctoral research project to producing a well-defined proposal usually takes several months at least. In an Education or Social Work doctorate, the first year of your enrolment is basically given over to this work. During the year (or two if you are part-time), you will start by reading widely in order to explore your field of interest, often via several fields of literature, including theory. The intensive reading phase may not require strong or direct supervision, but many supervisors will expect chunks of literature review writing to flow out of this work. However, once you have completed this phase and identified a clear research question for your doctoral project, you need to write a comprehensive yet focused research proposal: for this second phase, which will involve several drafts and also take a few months, you will need to work closely with your supervisors.

The final research proposal should comprise, at least, the following sections in roughly – but not rigidly – the following order.

Looking forward

In developing a proposal, it is useful to remind yourself of what the examiners will be looking for in your final thesis. Here are the instructions given to doctoral examiners by the University:

“The PhD degree is awarded for a formal and systematic exposition of a coherent programme of advanced research work carried out over the period of registration for the degree which in the opinion of the examiners and the Board of Graduate Studies satisfies all of the following criteria:

(i) to be an original contribution to knowledge or understanding in its field, and
(ii) to meet internationally recognised standards for such work, and
(iii) to demonstrate a knowledge of the literature relevant to the subject and the field or fields to which the subject belongs, and the ability to exercise critical and analytical judgment of it, and
(iv) to be satisfactory in its methodology, in the quality and coherence of its written expression, and in its scholarly presentation and format.”

The foundations for a thesis meeting these criteria can be laid in a good strong proposal.

Note: This is a revised version (December 2018) of an older, generic faculty template; more specialised templates are also available on the faculty website.