Research proposal guidelines

Read our guidelines for how to plan and structure your PhD research proposal during your provisional year.

Research proposal facts
Length: 20-30 pages (approximately 10,000 words)
Due date: 9 months from your registration date
Reviewed by: Two academics appointed by your supervisor

What is a research proposal?

A full research proposal is a structured 20-30 page document (around 10,000 words in length) that contains the following sections:

  1. A summary or abstract
  2. Problem, question or hypothesis
  3. Importance of the research topic
  4. Significant prior research
  5. Research methodology
  6. Ethical considerations
  7. Analysis of information
  8. Limitations and key assumptions
  9. References or bibliography

For a detailed breakdown of each section, visit Structuring your research proposal.

Building your ideas

A research proposal is not simply a list of good ideas worth researching. It should detail:

  • Why the idea is good
  • How it fits with previous research
  • How it will contribute to knowledge
  • How you will explore your ideas (your planned research approach, methodologies and analysis techniques)

The transition from thesis idea to well-defined proposal is often difficult. It may take several months or more. During this period, you should:

  • Explore your field of interest
  • Read extensively around the area
  • Select possible topics
  • Formulate research questions

This is independent study that may not require strong or direct supervision. However, once you have identified the key questions you want to explore, it’s time to write the research proposal. For this, you should work closely with your supervisor.

More than a plan

Your proposal is your research and thesis writing roadmap. It also provides your supervisor and other faculty staff with information they can review, suggest improvements (if needed) and approve.

If your proposal is detailed and explicit, this will put you on the right path to conducting proper research, documenting it clearly and producing a final thesis with a high chance of acceptance.

Be aware that your first proposal is often not your final one. You will undergo a process of refining and revision, incorporating critical comments and suggestions from your supervisors and other academic staff. These revised drafts will be further reviewed before final submission to the faculty.

Think about your final thesis

When developing your proposal, it’s useful to remind yourself of what the examiners will be looking for in the final completed thesis.

A good thesis will contain the following elements:

  • A distinct contribution to knowledge
  • Evidence of the discovery of new knowledge or the exercise of independent judgement
  • Literary presentation
  • Original work of merit worth of publication
  • Evidence of competence in independent research
  • Understanding of concepts, issues, techniques and methodology
  • Critical use of published work and source materials

Write for a broader audience

All doctorate research topics must be related to one or more specialist areas, including published literature and established methodologies.

However, that does not mean you should write for an informed niche audience. Since the proposal must receive the approval of the Faculty of Education and Social Work, it should contain enough detail to be understood by members of staff whose expertise may not be in the literature and methodology areas you have selected.