How to create a PhD research proposal that shines

Written By

Think Postgrad

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a good PhD research proposal example?

Unlike a taught Masters degree, a PhD requires work before you even apply. Every PhD is different, so you’ll struggle to find PhD research proposal examples or samples online which match your specific research interests. But don’t lose heart. Follow these steps to create a PhD research proposal that shines and you’ll be well on your way to starting that Doctoral degree.

Step 1: Hone in on your research idea

You know it’s medieval history or astrophysics that really floats your boat, but what specifically about it – and most importantly – where does there appear to be a gap in current understanding? You could write a beautiful PhD research proposal, but it’s going to fall down if there’s a body of work out there already answering that question. Get the basics right at this stage and you’ll thank yourself later.

Step 2: Create a short, snappy proposal

Getting your PhD idea down in writing is like planting the acorn which will eventually grow into the mighty oak of your PhD thesis. The aim here is not to create a polished, full length proposal, but to have a short, snappy version ready for discussion with prospective supervisors.

Don’t let this fool you into thinking short means less effort. This is your sales tool by which you are going to convince prospective PhD supervisors to take you on, so it needs to be just as clear, concise and convincing as the final thing. You need to have at least considered the detail in stage 3, even if you’ve yet to identify the specifics.

Aim for around 500 words or so to start, using the headers below. But remember these are not set in stone as every PhD is different. Demonstrate your initiative by tailoring sections appropriately.

Step 3: Develop, refine and polish

Once you’ve approached prospective supervisors you may well find that they have some thoughts as to how your initial proposal needs refinement, such as looking at your initial PhD research question at a different angle or considering the work of other researchers. Take their comments on board and integrate these into your full proposal.

Generally UK universities ask for a PhD research proposal of 2,000-3,000 words, but check university and departmental websites first. Similarly, check they don’t suggest specific section headers for your PhD research proposal.

The following is a good guide if these aren’t specified:

  • Your research question.
  • Consider the wording in line with existing academic work and that of prospective supervisors.
Aims/statement of intent
  • Break down your research question into a number of statements which you seek to answer.
  • Highlight the relevance to the wider world and the potential impact of your work.
  • Demonstrate why you are ideally suited to pursue these aims.
Literature review
  • Highlight the relevant academic work which provides context for your research question.
  • Clearly communicate the gaps in knowledge which your research will answer.
  • Provide the rationale for why your research question is needed.
  • Demonstrate how you’ve really considered the best approaches and techniques for your aims. Defining the parameters and techniques is fundamental to how you will achieve your aims.
  • Justify those selected, but also be explicit about their limitations.
  • Be as specific as possible. For example; sampling methods; population size/specifics; data collection techniques; analytical methodologies.
  • Highlight as appropriate any ethical or health and safety considerations.
  • Show the reader how you will complete your PhD in the time required by the university/department.
  • Consider using a Gantt chart or table so the reader can easily identify what you will be working on, and when.
  • As with the methodology section, this should be detailed enough to show the reader you have given some serious consideration to the work entailed at each stage.
  • This isn’t likely to be the place to include your year one undergraduate texts. As with other sections, identifying the texts, papers and research techniques which are directly relevant to your PhD is key.

Stage 4: I can submit, right?

Nearly! Just don’t forget to read, refine, re-read and run a spelling and grammar check. It can also be helpful to get someone who has some knowledge of the subject to act as a ‘critical friend’.

Send your final version to your supervisor(s) before submitting your university application. This way, you can be sure that your PhD application will be successful.


How to create a PhD research proposal that shines is all about relevance. If you put yourself in the shoes of the reader and treat your PhD research proposal as a mini version of the real thing, you’ll soon be on your way to starting that PhD to which no-one else in the world knows the answers. Pretty exciting, huh?