Writing a research proposal

There is no single format for research proposals...

...Different subjects will have different requirements for a research proposal.

The advice below is intended as general guidance to writing a research proposal, and will need to be adapted according to the required format of a research proposal for your particular subject.

Don’t forget that you should contact a potential supervisor before you submit your final research proposal either to the University or any relevant funding bodies. They will help you ensure that your proposal is in the right format and covers all the essential points.

Research proposal guide

Generally, a good research proposal needs to include the four following elements:

1. A general overview of the area of study    

Introduce the proposal by identifying and summarising the subject you intend to research. It may be useful to refer briefly to the ways in which your academic career so far will contribute to your ability to undertake a project in this area.

2. A contextual summary of research in this area

Put your research in context – address existing theories relating to the research area and briefly review relevant literature. Demonstrate an understanding of:

  • The major arguments that have been developed in your area 
  • The key findings of researchers working on your topic

3. An introduction of your key research questions

Specify what your proposal will address in particular and what your aims and objectives are. Describe the research you intend to undertake, your methodology, and discuss why you have decided on your specific research tasks. Use this opportunity to:

  • Highlight existing facilities available to you at the university you are applying to
  • Identify potential problems and how you might overcome them

4. A prediction of the expected outcomes of your research

Conclude your research proposal by addressing your predicted outcomes. What are you hoping to prove/disprove? Indicate how you envisage your research will contribute to debates and discussions in your particular subject area:

  • How will your research make an original contribution to knowledge? 
  • How might it fill gaps in existing work? 
  • How might it extend understanding of particular topics?


How long should my research proposal be?

For your formal application to the University, your research proposal should be 1-2 pages long. Proposals for funding applications will probably have strict word counts – stick to these.

Should I include a bibliography?

It’s a good idea to include a bibliography listing the books, articles and web pages to which you refer in your discussion of the proposed research. Make sure this is presented in a standard format, such as Harvard.

Presentation tips:

It is important to remember that the research proposal is judged not only on content, but also on form. It must:

  • Look professional
  • Be typed
  • Express your ideas in good, accurate English
  • Be well structured, using suitable section headings if appropriate
  • Be clear and legible, not a poor quality photocopy