Guidelines for writing a PhD research proposal

Student reading book in a cafe

Your research proposal is your opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge of your subject and show how your project fits in with what has already been written about your proposed research area and what your study will contribute to knowledge.

Before you apply you should find out which Leeds researchers are working in your subject area and contact them with any questions.

If you are applying for scholarship funding, it is important to work with your potential supervisors to ensure that your application is as strong as possible.

Proposal structure

For your research proposal, aim to produce approximately 2000 words including bibliographical references. Your proposal should usually include the following information:


A working title of your research; this will change over the course of your research as your project develops but it is good to have a starting point.

Context and literature

Outline the background to your research clearly. Show that you understand the research area and have started to develop an understanding of your research topic. Review current literature related to your intended project to demonstrate your understanding of the subject.

Make sure that you:

  • show awareness of current knowledge and debates
  • make reference to key articles and texts
  • demonstrate your own expertise gained from previous study or employment

If you have identified academics involved in your research area you should contact them to discuss their work. This would be a good opportunity to get further advice about your proposal and to potentially start building a supervisor relationship.

It is your chance to explain where there is a gap in current understanding while leading on to show how your proposed research can fill that gap and push knowledge forward.

Aims of your research

Your research aims show the overall purpose of your study and need to be carefully considered. Keep your research proposal concise, focus on one or two key research aims and then plan how research questions can achieve the aims. This will help you, and potential supervisors, to determine if they are achievable during your research degree.


Consider how you intend to carry out your research, and address this in your proposal.

  • What type of data do you require, for example qualitative, quantitative or a combination of both?
  • How are you going collect and then analyse the data?
  • How will these methods address your research aims, relating to current literature?

If you are applying for practice-led research you should explain why you decided to do so and provide evidence of your previous experience, or how you can develop your skills in this area.

Plan your timescale

Plan a realistic timescale for your project to show that it can be completed within three years. This will also demonstrate that you have thought out an achievable research project. You should consider:

  • possible challenges you could encounter and how you aim to overcome them
  • what you believe will be the milestones of your research
  • what you wish to achieve each year of your research project

Expected outcomes

Explaining potential outcomes shows you have thought through your research and why it should be undertaken. This may include how your research builds on current knowledge and what new understanding you will bring to your field. This is speculative at this stage, as you have not yet done the research, but you should be able to suggest some possible findings.


Focus your reading so that your references are relevant and up-to-date and make sure your referencing style is consistent and appropriate for your discipline.

Proofreading your proposal

Your proposal is your chance to show how accurately, coherently and concisely you can present information, so make sure it is well written and well presented. It is a good idea to ask someone to proofread it and check it for clarity.

When proofreading, ask yourself:

  • Is your proposal clear and easily understood?
  • Have you written in a focused and concise way?
  • Does your proposal follow a logical progression that tells the reader a short story about your research intentions, your justification for them, your methods, and what you hope to find out?