Home / 6 steps to a research proposal

6 steps to a research proposal


Some people seem to think a research proposal is too complicated and an inconvenient part of the application process.  A good research proposal should not be complicated.  However, it can be challenging to write and it is important to get right.  A PhD is challenging, so it is good training working on your research proposal.

Although there is no exact prescribed format for a general research proposal (across all subjects), all of the following are deemed important to consider.  You need to check your own subject’s particular conventions and expectations (by looking on the appropriate Exeter college website). In summary though, a research proposal should generally include six main sections, as detailed below:

1) a clear working title for your research project  

o what will you call your project?

o what key words would describe your proposa?

2) a clear statement about what you want to work on and why it is important, interesting, relevant and realistic   o what are your main research objectives? – these could be articulated as hypotheses,
propositions, research questions, or problems to solve
o what difference do you think your research will make?  
o why does this research excite you?
o what research ‘gaps’ will you be filling by undertaking your project?
o how might your research ‘add value’ to the subject? o is your research achievable in the time allocated? (e.g. 3 years full‐time)
​3) some background knowledge and context of the area in which you wish to work, including key literature, key people, key research findings   o how does your work link to the work of others in the same or related fields?
o would your work support or contest the work of others?
o how does your work relate to the expertise within the department you are applying to?
4) some consideration of the methods/approach you might use o how will you conduct your research?  
o will you use existing theories, new methods/approaches or develop new methods/approaches?
o how might you design your project to get the best results/findings?
5) some indication of the strategy and timetable for your research project and any research challenges you may face o what would be the main stages of your project?
o what would you be expecting to do in each year of your PhD?
o what challenges might you encounter and how might you overcome these?
6) a list of the key references which support your research proposal  

o references should be listed in the appropriate convention for your subject area (e.g.Harvard).  Such references should be used throughout your research proposal to demonstrate that you have read and understood the work of others.   

o other relevant material that you are aware of, but not actually used in writing your
proposal, can also be added as a bibliography

All of the above six sections are important, but section 2 is particularly important because in any research project, establishing your main purpose represents the whole basis for completing the research programme. Therefore, the value of your proposed research is assessed in relation to your research aims and objectives.

Source: www.exeter.ac.uk