How to write a PhD Research Proposal – a step-by-step guide (with added cats!)

Hello again ninjas, I hope your PhD searches are going well so far! As you may have guessed from the title, my post today is going to be all about writing a research proposal for a PhD. Not the most exciting of topics I know (and its going to be a long one too!), but a solid research proposal is a really important part of your application. It’s your first chance to really show off your knowledge, academic skills, and ideas to the folks who’ll be choosing between you and all the other bright young things vying for the same PhD. So, to help you get started, here’s my step-by-step guide to writing a research proposal. Also, there will be CATS.


Now I don’t know about any of you, but many peoples’ initial reaction to having to write a research proposal is something akin to:


 maybe if I hide under this newspaper long enough it’ll go away and write itself….

But there’s no need for this fear of research proposals! Hopefully, if you’ve been following the advice in our previous posts, then the PhD’s you’re applying for should be in subjects that you’re passionate about. Writing a proposal is a great opportunity to find out more about your chosen topic and really get to grips with the research area around it. Also, your PhD proposal isn’t fixed forever based on this proposal; you will be able to refine it once you’ve started, so try not to think of this as having to decide and plan your whole PhD right now, but more as a chance to explore possible research questions in your area. You should find reading around your topic and coming up with your own ideas to be an interesting, enjoyable and even inspiring process.


If you only remember one step from this blog then please make it this one. Different Universities and different departments will often have slightly different expectations for exactly what should be in a research proposal.  Most universities will have a section on their website with basic guidelines on what they expect from a research proposal, including things like: what sections you should include, the word limit, and what features they feel are important. Remember, your ideas may be brilliant but if you submit a proposal that doesn’t meet the university’s criteria then they may think that you either cannot follow instructions or haven’t bothered to read them, neither of which are desirable qualities in a prospective student!


This instruction manual is a very moving read but so far there’s not been much on how you actually kill mockingbirds…


If you’re applying for a PhD then odds are you’re probably fairly practised at researching a given topic AND you’re probably fairly familiar with the area you’re interested in already, so I’m not going to go into loads of detail here, just a few key things to bear in mind.

The first is to try and keep your research instinct under control! Of course you don’t want to have too little research in there, but it can be very tempting to waste a lot of time searching for the elusive “Perfect Paper” and end up not having enough time to write it up properly, or not having enough words to cram all your wonderful research and ideas into.

cat laptop

Research cat WILL find the “Purrfect Paper”!

My second tip is to keep notes as you’re researching, which should include the name and authors of the paper you’re looking at, and the key points you want to take from it. This may seem ridiculously obvious but keeping notes will help you keep track of things you want to mention and where you found them. It will also help you to organise your thoughts and arguments when it comes to writing up your proposal, and I promise you will appreciate having them when you are writing your reference list. Along with scribbling down notes about what you’re researching, also make a note of questions and ideas you have as you go, as these will help you to generate your research questions.

When it comes to generating ideas for your proposal, you must make sure that your idea is both novel and testable. As you research, try to find gaps in the literature which would be within the realms of possibility for you to test/investigate, and which would bring something new and valuable to the area.

Finally, try to keep your ideas as simple as you can; if your question is too huge or complex then your application may not be accepted simply because they didn’t feel that it would be achievable within 3 years.

theory cat_cats are liquids

It’s so simple!!


Contacting potential supervisors before applying is a great opportunity to check how well your research interests match up with theirs and whether they would be interested in your ideas about the area.  Discussing your ideas with potential supervisors will also help you to narrow them down into coherent research questions, and it will give you the opportunity to begin articulating them in an academic style, both of which will help you when you come to writing them up.

prof cat 1

So tell me more about this ‘Liquid Cat’ theory of yours


This is another point that you’ve probably all heard before but I really cannot stress enough how valuable planning is to academic writing, and this is especially true when there are defined criteria you need to meet and a word limit to keep to. Try sketching out your plan within the framework of the guidelines for the proposal, so that you have some idea of what you will be writing for each section. Then each subsequent draft will simply involve fleshing out your original plan more and more.

Most universities will expect you to include the following sections in your research proposal:

  • Title: Your title should give the reader a clear and concise view of the intent of your research (i.e. remember to include key words and make it obvious what you will be focusing on)
  • Overview: This section should give a BRIEF overview of the key issues in your research, why they are worthy of investigation and what sort of approach you will take. Many universities will also want you to include in this section why you want to work in that specific department or with a specific researcher (they want to see how your project will complement the strengths of the department or supervisor).
  • Brief literature review: This should ground your ideas in the previous literature and show the context of your ideas. This section should be structured so that you go from broad to narrow, beginning with a review of the major topics in the field and then slowly narrowing the focus until you arrive at your research question. You should also make sure that your argument highlights the novelty and importance of your question; a research proposal is a lot like a persuasive essay in that your aim is to persuade the reader that your research will be valuable, so you want to make it very clear what new and interesting things you will be bringing to the area with your work.
  • Proposed Design, Methodology & Timescale: Generally this section would include: the exact questions/hypotheses, the main research methods you plan to use, the main stages/timescale of your investigation, and any problems, challenges or delays you may face.
  • References

 learnings cat

Don’t forget that part of the reason universities want you to write a research proposal is so that they can assess your academic knowledge, critical thinking/analysis skills and writing skills. They will be looking for you to display a good academic/scientific writing style, a cogent analysis of previous literature, and a well-supported and well-argued proposal. They will also expect it to be clear, concise and coherent. Planning and drafting your work will help you to achieve this, as having something in which the order and flow of your ideas is already decided makes it much easier to focus on your style and tone when writing up.


 Find some people you trust to give you truly honest feedback and ask them very nicely to proofread your work (here is where it really pays off to have made good contacts in your time as an Undergraduate or Masters student). Ideally, you would want both: someone who is familiar with the field (such as a lecturer or previous supervisor) and someone to whom the area is completely new (such as a relative or a friend from a different department) to read your work. This will allow you to get feedback both on how good your academic content is and on how clearly you have expressed yourself.



Before you send your proposal off, always be sure to make time for a final proofread. I personally like to leave it a few days/a week between finishing a piece of work and proofreading it, as it allows me to look at it with fresh eyes and makes it easier to spot mistakes.

Think about:

  • Have you met all of the university/department’s criteria?
  • Have you addressed any problems that came up when you were getting feedback?
  • Is everything referenced properly?
  • Is my spelling and grammar absolutely perfect? – this is especially important as at PhD level you will be expected to have extremely good writing skills. A research proposal that is littered with typos looks sloppy and will make you stand out for all the wrong reasons.

computer cat

This is not the cat you’re looking for.

literacy cat

This is the cat you’re looking for.

STEP 8: SEND! And breathe a sigh of relief…

Your proposal should now be ready to send off with the rest of your application, so be very proud and put your feet up for a bit. Unless this was only your first proposal of many you have to write… in which case: back to work you sluggards!

happy cat

One helpful link:

Some examples of different university’s proposal criteria:


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