Writing your research proposal

Find out how to write your research proposal, and what to include in it.

Students sat at a table writing.

Do I need to write a research proposal?

All applications for PhD study places in the School of Geography and Planning must include a proposal that outlines your topic and proposed programme of research.

The only exception to this requirement is when you are applying only for an advertised project, for which the title and description of the project are already given.

Your proposal will help us to make sure that:

  • the topic is viable
  • the school can provide appropriate supervision and other resources
  • you have thought through your interest in, and commitment to, a piece of research

We recommend identifying a potential supervisor who can provide you with advice on your topic and proposal, before you apply.

You should begin these conversations as early as possible: while scholarship deadlines tend to be in December/January, a good proposal takes time to craft and develop.

It is in your best interest to begin developing your proposal in good time to allow for constructive feedback and revisions.

What makes a strong PhD?

A PhD is an independent piece of research and writing that makes an original contribution to existing knowledge. It is typically between 75,000 to 100,000 words long and is conducted over three to three-and-a-half years full-time (or six to seven years part-time) depending on funding. 

The defining feature of a PhD is that it is yours. The topic will usually come from you, unless you are working on a predefined project attached to funding. Even then, you will take ownership of that project and make it your own.

The PhD will likely be the most challenging type of academic work you have ever done: it should also be the most rewarding.

Think carefully about whether a PhD is for you - it is a major time commitment and you will need to be prepared to overcome challenges and difficulties along the way. 

What should my research proposal look like?

Your research proposal is the main way the school evaluates the potential quality of your proposed PhD. It should be approximately 1,500 words long, and contain the following elements:

A provisional title

This is the headline for your proposed research and so it should include any key concepts, empirical focus, or lines of inquiry that you aim to pursue.

While your title may change, it is important to devise a title that describes what you aspire to research, and demonstrate its originality and value.

For example: ‘The environmental and social impacts of mass housing in Latin American countries’, or ‘Using water efficiently: understanding the impact of expanding middle-class demand on city water systems’.

A key question, hypothesis or the broad topic for investigation

You need key questions or hypotheses to drive your research. These will need to be original, timely and of importance to the discipline.

This could involve investigating something that no-one has looked at before, or it might mean taking a fresh approach to an existing topic or issue.

An outline of the key aims of the research

What will the PhD do?

Your aims will be broader than the questions/hypotheses. They should give a prospective statement about the overall destination of the PhD and its potential impact: in other words, what is the wider value of the research, and why does it matter?

This needs to be set within a brief overview, giving enough background to your research context to demonstrate that this research aim is credible and worthwhile: you do not need to give a great deal of factual detail.

A brief outline of key literature in the area (what we already know)

Situate your topic with reference to the existing research literature.

At PhD level, a literature review is more than simply a descriptive mapping exercise, it should cite key theories or debates and suggest how your project would engage with them. 

Explain how these ideas motivate your work, and how your thesis might support, extend, or challenge existing work.

A description of the topic and an explanation of why further research in the area is important (the gap in the literature - what we need to know)

Highlight what the gap in current knowledge is and how your research will contribute original scholarship.

Will your research provide a new perspective, generate new evidence, challenge existing assumptions?

By whom might the PhD be valued: scholars looking at a particular issue, communities within specific institutions, certain groups of people?

Provide further clarity on the specific focus of your research through a short list of questions (three to six is normal) that your research will answer.

These questions must be achievable within the framework of a PhD (within the usual three-and-a-half years tuition fee-paying period - with typically a maximum of around 12 months of fieldwork/data collection time).

Details of how the research will be carried out (the tools that will enable us to fill the gap you have identified)

This includes any special facilities or resources required and any necessary skills which you either have already or would need to acquire.

A clear methodological statement shows how you will execute your research project: it is relatively easy to ask a new question; it is more challenging to set out how you might come up with a convincing answer.

Outline your approach to your research as well as the methods you will use.

Of course, the resources you will need will vary according to the nature of the research: access to a particular archive, specialist library, visits to field sites, the use of analytical software, access to databases, training, workshop attendance and so on.

It is important to list any of these resources and give a very brief account of how their role in your research.

What is important is that there are coherent links between your aims, questions and proposed methods – why is using this evidence going to provide the most robust answer to your questions?

A plan and timetable of the work you will carry out

Submission of the PhD is expected to take place by the end of the tuition fee-paying period, which for most PhD candidates will be at three and a half years from the date of commencing PhD study.

Show how you will carry out your research within that timeframe. Try to be as detailed as you can at this stage.

We welcome applications from a very broad range of methodological and philosophical backgrounds: quantitative and qualitative; text-based and mapping big data; interpretive, positivist, realist, and many more.

Don't forget

  • Try to be concise. Do not write too much – be as specific as you can but not 'wordy'. It is a difficult balance to strike.
  • Bear in mind that the proposal is only a starting point. If you are registered to read for a PhD, you will be able to develop the proposal with your supervisor in more detail in the early months, leading up to a more advanced research outline and presentation towards the end of your first year of study.
  • Make sure you have identified and discussed your (draft) proposal and ideas with a relevant supervisor(s) in the school.
    • Take a look at our staff profiles and research areas and topics. Ensure there is a good ‘fit’ between your proposal and our research: the stronger this is, the better able we are to support your research.

Submitting your proposal

Upload your research proposal document (as a PDF or Word document) within the online application form as part of your PhD study place application.

If you also intend to apply for a scholarship, we recommend that you consult your proposed supervisor on appropriate scholarship opportunities, and about adapting your proposal to meet the requirements of the scholarships section of the online application form.

Study with us

Join an international community of geographers, planners, and environmental scientists to help tackle the biggest issues in our changing world.

Find a PhD

Search for PhD opportunities at Sheffield and be part of our world-leading research.