PhD: Writing a Research Proposal

What is a PhD?

A PhD is an independent piece of research and writing that presents an original contribution to existing knowledge of politics. It is about 80,000 words long and is written over three to four years.

The key feature of the PhD is that it is yours: the topic, planning, motivation, and thinking come from you.

You have a supervisor who facilitates your progress along the way.

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

The Research Proposal – an Outline

The research proposal constitutes the main way in which the Politics Department evaluates the potential quality of your PhD plans. The proposal should be approximately 1,500 words in length and include:

  • A provisional title
  • A key question or hypothesis
  • The main aims of what your research would be
  • The potential value of the PhD
  • An identification of links to any previous literature in the area
  • Any resources available and any required
  • The methods of research proposed
  • A plan and timetable of work

Let’s look at each in a little more detail.

The Title

The title indicates the ‘headline’ character of the PhD. It should include any key concepts, empirical focus, or lines of inquiry that you aim to pursue. For example: ‘Are NGOs practising sustainable development? An investigation into NGO practice in rural Botswana’, or ‘Understanding the Preferential Turn in EU External Trade Strategy: A Constructivist International Political Economy Approach’. You can negotiate changes in the title with your supervisor should you be successful but it is important to devise a title that describes what you aspire to research – and which looks original and exciting.

Question or Hypothesis You need a question or hypothesis to drive the research forward. The question/hypothesis will provide your motivation: to answer the question or prove/disprove the hypothesis. The question/hypothesis will need to be something that has not been posed before. This involves looking at something that no-one has looked at before, or it might mean taking a fresh approach to an existing topic or issue.
Aims The aims of your research should be a short list of answers to the question: what will the PhD do? So, for example ‘this PhD will explore…’ or ‘by carrying out this research, I will contribute to debates about…’. The aims are broader than the questions/hypotheses: they give a prospective statement about the overall destination of the PhD and its potential impact.
Value of the PhD

The value of the PhD follows closely from the aims: think about how the ways it might improve our political thinking: a new perspective, the generation of new evidence… And, to whom might the PhD be interesting: scholars looking at a particular issue, communities within specific institutions, certain groups of people..?

Existing Literature

A short note of key existing literature situates the PhD in existing research. Literature reviews are not simply descriptive mapping exercises at PhD level. Here you should identify a small number of key texts and say something about how these books are important for your research – whether it is to support, extend, or challenge existing work.


The resources you require can 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 they will enhance the PhD.

Methods of Work The methods of work is a particularly important section. This is where you can say something about how you will answer your question or prove your hypothesis. 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! Methods does not only mean empirical methodologies such as semi structured interviews or surveys and statistical interpretation; it also might involve a statement on the kind of theoretical framework you will employ, a certain kind of approach to history or a way to understand political ideas. Methods is, therefore, qualitative, quantitative, theoretical, empirical, positivistic, heuristic… whatever fits with your research.

The research also needs a timetable. This should be set out over three years with clear indications of how long you will need to prepare for and carry out research (however defined) and allow time for writing up. Try to be as detailed as you can at this stage.

Each of these criteria help the Department of Politics selectors make a good judgement about your proposal. By following these criteria you will have your best chance of getting your proposal accepted.

Three more important points:

  • 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 a starting point. If you are registered to read for a PhD you will be able to work the proposal through with your supervisor in more detail in the early months.
  • Take a look at the Department’s staff profiles. Can you identify possible supervisors and intellectual support networks within the Department? The better able the Department is to support your research, the better it will be for your proposal.