Writing a research proposal

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

Students sat at a table writing.

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 between 75,000 to 100,000 words long and is typically conducted over three years full-time (or five years part-time.)

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.

The research proposal – an outline

The research proposal constitutes the main way in which the department of Urban Studies and Planning evaluates the potential quality of your proposed PhD. Your proposal should be approximately 1,500 words in length and include:

  • A title
  • An overview of the topic and the main research aim
  • A brief literature review of relevant research in the field (including the key academic and theoretical debates) and how your research would relate to this literature
  • The specific research questions to be answered in the thesis
  • suggested research methods; and
  • the expected contribution to knowledge and to society beyond academia (i.e. its social and/or economic impact).

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 as full proposal presented to the department, usually after nine months.
  • Take a look at the department’s staff profiles and the research areas and topics of the PhD school. Can you identify possible supervisors and intellectual support networks within the department? The better ‘fit’ there is between your proposal and our research, the better able the department will be to support your research.

The research proposal – in 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: ‘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’.

Your title should describes what you aspire to research – and demonstrate its originality and value.

Overview and aim

You need a clear aim, sometimes framed as a question, to drive the research forward: you need to convince the reader that your research topic is both original and important.

Originality means that it needs to be something that has not been addressed before – either looking at a topic which hasn’t been explored, or it might mean taking a fresh approach to an existing topic or issue.

You also need to explain in a few sentences why it is important: 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.

Literature review

A short note of key existing literature situates and justifies the PhD with respect to existing research. Literature reviews are not simply descriptive mapping exercises at PhD level (i.e. ‘X said this, Y said that’).

Rather you should identify a small number of key texts and say something about how these are important for your research – how they motivate it, what ideas or debates it engages with, and how your work might support, extend, or challenge existing work.

Research questions

You should give your aim more content by setting out a short list of questions (3-6 is normal) which your research will answer.

These should be achievable within the framework of a PhD, where time is a key constraint: this is typically an individual endeavour, designed to be a three-year project, of which no more than around 9 months can be committed to data collection.

They should also be answerable – questions which begin what/how/why are typically fine. Beware of normative questions (‘what is the best way to…?’ or ‘how should X work…?’): these may motivate your project overall, but researchable questions need to focused in the real world and on things that do exist.


This is where you can say something about how you will answer your questions.

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.

As a department 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.

‘Methods’ does not only mean empirical methods 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, such as a certain kind of approach to organisations or a way to understand ideas.

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?

Expected contribution to knowledge

Here you should set out briefly the kind of conclusions you expect to draw, and why they matter. Obviously at this point this can only be speculative, but you should identify what kind of knowledge you might develop, and who it might be of interest to, and why.

If you have ideas about how you might disseminate this knowledge, and have impact on the non-academic world, then put them in here.