Guidance on writing a research proposal

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A crucial part of the PhD application process is the research proposal. It is one of the key criteria that the University of Salford uses to differentiate between applicants and to make decisions on whether to make offers of acceptance onto the doctoral programme.

This page will give you more information on how to write a research proposal, with a few suggestions on what to include and what to avoid.

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is an outline of your proposed research that is designed to:

  • Formulate and define a clear, interesting research question; this may take the form of a hypothesis to be tested, or an open-ended enquiry
  • Establish the relevance and value of the proposed research question in the context of current academic thinking, highlighting its originality and significance
  • Outline a clear and practical methodology which enables you to answer the research question, and to describe and evaluate any data or source material you will draw upon
  • Suggest what you hope to discover at the end of your research and what new areas it might open up
  • Provide a provisional timeline of your research

What is the purpose of the research proposal?

Your proposal gives a relatively brief overview of what you would like to study. You will demonstrate how and why you have chosen to do this particular research, so that the university or school can see whether it is a viable project.

It is your chance to showcase your knowledge and expertise in your subject, what you know and, most importantly, what knowledge you are looking to add or build upon. It is your chance to say what your original contribution to the field will be.

It will also need to demonstrate your passion for the subject area and a persuasive argument about what your project can achieve.

What to include in your research proposal

A research proposal should include the sections below, but please note that this is a general guide and that you may be given more specific instructions by your supervisor.

Sections to include

A working title

This might not be the finalised title of your project but must show that you have thought about what you are hoping to achieve. Make sure any key words appear in the working title.

A general overview

A brief section about the subject area you are looking at, and how it fits into certain discipline(s). This will be most important in PhD research proposals where you are applying for funding, as you will need to show how
your topic fits into the disciplines funded by the body.

A review of general literature

This isn’t an enormous literature review, but you need to show that you are aware of the important issues, themes and debates in the relevant literature. You must refer to key texts and briefly show that you understand how they are relevant to your research area. You are therefore summarising what has been done before on this topic. Remember that a PhD is original research, so for PhD proposals you will also need to show that what you’ll be studying hasn’t been done before.

Key research questions

These questions should set out the aims and objectives of your research.

What are the questions you’ll be looking to answer? What are you hoping to find out?

If undertaking original research, your hypothesis can be explained in this section. Be careful not to include an unachievable number of goals or be over-ambitious. Ambition is good but you must be able to actually carry out the things you have described.


This is a really important section. You might have an excellent idea but be unable to access the information you need to conduct your research. You need to ask yourself how you are planning to do this research:

  • What methods will you use?
  • Are you looking for qualitative or quantitative data, or both?
  • Will you be carrying out laboratory experiments or questionnaires?
  • What options are open to you or what different methods could you use, and why have you chosen the ones you have?
  • What other sources will you need to access?
  • Is all the information available in the UK, or will you have to travel?
  • If you are studying via distance learning will this affect the access to materials and sources?

Expected results

Obviously, you can’t say what the results will be, because you haven’t done the research yet. You can, however, explain what kinds of results you hope to achieve, such as a greater understanding of the way something works, a new method of doing something and so on. Think about how your research will affect or impact the subject area. This will showcase your original contribution to the field.


Include a timescale, showing that you understand the need to plan your research carefully and have thought about how long the different tasks might take you. It doesn’t need to be very detailed and it may of course change later, but it’s essential that you show you’ve thought about whether your project is achievable in the time available. The timescale should highlight if you are planning to study as a full or part time student.


Include a list of the key texts you’ve referred to, in the format required by your school (in most cases at the University of Salford, this will be the Harvard referencing system).

Key points to bear in mind when writing your proposal

Your research proposal needs to be accessible

A good research proposal needs to be accessible to anyone at the University, not just a specialist in your field. Ensure when you write the research proposal it includes all the information you need to convey but is written in a way that anyone can read it and know the area of research and goals you aim to achieve.

Can you sum up your project in one sentence?

A popular viva question is to ask you to summarise your research in one sentence. Keep this in mind when writing your proposal. This could help keep you focused and stop your project sprawling.

Don’t choose something too broad or vague

Your research must be achievable. Your project might feel like it’s going to last a long time, especially if it is a PhD, but be aware of how long different aspects of your research might take. You won’t be able to answer every question about the topic or investigate every single aspect of a subject. Make sure your proposal has sensible, achievable goals. Your proposal also needs to be as defined as possible, as a proposal which is too vague will look like you haven’t thought it through.

Is there an appropriate supervisor?

Make sure there’s somebody available to supervise your research. Don’t propose to study a topic if there isn’t a suitable supervisor within the School/University!

Make sure you find the topic interesting

Be sure to choose something you are interested in and passionate about.
You’ll spend a minimum of three years studying it, so you must be committed to the topic.

The research proposal is not set in stone

A good project will evolve over time as you discover more about the topic. It is normal for students to refine their original idea, proposal or title as the project proceeds. As you delve further into the subject you will see different pathways open up.

It is useful to view your proposal as an initial outline rather than a summary of the final product.

Does the proposal need to be written in a particular format?

When starting your research proposal, please check with your department to find out if they require you to submit using a specific template. For the most part they will ask you to cover the key areas mentioned above but may require you to include certain areas.

How much to write

Most research proposals are between 1,500 and 2,000 words long.

Contact us

If you'd like further information or if you have any questions about writing your research proposal, please contact your relevant course area:

Arts, Media and Creative Technology

Business, Management and Law

Science, Engineering and Environment

Health and Society