Guidance on Writing a Research Proposal for Application to Doctoral Study
This is not a comprehensive guide and nor does following it guarantee a successful application. However, what you will find below are some basic hits and tips you should consider when writing your research proposal.
Clearly define the topic you intend to research.
You should use formal academic English, employing any technical terms appropriately and demonstrating a well structured academic format.
Demonstrate an understanding of how to conduct research, perhaps providing evidence from a Masters dissertation or other research projects you have been involved in.
Structure and content
The first thing to remember is that research is primarily about demonstrating new and original knowledge. A doctorate is often described as making a significant and original contribution to knowledge. However, it is equally important to understand that any new knowledge has a strong connection to research that has gone before and therefore we start from the background research literature and the problems or questions which it has either explicitly or implicitly raised. Therefore a proposal may be structured around the following typical structure of an academic argument:
- Contextualise your proposal research by drawing on research findings in the area of your topic. For example ‘A hundred thousand people a year suffer from lower-back pain in Scotland each year (Smith and Jones, 2009), which cost the Scottish economy £XX million a year in lost working hours (Smith and Jones, 2009; Wallace and O’Donnell, 2010)’
- Then move to some more specific problems associated with this area and do this by engaging with the research literature. For example ‘Stewart et al (2008) have indicated that the cost of physiotherapy interventions for lower-back may result in a net saving to the economy over the short term but that over the long term sufferers may be absent from work again with pain. It has also been suggested that psychological interventions in combination with physiotherapy have a greater long term outcome for patients but that costs are far greater to health care providers, producing a negative cost-benefit (Potter, 2007; Tulip, 2009; and Tulip and Potter, 2010).
- Finally, the proposal should move to illustrate how the proposal would explore the problems indicated and thereby make an original contribution to knowledge. For example, ‘Therefore, further research is needed to explore the short and long term cost-benefits of multi-disciplinary interventions for sufferers of lower back pain. In so doing, this research proposes to...’. Here your proposal can give details of the methodologies, theories or approaches you intend to use, and why.
Think about the institutional context
It would be a good idea to be familiar with the department you are applying to and tailor your research interests to theirs. If you are unfamiliar with the department then read through their web pages to understand the research interests and specialties. This a good idea because they may be more interested in your proposal if it tallies with their current interests, but also because you will be looking for expert supervision and an intellectual community which can support and push your research. Links to the three Academic Schools can be found here.