How to write a research proposal

Below we explain what you'll need to do if you plan to write and submit a research proposal.  

The research proposal is ‭an important document that ‭you submit as part of the ‭application process, so it is ‭essential that you put sufficient ‭time and energy into preparing, ‭as well as drafting, it. 

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is a concise and ‭coherent summary of your proposed research. ‭It is a key part of your application, on which ‭potential supervisors will decide if your ‭research is something they can support. 

A research proposal generally consists of an outline of your proposed research project, including your main research questions and the methods you intend to use. You should also comment on the potential impact and importance of your intended research and on how your work would interact with current trends in your academic field.

What is required for different degree types?

Research degrees (eg PhD, MLitt, MPhil, MMus, LLM, MJur)

Schools in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences and the College of Life and Environmental Scienceswhere students join an existing research group, need to know:

  • Your research interests (but do not require a detailed proposal).
  • Which areas of the College you would like to work in.
  • The names of one or more potential supervisors.

All other schools in the Colleges of Arts and Law, Social Sciences, and Medical and Dental Sciences require a research proposal of between 1,000 and 1,500 words specifying the subject of the proposed research, the body of ideas or theory that will be used, the aim and objectives and the methodological approach to be adopted. 

Although there is no set format or prescribed length for a research you can contact the school or department (or your prospective supervisor) to find out more if you want to know the expectation for the programme you are applying to.

Combined research and taught programmes

A research proposal of approximately 1000-1500 words is required for the following programmes:

  • MPhilB Contemporary German Studies
  • MPhilB Philosophy
  • MPhilBs in the College of Arts and Law, with the exception of applicants for the MPhilB Playwriting Studies, who should submit a play or production that they have written.
  • MRes Conservation and Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources
  • Doctorate in Business Administration
  • PhD with Integrated Study in Education and Learning
  • PhD with Integrated Study in International Development
  • SocScD in Applied Social Research

How is it structured?

1. Research topic

General subject area/explain domain on which you will focus.

2. Review of the literature

Demonstrate familiarity with relevant literature, show awareness of previous research and explain how your research aims to make an original contribution to knowledge.

3. Research objectives

Explain what you are intending to achieve. You might use:

  • Hypotheses: an assumed relationship between two or more variables
  • Propositions: statements that explain likely phenomena
  • Objectives or a set of research questions
  • Problems: identify existing unsatisfactory conditions and propose a solution 

4. Research strategy

Explain your research strategy/method; consider strategic options/outline how you plan to collect your data (if any).

5. Anticipated results

Consider the type of expected results, data analysis method and identify potential data collection problems.

6. Schedule and budget

Plan resource requirements; detail stages of the research and timescale (as applicable).

7. References and bibliography


Download our guides on applying to postgraduate research programmes at Birmingham:

PG Tips: PhD advice  Applying to research programmes

In order to make a compelling case you should aim to:

  • Demonstrate your strategic fit: how does your research and/or previous experience fit in with the research strengths, agendas and priorities of the University?
  • Make a positive and powerful first impression about your potential as a researcher
  • The proposal and supporting statement are for you to show that you have the ability to take ownership over your project and demonstrate research leadership
  • State and justify your objectives clearly (“because it is interesting” is not enough!) – make sure that you address a clear gap in existing work
  • Persuade potential supervisors and/or funders of the importance of the research, and why you are the right person to undertake it

What to do when the draft is complete

Read it out loud to yourself and then ask whether you have answered the following:

  • Why would anyone want to invest in my research?
  • What is the research about?
  • Why do you want to do it?
  • Why do you believe you will be able to do it?
  • Why is it significant?
  • What do you aim to achieve by completing it?
  • Have you shown that you understand how your research will contribute to the conceptual understanding and/or knowledge of your topic, e.g. expand knowledge or theory, improve research design, or improve analysis?
  • Is it clear how your research will fit within, and contribute to, the department?
  • Does your passion shine through?
  • Have you formulated a clear, feasible research question?
  • Have you placed your question in the context of current work in the field?
  • Have you outlined your methodology? (e.g. empirical or theoretical, qualitative and/or quantitative, modelling, surveys, interviews, observation, case studies, machine processes, data processing, etc.)
  • Have you been specific about any fieldwork involved (where you need to go, when, for how long and how you will fund this)?
  • Have you said what resources you will need?
  • Have you suggested what impact it will have?
  • Have you provided a timeline?
  • Have you provided a reference list?