Additional guidance for applicants from the USA


One of the standard requirements for entry to postgraduate research in the UK is a research proposal. Just like a statement of purpose for institutions in the USA, research proposals are used to assess the knowledge, experience, and readiness of an applicant for pursuing further study. However, while both are similar in function, there are clear differences in the approach and content that these two documents require.

A key reason for this is the different nature of a PhD in the USA compared to the UK. In the USA, a PhD is a longer programme that involves several years of teaching prior to commencing your research project. On applying, you are expected to have an interest in and potential for pursuing research in the field, but not a clear idea of what your research project will be. As such, a statement of purpose, focused on your experience and aspirations, is most appropriate in the USA. By comparison, in the UK, a PhD is a research programme with no taught content and while your project can be refined with the guidance from your supervisor, you are expected to have a clear idea of what you want to research when you apply. This is why we ask for a research proposal, which focuses your research project, so we can assess that it is viable and that we have the suitable expertise to supervise you.

Please remember that when submitting your application to the University of Birmingham, you will be required to submit a research proposal, not a statement of purpose. The rest of this section provides full guidance on how to write a research proposal.

Below we have outlined the key similarities and differences between research proposals and statements of purpose to help assist you with your application.


  • Do your research – Browse through the websites of the department and programme that you are interested in applying to. Use our staff pages to read up on your potential supervisor's research interests and familiarise yourself with current research in your field. 
  • Specify your contributions – Outline your research questions, indicate problems that you would like to address, and make clear the contributions you hope to make to your field of research.
  • Why here? – Tell us why the University of Birmingham is the best place to undertake your research. What aspects of the department will help you to accomplish your goals?
  • Take it seriously – Research proposals, like statements of purpose, are a crucial component of the application process and can determine whether you are accepted or rejected onto your chosen programme.
  • Be passionate – Make sure that your enthusiasm for your field of research shines through.
  • Write well  Your writing should be clear, concise, and coherent. Make sure that you proofread your research proposal for errors a number of times before you submit it.


  • Talking about yourself – Statements of purpose are typically much more personal than research proposals, asking you to introduce yourself, your interests, and your prior academic study in the opening sections. This is not the case in research proposals. While it is still important to tell us why you are the right person to carry out your project, the emphasis of a research proposal should be on the significance of the research itself, and not on your own personal background.
  • Structure  The conventional structure of a research proposal is very different to the typical outline of a statement of purpose. Please refer to our what to include in a research proposal page for full details on how to structure your research proposal.
  • Citation – Statements of purpose do not always require you to cite academic papers. However, in your research proposal, please remember that you should not only discuss key articles and texts, but also provide a list of references to them (and any other selected sources) at the end.
  • Word length – Statements of purpose are typically 2-3 pages long, which is shorter than what is usually expected of a research proposal. However, please remember to observe the word counts (typically 1,000-1,500 for Arts programmes and around 2,500 for Birmingham Law School programmes) and seek advice from the department you are applying to if in doubt.

If you have any further enquiries about how to write your research proposal, please send an email to: Your prospective supervisor will also be on hand to help, and we recommend seeking advice from them on your research proposal before submitting a formal application. 

Further information on making an application to a research programme in the College of Arts and Law can be found on our how to apply pages.

You can also find details of all the funding opportunities available to College of Arts and Law students, including a range of scholarships for doctoral, distance learning and international students, on our scholarships and funding pages