One of the standard requirements for entry to postgraduate research in the UK is a research proposal. Like a statement of purpose for institutions in the USA, these are used to assess the knowledge, experience, and readiness of an applicant for pursuing further study. However, while 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 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 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 on applying. 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.
Here is a typical outline for a statement of purpose in the USA:
- Introduce yourself and your interests.
- Reflect on your academic background and how this prepares you for your research programme.
- Explain the contributions you would like to make to your discipline.
- Explain who you would like to work with on your project, and why.
Compare this to a typical outline of a research proposal required to apply for a PhD in the College of Arts and Law:
- Introduce your research and the context in which it sits.
- Detail the key questions your research will address.
- Explain what methods you will use to carry out your research and the resources and timescales involved.
- Demonstrate the significance of your research and the contribution it will make to the field.
Please remember that when submitting your application to the University of Birmingham, we ask you to write a research proposal, NOT a statement of purpose. Full guidance on how to write a research proposal can found in the rest of this section.
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, as seen above. Full details on how to structure your research proposal, and what to include in it, can be found here.
- 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 (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 research proposal guidance, please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your prospective supervisor is also 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.