Writing a Research Proposal

I get a fair few questions sent to me every year about how to write a research proposal and how I structured mine when I applied for my DPhil. I thought I would make this post to help anyone going through the process. So, here’s my take on research proposals – I hope it helps some of you!

Whenever I think about a research proposal I think about a few main questions:

  1. What are my central questions?
  2. What has already been said? What is my original contribution to the field?
  3. How am I going to go about investigating my research questions?
  4. What do I hope to find out from my research – am I expecting a certain answer? What do I think the results will show?

Every institution’s research proposal process will be slightly different, but this was the proposal I submitted for Oxford:

Now, it is worth saying from the start that my research has changed a lot since I wrote this proposal – as you go about researching your topic new things will always come up influencing your argument, structure, and overall plan. You need to keep this in mind. The research proposal is a sketch of what you would like to investigate and how you think you may go about it. It will give you a starting point but you are not beholden to every single sentence once you’ve set it down! Here’s a breakdown of my proposal though for anyone who would like to go into things in a bit more detail and get an idea of how you might structure or write one.

Quick Proposal Breakdown:

You can see that I started my proposal by trying to establish an overall sense of the field. I looked at what had been said by other scholars and what I might want to challenge. This enables you to show that you have an awareness of what has already been said and allows you to highlight what will be your original contribution to the field.

The questions highlighted in bold were my main research questions. You should try to make these really clear. You want the person reading your proposal to understand what you want to find out and what questions will drive your research. There should be enough scope within your questions to fuel the years of doctoral study and the writing of a doctoral thesis. However, make sure not to make your questions too wide or vague. Your questions are also a chance to show that you have an understanding of the topic, that you’ve read around it, and you know where and how you can make an original contribution.

The next section of my proposal was focused on breaking down how I might investigate the questions I had posed. In short, this section focused on methodology. Again, remember that this will likely change as you conduct your research. After a few months of research I was able to produce a much more detailed (and helpful) chapter-by-chapter plan. At this point though the main thing is to make sure you give the reader the sense that you have a general idea of how you might look into your topic and address the central questions of your thesis. I tried to make it clear what I thought I’d try to investigate in each section of my thesis. I also tried to express a sense of coherency and demonstrate how the thesis would ‘build’. If you have specific texts that will be important to your argument or overall research then it is good to mention them. This will show an engagement with primary material and that you’ve taken steps towards discovering and thinking in-depth about the topic you’ve proposed.

Finally, I finished my proposal with a short, snappy sentence. I tried to maintain the proposal’s focus on the questions and methodology, but I always like to end on a note which summarises what I’m trying to achieve, leaves an impression on the reader, and outlines exactly what my research could achieve.

I did also include footnotes and a short bibliography to demonstrate good scholarly practice. Many institutions ask for a relatively short research proposal though. If that is relevant to you then try not to make the bibliography and footnotes overly long – cite what is relevant to what you have written and enough that you show that you’ve read around the subject. Be aware of just how much space you have though. The focus is on your ideas and your research. The focus is on your contribution to the field. The reader wants to know what you’re bringing to the table.

As I’ve said before, every university’s research proposal process is different. However, I hope this gives a general sense of how to write an effective proposal. If you have any more questions please feel free to DM me on Twitter (@MicahMackay) or pop me an email!

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