How to write a Successful Research Proposal

An important part of a PhD application for many of our academic departments is the research proposal. This page provides guidance on writing and preparing a postgraduate research proposal.

First of all, before making an application you should make sure that the specialist area that you wish to study is covered by a member(s) of staff at Lancaster University. You can do this by exploring our academic profiles – simply search for a theme, subject or name to see profiles, research activities, details of current PhD supervision and relation graphs for all Lancaster academics.

Normally a proposal should be between 1500 and 2000 words and will include the following:

A Working Title of the Topic Area
This should be succinct and descriptive and should do more than convey the key words associated with the proposed research. Often titles are stated in terms of a functional relationship, because such titles clearly indicate the independent and dependent variables. If possible, think of an informative but catchy title; an effective title not only helps to get the reader’s interest, but may also predispose him or her favourably towards the proposal.
General Overview of Area
This should take the form of a brief abstract of your proposed general area of study and identify the discipline(s) within which it falls. You might also refer to the way in which your own background and experience gives you competences in your chosen area. It should include the research question, the rationale for the study, the hypothesis (if any) and the proposed method. Descriptions of the method may include the design, procedures, the sample and any instruments that will be used, where applicable.
Identification of the Relevant Literature
In this section you should develop your proposal to demonstrate that you are aware of existing debates and issues raised in relevant bodies of literature. References to key articles and texts should be made to show that you appreciate their relevance to your research area. A PhD is an original piece of research and so you should demonstrate that your proposed area has not been studied before. So you need to identify your niche which will lead on to the thesis preparation.
The literature review can often suffer the following problems so it is important to take these into consideration when drafting it:
  • Lack of organisation and structure
  • Lack of focus, unity and coherence
  • Repetition of information
  • Failure to cite influential papers
  • Failure to keep up with recent developments
  • Failure to critically evaluate cited papers
  • Citing irrelevant or trivial references
  • Dependent too much on secondary sources
Key Research Questions
Since you need to demonstrate that the topic can be completed within the normal time period allowed, you need to demonstrate that it is manageable, and so focus on key questions within your niche area.
You need to demonstrate an awareness of the methodological tools available to you and show some understanding of which would be suitable for your research. It may be that qualitative methods, including the analysis of interviews, is appropriate. Alternatively your approach may involve forecasting or statistical modelling. In other cases you may be combining methodologies. You need to specify the approach you feel will be most appropriate.
Timescale/Research Planning
You need to demonstrate an awareness of the need for planning and the timescale of the research.
You should include a short list of references to key articles and texts included in the application.
And finally:
  • We recommend that you contact your department for guidance on whether we need a research proposal for your application
  • Make your topic as specific as possible - please avoid broad topic areas which would be unmanageable as PhD topics
  • Describe your research areas in detail - do not use vague descriptions of research areas