Golden rules for research
• Be clear, objective, succinct and
realistic in your objectives
• Ask yourself why this research should be funded and/or why you
are the best person to undertake this project
• Ask yourself why this research is important and/or timely
• State and justify your objectives clearly (“because it is
interesting” is not enough!)
• Make sure you answer the questions: how will the research
benefit the wider society or contribute to the research.
• If space allows, provide a clear project title
• Structure your text – if allowed use section headings
• Present the information in short paragraphs rather than a solid
block of text
• Write short sentences
• If allowed, provide images/charts/diagrams to help break up the
• Identify prospective supervisors and discuss your idea with them
• Avoid blanket general e-mails to several prospective supervisors
• Allow plenty of time – a rushed proposal will show
• Get feedback from your prospective supervisor and be prepared to
take their comments on board
• If applying to an external funding agency, remember that the
reviewer may not be an expert in your field of research
• Stick to the guidelines and remember the deadline
Content and style of your research proposal
What to put in your proposal?
Application processes are different for each University so make
sure to follow the relevant guidelines provided by the
Institution you are applying to. However, if you are not given any
guidelines on how to format your research proposal,
You could adopt the suggested structure below. This is also
relevant if you are applying for external funding or asking your
Employer to sponsor you to undertake a research degree.
Suggested structure for a research proposal:
• Title and abstract
• Background information/brief summary of existing literature
• The hypothesis and the objectives
• How the research will be communicated to the wider community
• The supervisory provision as well as specialist and transferable
• Ethical considerations
• Summary and conclusions
Writing the proposal
When writing your proposal, bear in mind that individuals
reviewing your application will often have to read a large number of
proposals/applications. So, well-presented and clearly written proposals are
more likely to stick in the reviewer’s mind.
Avoid long and convoluted titles. You will get an opportunity to
give more detail in your introduction.
Make sure that you acknowledge the authors of ALL publications you
use to write your proposal. Failure to do so will be
Consider as plagiarism. Do not copy word for word what an author
has said. You may think that the original author has presented the information
using the best possible words in the best format. However, it is best to
analyse the information presented and re-write it in your own words. If you
absolutely have to quote an author ad verbatim, then make sure that
You use quotation marks and italics to indicate it.
An abstract is a brief summary written in the same style as the
rest of your application. It will provide the reader with the main points and
conclusion of your proposal.
A well-written introduction is the most efficient way to hook your
reader and set the context of your proposed research.
Get your reader’s attention early on and do not waste space with
obvious and general statements. The introduction is your opportunity to
demonstrate that your research has not been done before and that the proposed
project will really add something new to the existing body of literature. Your
proposal does not have to be worthy of a Nobel prize but it has to be based on
sound hypotheses and reasoning.
You should provide background information in the form of a
literature review which sets the context for your research to help the reader
understand the questions and objectives. You will also be expected to show that
you have a good knowledge of the body of literature, the wider context in which
your research belongs and that you have awareness of methodologies, theories
and conflicting evidence in your chosen field.
Research proposals have a limit on words or pages so you won’t be
able to analyse the whole existing body of literature.
Choose key research papers or public documents and explain clearly
how your research will either fill a gap, complete or follow on from previous
research even if it is a relatively new field or if you are applying a known
methodology to a different field. Journal articles, books, PhD theses, public
policies, government and learned society reports are better than
non-peer-reviewed information you may find on the internet. The University’s
Library hosts online guidance on getting started with researching, managing
your sources, and practical information on finding what you need in search
Suggested format for an introduction:
• Introduce the area of research
• Review key publications
• Identify any gap in the knowledge or questions which have to be
• Your hypotheses
• Your aims and objectives, including a brief description of the
• How is your research beneficial and to whom
Although you will develop your ideas further in the main body of
the text, your introduction may also include a short summary of your aims and
objectives, your methodology and the expected outcomes/benefits of your
research as well as who it will benefit and who will be able to use it.
Main body of text
Honesty is one of the most important aspects in proposal
development so avoid making over-ambitious claims about the intended research;
what is proposed must be realistically achievable.
When drafting the proposal, it is worth asking yourself the
following questions and trying to answer them in the text:
• Why should anyone spend public, charity or corporate funds on my
research and my research training?
• Who is my research going to benefit (the stakeholders) or be of
use to (the end users)?
• Stakeholders and end-users include, for example, the research
community, a professional body or groups of researchers, a particular group of
people such as children, older people or doctors, the government, the industry,
health services, social workers…… Try to be specific: stating that your
research will benefit the world is perhaps a bit too vague!
• Is there evidence, for example in the literature, that my
research will fill a gap in knowledge or a market demand? How will it build on
the existing body of knowledge?
• Is my research timely, innovative and/or responding to a new
• How will my research proposal address my training needs as well
as, if applicable, the needs of my current employer?
You should also consider expected outputs to be achieved by the
research such as a new database, fundamental knowledge of a new or existing
field, publications, attendance at conferences, contribution to a new policy,
development of a new technology or service….. It is also very useful to
describe the milestones of your research projects (a time plan for every 6
months, for Year 1, 2, 3 or a Gantt chart). This will demonstrate to the
reviewer or prospective supervisor that you have really thought of how you
intend to conduct your research. But be realistic!
Methodology – how will you achieve the research aims?
It is important to present the proposed research methodology (e.g.
techniques, sample size, target populations, species choice, equipment and data
analysis) and explain why it is the most appropriate methodology to effectively
answer the research question. If space allows, it may be a good idea to justify
the methodology by explaining what alternatives have been considered and why
these have been disregarded. You could also point out how your project fits
with the research environment of your prospective institution and why this
institution is the best place to conduct your research, in particular if this
will provide you with access to unique expertise, pieces of equipment or data.
The quality of your ideas combined with your ability to carry out
the project successfully within your chosen Department/
School/Institute will be a useful addition to your research
proposal. You may wish to provide a small section/paragraph to present how your
research interests, previous achievements, relevant professional experience and
qualifications will support the completion of your research project. Remember
to highlight any project management, data analysis and critical thinking
experience you may have gained previously. You could also highlight how a
further period of research training will enhance your personal and professional
Avoid overly personal or vague statements but do try to point out:
• The most important achievements of your (academic) career:
degrees you have obtained, your IT skills, societies you were part of, work
experience, successful projects you have been involved in and,
• Your best characteristics, e.g. motivation, enthusiasm, an
inquiring mind, ability to carry out analytical work, a keen approach to
research or ability to work independently.
If space allows, indicate how you will be communicating with
colleagues and your supervisors as well as with the wider community and, if
applicable the funding body supporting your research.
Examples of dissemination activities are:
• Internal seminars
• Regular reporting to stakeholders (e.g. health service,
• Publications (e.g. journal articles, reviews, book chapters)
• Conference presentations
• Outreach (e.g. Research Communication in Action) and Public
engagement events (e.g. Café Scientifique, Biotechnology YES, Edinburgh Science
Summaries and conclusions
Well-written summaries and conclusions at the end of the proposal
and/or at the end of each section can help a reviewer identify the important
information. Make sure these are concise, clear and informative – some
reviewers will start by reading the conclusions. Reviewers tend to have a large
number of applications to review and/or to be very busy people.
As a result, each proposal will only receive a short time. Your
proposal has to stand out!
Companion (2008). Chapters 4-7; Hall G. and Longman J. Eds, Sage Publications
The PhD Application Handbook: Revised Edition
(2012). Bentley PJ. Eds, Open University Press, Maidenhead, UK.
Vitae (formerly UKGRAD): www.vitae.ac.uk
by Uma sekarn