This guide intends to provide practical information for students who have been asked to submit a research proposal as part of their application for admission to a research degree. It is also relevant to students who are applying to external bodies for postgraduate research funding.
In choosing where to do your research degree, a long list of factors will come into play: the academic reputation of the institution, the research expertise of academic staff, location, the quality of training offered and the availability of funding. There are several types of funding for postgraduate research: your own funds; external funding bodies such as charities and trusts; national and governmental agencies; employers and the private sector, and internal sources such as University scholarships, funded studentships and projects advertised by supervisors. It is a competitive process and will depend on your qualifications, experience and research aspirations.
How to identify funding sources
Investigating potential funding sources and preparing postgraduate research applications is a lengthy process, so you should allow plenty of time. It is not unreasonable to start approximately one year before your proposed start date.
Writing your proposal
Whether you are limited to one page (as part of a University application form or an enquiry form) or are required to produce something more substantial for a external funder, the rules about writing a good research proposal are the same. You want to stand out from the crowd and have the best chance of being selected.
Securing funding does not always guarantee an offer of a place at the university you are applying to. Whether you are applying to conduct your own research or to undertake an advertised project, you will need to apply for a place at the university of your choice before or at the same time as your application for funding.
Golden rules for postgraduate research proposals
• 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 text
• 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?
Student Recruitment & Admissions
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 skills training
• 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.
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 engines.
MAIN BODY OF THE 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 trend?
- 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, specie 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.
About you 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 development.
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.
SUMMARIES AND CONCLUSION
- 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!
- The process of applying to external funding providers Rules, guidelines, eligibility and deadlines a surprisingly large percentage of proposals are rejected simply because they do not follow the rules and guidelines specified by the funding body.
- Deadlines are nearly always firm (unless called “rolling”) and it is highly unlikely that they would be changed for anyone. Follow the rules, guidelines and eligibility criteria to the letter! The funder has produced them for a reason and failure to follow these will almost guarantee the rejection of your proposal.
- Screening process The most popular funding bodies will have a very strict screening process which will be carried out before the reviewer gets to see the proposals.
- Any application which does not comply with rules and regulations, including editorial ones such as font size or number of pages will not be accepted.
- The number of proposals will almost always exceed the number of awards available so do not provide reasons for your application to be rejected on format.
- The application process Bear in mind that some funders have closing dates early in the year so it is a good idea to start the application as soon as possible (about a year before your proposed start date).
- Before you start developing the research proposal, it is worth researching your chosen funding body (whether it is a university or an external funding agency) and the web is a good source of information). Once an opportunity has been identified, you should ensure that you have checked:
Before you start writing
All funders (government funded research councils, universities, research charities, or private companies) have objectives to fulfill set by the people and organisations that they answer to, including stakeholders and financial supporters. When they invest in research, they are looking for that investment to help them achieve those objectives. For private sector employers, it may be to improve their business processes, increase their R&D potential or to train employees. For research charities, it may be to find ways to help particular groups of people such as those in unemployment or those affected by a medical condition.