Guidelines on Preparing a PhD Proposal

22 Nov

This document is intended to help you write the PhD proposal that will accompany your application to undertake a PhD. It is written from the perspective of someone wishing to undertake a PhD in Politics and International Relations, but could well apply to other areas of the humanities and social sciences. As well as putting together a proposal and application, it is recommended that you get in touch with prospective PhD supervisors (especially in the UK system) to check their availability and interest in your topic. If they are poor email correspondents at the proposal stage of your PhD, then they may well be poor correspondents when they are your PhD supervisor.

Prospective PhD students are not expected to compile the ‘perfect’ proposal: all research proposals change – especially in the first few months of PhD research. A proposal is likely to be an iterative document that you will update following correspondence with a prospective supervisor. The proposal is an indication of the research to be carried out so that prospective supervisors can judge whether or not the proposed project is viable and whether or not they would have the expertise to act as supervisor. It is worth bearing in mind that a PhD should seek to make an original contribution to the study of a particular issue. A PhD is an opportunity to study a particular issue in great depth, so it is prudent to maintain a concentrated focus rather than attempt overly broad research such as presenting a grand narrative history of a long time period or research based on very general terms such as ‘conflict in Africa’. By far, the most common reaction to a PhD proposal is: ‘It’s too broad’, so you it is worth thinking about how your proposal can be narrowed down: narrow concepts, single theories/thinkers, just one or two case studies rather than many, a limited date range.

Given that a PhD is expected to make an original contribution to knowledge, a good way to approach your proposal is to identify a particular policy/practice or academic puzzle. For example, there might be debates in academic and policy circles about where a particular policy (like peacekeeping or a specialised from of transitional justice) works. A PhD proposal could be developed around answering that puzzle and using a mix of empirical research (perhaps through fieldwork) and concept or theory-building.

Different institutions will prescribe different word limits for a PhD proposal, but they are usually around 1,500 words – that is enough to set out the basic parameters of the proposed research. A research proposal should cover the following:

A working title

This should do more than convey the key words associated with the proposed research. It could be phrased as a question or a hypothesis and can help narrow down the focus of the research.

Key Research Questions 

It is sensible to separate out the key research question from subsidiary questions that are in service of the main question. Getting the right question(s) is the most important way you can narrow down the focus of your study.

Key theories, frameworks or concepts

If your proposed research will depend on key theories, frameworks or concepts then it may be useful to indicate your understanding of them and how they will be utilised in your research. A few references to relevant literature may help.


Specify the approach you feel will be most appropriate to the topic and mention any ethical and access issues connected with the research. Is the methodology feasible? Universities are keen that research conducted in their name does not endanger those being researched and the research.

Thesis structure and Chapterisation

How will the thesis be organised into chapters? Again, it is recognised that this is a draft document, and so the chapterisation is preliminary. It would useful to write a paragraph on each chapter and think about how each chapter will connect to create an integrated document. Depending on the topic, many theses will have a trajectory that begins with chapters that unpack key theories or concepts, then uses those concepts to develop an analytical framework (or set of questions), then discusses the methodology to be used, and then presents and discusses findings. It is worth stressing that not all these will have this structure.

Timescale/research planning

You need to demonstrate an awareness of the need for planning and the timescale of the research. A useful way of doing this is to break the proposed research into chapters.

A note on the literature/debate/(sub-discipline) you would like to contribute to

This will show prospective supervisors your knowledge of the literature and it may give you an opportunity to provide a rationale for why your research is necessary.


You should include a short list of references to key articles and texts.

Other things to consider:

It is worth asking yourself: “Why do I want a PhD?” Or to put it another way, “What will I do with a PhD once I get it?”

It is also worthy bearing in mind that there are quite different systems for PhDs – the US and UK systems differ considerably.

It may be that your work will be inter-disciplinary and supervisors from different disciplines will be required. Also, think about the implications of inter-disciplinarity if you are considering a career in academia. While inter-disciplinarity is a good thing, unfortunately most job opening are for single-discipline scholars.


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