Writing a research proposal

The research proposal is an essential part of a PhD application for many of our academic departments.

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

Some of our courses have specific requirements for the research proposal. You can find information about the entry requirements on the course information page.

Unless stated in the entry requirements, a proposal should be between 1500 and 2000 words and will include the following:

A working title of the topic area

Your title should be concise and descriptive and do more than convey the keywords associated with the proposed research.

If possible, think of an informative but catchy title; a compelling title not only helps to get the reader’s interest but may also predispose them favourably towards the proposal.

Often titles are stated in terms of a functional relationship because such titles indicate the independent and dependent variables.

A general overview of the area

The overview 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 how your background and experience give you competencies 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 you will use, 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.

You should reference key articles and texts 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 topic has yet to be studied. So you need to identify your niche, which will lead to the thesis preparation.

The literature review can often suffer the following problems, so it is essential to consider these 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 you can complete the topic within the usual period allowed, you need to show 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 and show some understanding of which would suit your research.

It may be that qualitative methods, including the analysis of interviews, are appropriate. Alternatively, your approach may involve forecasting or statistical modelling. In other cases, you may be combining methodologies.

You need to specify the method you feel will be most appropriate.

Timescale and research planning

You need to demonstrate an awareness of the need for planning and the timescale of the research.


You should include a shortlist of references to key articles and texts 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