Writing your research proposal

Your proposal is your chance to tell us why you want to study your PhD at Sussex. Follow our guide to making your research proposal as strong as possible.

Your research proposal

If you are considering studying a PhD, there are two options available to you.

You can:

  • apply for a funded PhD where you research a set project
  • design your own research project, which you can either fund yourself, or apply for external funding.

If you decide to design your own research project, you need to write a research proposal which will form a central part of your PhD application. 

Follow our step-by-step guide below to help you through the process of writing your research proposal.


  1. Plan your research proposal

    You should contact the relevant academic department before applying to Sussex and check if there are any additional requirements for your research proposal. 

    Even at this early stage, you may be asked questions regarding your research, and so you should start thinking about:

    • the questions driving your research
    • how your research makes 'an original contribution' to your field and how will you achieve this
    • if your research provides new knowledge, or reinterprets existing ideas in an original way
    • how you intend to do the research i.e. the methodology you'll use and how you'll structure your work
    • how Sussex can aid you in your research and what you want to study here.
  2. Ask for advice

    If you need further advice you can contact our academic staff working in your field. 

    You can also ask research students and academic staff at your current university for help. It is good practice to discuss your ideas with others in your research area and use their suggestions to further your understanding and strengthen your proposal.

    During this process you should start making detailed notes. You might also want to start planning your research proposal. If so, breaking it down into the traditional sections below may help you organise and manage your thoughts: 

    • title
    • introduction
    • research background
    • research methods
    • timetable
    • bibliography.
  3. Find a supervisor

    Choosing the right supervisor is one of the most important steps towards a successful and rewarding PhD. 

    Before approaching a supervisor, you'll need to have a clear idea of the research you hope to undertake. 

    Once you have established a relationship with a potential supervisor, you can ask them to read the first draft of your research proposal. They can give you valuable feedback and help you refine your ideas before you submit your application. 

    Discover how to find a supervisor 

  4. Write your proposal

    You may now be in a position to start writing your proposal. This is central to your final application.

    A strong research proposal:

    • formulates a precise, interesting research question
    • establishes the relevance and value of the proposed research question in the context of current academic thinking
    • describes the data or source material your research requires
    • outlines a clear and practical methodology, which enables you to answer the research question
    • states clearly what you hope to discover at the end of your research and what new areas it might open up.

    The exact content and structure of your research proposal will depend on your subject area. 

Below you can see information from each academic school which shows what they expect a research proposal to contain:

  • Business, Management and Economics

    Length: 2,000 words

    Your research proposal should include the following sections:

    Introduction

    You should:

    • include a short summary of the central question behind your research
    • explain the background of your proposed project 
    • describe the expected outcome of your project.

    Thesis statement

    Write a summary of your overarching research question and include: 

    • why your research area is of academic and practical interest
    • how your research builds on existing work
    • what has inspired you to pursue your area of research
    • your knowledge of the research area.

    Literature review

    You must show you have the ability to review current research (literature and papers) within your field of study. Your literature review should demonstrate that your research question is relevant, you are aware of the work of others in your field, and how your research will contribute new findings to the subject area.

    Theoretical Framework

    The theoretical framework provides the rationale behind your research proposal. You must provide a critical review of existing theories, which are closely related to your research topic. Show how these theories frame your research questions and the overall structure of your research proposal.

    Methodology

    You must show how you will carry out the research and analyse your findings. Include potential sources, how data will be collected, and any difficulties there may be in conducting your research.

    Ethical considerations

    Outline any ethical concerns which arise from your research topic or your proposed methods. Read the existing codes of conduct in the social sciences before writing this part of your research proposal. 

    Bibliography

    List the sources you have used in your literature review and any potential sources you may use for your research. 

    For more information visit the School of Business, Management and Economics

  • Education and Social Work

    Length: 6-8 pages for PhD (+3 route) or 3-4 pages for MSc (1+3 route)

    Your research proposal should describe what you want to research, why it is important to the field, and how you plan to conduct your study.

    Title

    You must provide a working title for your research. This is likely to change over time, but provides a good starting point for your proposal.

    Introduction

    Write a summary of the overarching research question and include: 

    • why the subject is important to you 
    • why it is an important area of research for the field
    • how your research will contribute to our knowledge and understanding.

    Background

    Describe the purpose of your study and your goals for your research. Explain how your proposed research relates to existing work in the field, and how it will contribute new findings to research.

    Methods

    Show how you plan to carry out your research and include information about: 

    • how you plan to select participants
    • how you plan to collect data
    • how you plan to analyse the data. 

    Timetable

    Provide a timeline, including the time it takes to analyse your data and write your final thesis.

    References

    Include citations for texts you have used to support your arguments and provide a bibliography at the end of your research proposal. 

    For more information visit the School of Education and Social Work

  • Engineering and Informatics

    Length: 2,000 words 

    You should identify which research group you want to work with and check that we can support your area of research before writing your research proposal. 

    Your research proposal should include: 

    • your interest in the particular research area and the topic you want to study
    • the specific research questions you want to investigate and a description of your knowledge of the subject 
    • the relevant research literature you have read 
    • the methods and techniques you will use for your research
    • an explanation of your motivations for applying for a PhD degree and an outline of your career aspirations
    • a timetable for your project (monthly for the first year, and quarterly for subsequent years.

    For more information visit the School of Engineering and Informatics

  • English

    Length: Approximately 2,000 words 

    Your research proposal should include the following sections:

    Title

    You must provide a working title for your research. This is likely to change over time, but provides a good starting point.

    Introduction

    You should introduce the questions and issues central to your research and explain how your research will benefit the field.

    Research background

    Expand on the information you have given in your introduction and try to answer the following questions:

    • what are the key texts already existing in your field?
    • how does your proposal differ from existing research?
    • what will your project contribute to existing work in the field? 
    • how does your project expand our understanding and knowledge of the subject?

    You must set out your research questions as clearly as possible and explain the problems you want to explore.

    Research methods

    Show how you plan to carry out your research: 

    • does your project involve archives, databases or specialist libraries? 
    • is your study interdisciplinary? 
    • what are the theoretical resources you intend to use and why? 
    • is your research based on a single author or a group of writers and texts?

    Timetable

    Set out your timescale for completing your study. You need to think about dividing your research into sections and indicate how you plan to write up each section. 

    Bibliography

    Include a bibliography, which lists the books and articles, you have referred to in the proposal. 

    Extra information

    Some of these sections will be easier to write than others at this preliminary stage. The selectors who read your proposal know that it is a provisional statement and that your ideas, questions, and approaches will change during the course of your research. 

    You should treat the proposal as an opportunity to show that you have begun to explore an important area of study and that you have a question, or questions, that challenge and develop that area. It is also necessary to demonstrate that you can express your ideas in clear and precise English, accessible to a non-specialist.

    For more information visit the School of English

  • Global Studies

    Length: 1,000 to 2,000 words 

    Your research proposal should include the following sections:

    Introduction

    Include a short summary of your central question. You should tell us what you are attempting to research and why it is significant.

    Thesis statement and literature review

    Explain the subject matter of your project, and why you think the issues raised are important. You should also show us you are familiar with texts in the field, and can show how your research area is relevant, and in context to current academic thinking.

    You must explain how your proposed project is original and will increase our understanding of the subject matter. 

    You must state clearly what you hope to discover at the end of your research. 

    Theoretical framework

    The theoretical framework provides the rationale behind your research proposal. You must provide a critical review of existing theories, which are closely related to your research topic. Show how these theories frame your research questions and the overall structure of your research proposal.

    Methodology

    Show how you plan to carry out your research and how you will analyse the findings.

    Ethical considerations

    Outline any ethical concerns which arise from either your research topic or your proposed methods of collating data.

    Bibliography

    List the sources you have used in your literature review and point to potential sources for your research. 

    For more information visit the School of Global Studies

  • History, Art History and Philosophy

    Length: 2,000 words 

    Your research proposal should include the following sections:

    Title

    You must provide a working title for your research, this is likely to change over time, but provides a good starting point for your proposal.

    Introduction

    You should introduce the questions and issues central to your research and explain how your research will benefit the field.

    Research background

    Expand on the information you have given in your introduction and try to answer the following questions:

    • what are the key texts already existing in your field?
    • how does your proposal differ from existing research?
    • what will your project contribute to existing work in the field? 
    • how does your project expand our understanding and knowledge of the subject?

    You must set out your research questions as clearly as possible and explain the problems you want to explore. 

    Research methods

    Show how you plan to carry out your research: 

    • does your project involve archives, databases or specialist libraries? 
    • is your study interdisciplinary? 
    • what are the theoretical resources you intend to use and why? 
    • is your research based on a single author or a group of writers and texts?

    Timetable

    Set out your timescale for completing your study. You need to think about dividing your research into sections and indicate how you plan to write up each section. 

    Bibliography

    Include a bibliography, which lists the books and articles you have referred to in the proposal. 

    For more information visit the School of History, Art History and Philosophy

  • Law, Politics and Sociology

    Length: 2,000 - 3,000 words 

    Your research proposal should include the following sections:

    Introduction

    You should:

    • include a short summary of the central question behind your research
    • explain the background of your proposed project 
    • describe the expected outcome of your project.

    Thesis statement

    Write a summary of your overarching research question and include: 

    • why your research area is of academic and practical interest
    • how your research builds on existing work
    • what has inspired you to pursue your area of research.

    Literature review

    You must show you have the ability to review current research within your field of study. Your literature review should demonstrate that your research question is relevant, you are aware of the work of others in your field, and show how your research will contribute new findings to the subject area.

    Theoretical Framework

    The theoretical framework provides the rationale behind your research proposal. You must provide a critical review of existing theories, which are closely related to your research topic. Show how these theories frame your research questions and the overall structure of your research proposal.

    Methodology

    You must show how you will carry out the research and analyse your findings. Include potential sources, how data will be collected, and any difficulties there may be in conducting your research.

    Ethical considerations

    Outline any ethical concerns which arise from your research topic or your proposed methods.  

    Bibliography

    List the sources you have used in your literature review and any potential sources you may use for your research. 

    For more information visit the School of Law, Politics and Sociology

  • Life Sciences

    Length: 1,500 - 2,000 words.

    You should identify the research group you want to work with and ensure that we can support your area of research before writing your research proposal. 

    Your research proposal should include: 

    • a general personal statement, which describes a broad topic of interest to you and how your areas of academic strength would benefit the topic
    • a specific personal statement, which shows us why you are the right person for one of our advertised research projects
    • explain your motivation for applying for a PhD degree and outline your career aspirations
    • your interest in the particular research area and the topic you want to study 
    • the specific research questions you want to investigate
    • your knowledge of the subject and relevant research literature you have read 
    • the methods and techniques you will use for your research. 

    If you are applying for an advertised research project you should tell us: 

    • which project or PhD scholarship you want to be considered for in the financial information session
    • if you have another way of funding your studies if we are unable to offer you a place on a funded project
    • the name of your sponsor, if you will be funded by a third party.

    For more information visit the School of Life Sciences 

  • Mathematics and Physical Sciences

    Length: 1,500 - 2,000 words 

    You should either: 

    • write a new research proposal 
    • write a general personal statement, which describes a broad topic of interest to you and how your areas of academic strength would benefit the topic
    • write a specific personal statement, which shows us why you are the right person for one of our advertised research projects.

    You should:

    • explain your interest in the research area and your motivation for carrying out the research
    • describe the questions you want to investigate, including references to research literature 
    • show which methods and techniques you will use to achieve your aims. 

    If you are applying for an advertised research project you should tell us:

    • which project or PhD scholarship you want to be considered for in the financial information section 
    • if you have another way of funding your studies if we are unable to offer you a place on a funded project 
    • the name of your sponsor, if you will be funded by a third party.

    For more information visit the School of Mathematics and Physical Sciences

  • Media, Film and Music

    Length: around 2,000 words (not including bibliography)

    Your research proposal should include the following sections:

    Title

    You must provide a working title for your research, this is likely to change over time, but provides a good starting point for your proposal.

    Brief abstract

    Please write a paragraph summarising your proposed project.

    Research questions and rationale

    Introduce your main research questions and why you think your research matters. Indicate how you think your research will be an original contribution to the knowledge and understanding of the subject. Describe the form of your anticipated outputs if your proposal includes creative practice. You may want to explain how you think your research will connect with existing research interests at Sussex.

    Conceptual framework

    The conceptual framework should elaborate the rationale behind your research proposal. You should demonstrate a critical engagement with theories and secondary literature or other artefacts that are relevant to your research topic. Show how these theories frame your research questions and the overall structure of your research proposal. If relevant, reflect on the research dimension of your creative practice.

    Methodology and Research Ethics

    Show us how you intend to achieve your research aims and outcomes and how you will answer your research questions. Include information about specific methods and access to relevant sources. If your project involves creative practice in some way, it is important that you describe what facilities you will need and indicate your experience in the relevant production techniques. You may want to include a practice portfolio, or provide links to online examples of your work. Reflect on any ethical considerations relevant to the conduct of your research.

    Indicative timeline

    Provide an account of how you envisage conducting your research to completion within the period of registration. Note that we fully expect proposals and attendant timelines to evolve in practice, but we are keen to see your ability to design a research project, bearing this in mind.

    Bibliography

    Include any literature, audiovisual or online resources you have referenced in the proposal.

    For more information visit the School of Media, Film and Music

  • Psychology

    Length: 1,000 to 1,500 words

    Your research proposal should contain the following sections: 

    Introduction

    • why your research topic is interesting and important 
    • what we know already about the research area and how your study will expand our knowledge of it.

    You should assume you are writing your research proposal for someone who has a good understanding of psychology, but not an expert in your area of research.

    Background

    You should identify any gaps in our knowledge in your research area, and how your reseach will fill them. At the end of the section outline your aims and hypotheses.

    Methodology

    We are interested in your ability to think critically. You should answer the following questions: 

    • what kind of control conditions are needed for your research?
    • what do you need to measure and how? 
    • do you need to run any pilot studies?
    • what difficulties might you have carrying out your research, and how can these be overcome?

    You are expected to show how your initial idea can be developed and expanded over the duration of your PhD degree.

    Reference list

    You must add in a reference list in American Psychological Association format. 

    For more information visit the School of Psychology.

Proofread your research proposal

Once you have completed your proposal, check it through thoroughly. You should make sure all the information you have cited is accurate. Correct spelling and punctuation is also essential. 

Write in clear sentences and structure your research proposal in a logical format that is easy for the reader to follow. 

It is easy to miss errors in your own work, so ask someone else to proofread your research proposal before submitting it to Sussex.

 



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