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Guidance on Preparing a Research Proposal for Applicants for Postgraduate Research Degrees in the Department of Education Studies

A major part of any application for a doctoral degree is the research proposal. After all, an application for doctoral study is in essence an application to conduct a major research project which has the potential to make an original contribution to knowledge. Different universities and even departments within the same university may have different expectations about the research proposal. It is therefore very important to take note of the specific expectations of our programme.

For admission to the Department of Education Studies research degree programme, the proposal should be approximately 2,000 words (excluding references list), and no longer than this. Note that there may well be changes and developments to the proposal if you gain entry to the department and begin your study. You will not be held rigidly to the proposal – however we want to see that you are able to conceive of a doctoral research project as part of the application review process.

The below guidance is geared towards applicants for the PhD and EdD courses. For applicants proceeding with an EdD (professional doctorate) application, we expect to see a well-developed proposal following the below guidance, which includes the intended contribution of the project to professional practice as well as an academic contribution. For the EdD, less knowledge of the specifics of e.g. research methods terminology will be expected, because the course includes taught modules before the thesis stage, but we would still expect a full-length proposal with an attempt to cover all sections of the proposal guidance. For both the EdD and the PhD process, we anticipate a well-developed proposal following the guidance below.

We expect to see the following components within the proposal for the project to be undertaken for PhD and EdD courses, and we have provided approximate word counts for each section as a guide:

  • Title – a project title that gives a clear indication of the topic and context
  • Introduction (200-400 words) – the basic information about the topic and context, the field or disciplinary area of education studies where the project sits, and why this project is urgent, timely, important, meaningful – and how the project has the potential to make an original contribution to knowledge. You may also wish to identify personal and/or professional as well as academic motivations for conducting the proposed study, including your suitability for undertaking this project based on your prior studies and/or professional background.
  • Literature review (approx. 750 words) – the areas of academic literature that are relevant to your proposed project, and giving a summary of what existing research in this area has discussed, and how your project contributes to the existing scholarship. We are aware that many applicants to the programme may not have access to a wide range of up to date literature at the time of applying and take this into consideration when we review applications. In the proposal we are looking for evidence of applicants having located a range of sources and understood how they fit together to create an ongoing debate or conversation in a field of research. This section may include:
    • Further information about the context of the study, including the policy context if relevant, or this can be presented in a separate section.
    • You may also want to include information about your theoretical or conceptual framework in this or a separate section, if you already have ideas for this aspect of the study in place at this stage.
    • The literature review section should end with a short conclusion stating how the proposed study is located within but also extends existing research – this forms part of the rationale or justification for the study.
  • The overarching research questions and sub-questions that form the basis of the study (300-400 words). The research questions should be directly based on your topic and should relate to the rationale for the study as identified in the literature section. The research questions should form a coherent set of questions, rather than departing in different directions. Although a doctoral thesis is a substantial piece of work, the aim is to make a specific contribution to knowledge. The research questions frame this specific contribution. Along with stating the questions, include a short account of the questions, elaborating what they mean and what is being asked, and why.
  • Study design (approx. 750 words) – this section should describe the research design of the study. The section should include information on how the research design and methods will help to answer the research questions. The section should include:
    • the intended research approach (could include paradigm/theoretical stance/ontology/epistemology),
    • the proposed methodology (e.g. ethnography, case study, small-scale qualitative study, secondary data analysis, philosophical analysis, historical analysis, survey, action research),
    • the proposed methods (e.g. interview, observation, questionnaire, diary, or equivalent for a non-empirical study e.g. the concepts to be used for philosophical or historical analysis),
    • the participants to be included in the study (if applicable), or texts or policy documents or secondary data sources. How the participants will be sampled and recruited or the sources will be selected/accessed.
    • ethical issues you foresee in the proposed project, including related to your own positionality as a researcher – who are you in the research context? There is no project without some ethical issues and we are looking for brief discussion of this in the proposal.
    • plans for analysis – of course this is very early stages to propose a mode of analysis, but we are looking for some knowledge of modes of data analysis.
  • Conclusion (approx. 200 words). The proposal’s conclusion should summarise how the study is intended to achieve the original contribution to knowledge, and could also include a discussion of the project’s intended impact – on professional practice for instance, or policy, and on academic knowledge.
  • Brief timeline for the period of the doctoral degree
  • Word count. Please state the proposal word count at this stage of the proposal (excluding the references / appendices).
  • References / appendices. A list of cited references should be included after the main body of the proposal, and is not included in the word count. The references should use a Harvard referencing format or equivalent e.g. APA. Following this, any further detail should be included in the appendix. However note that this is for accompanying information only and will not be used to review the quality of the proposal.

The above guidance is used to review proposals submitted with applications to PhD and EdD courses, with the expectation that proposals include at least basic information for the above stated aspects of the proposal. Proposals are reviewed with attention to the suitability of the applicant to undertake the study, the feasibility of the study, the academic justification for the study and a foundational understanding of the research needed to undertake the study.

For further information on applying to a PhD or EdD in the Department of Education Studies, refer to the webpage with more general application advice.

We always look forward to admissions time as we gain an insight into the research and researchers of the future.

We hope this guidance proves useful to applicants and will help to clarify the expectations for proposals and the admissions process for our department. Please direct any admissions questions to