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The research proposal

The research proposal is arguably the most important element of your PhD application. You need to submit a fully specified research proposal when you submit your application form; while we fully acknowledge that your project will evolve as you conduct your research, you must submit a convincing proposal, worked up in full, which is sufficiently rigorous and of sufficient quality before you will be allowed entry onto our programme.

The type of robust research proposal that is required to attract supervisory commitment and an offer will address the five points outlined in the following
paragraphs. Typical proposals are 2,000-3,000 words long; however, this is only a guideline. The emphasis will be on the quality of the proposal and whether or not it fits with a particular supervisor’s research interests, not on the word count.

The points you must address in your proposal are:

Central research question

This should be simply stated in the first instance and then suitably fleshed out to show why it is timely and important – both intellectually and politically – for you to be writing a PhD on this topic. The central research question is your first chance to make the case for being accepted onto our programme, by capturing the attention of potential supervisors.


You must show how your central research question relates to existing academic studies in your field. This requires a short literature review which will situate your proposed research within the framework of the dominant perspectives on similar issues in the existing literature. Ideally, you should be able to demonstrate how your proposed research fills a gap in the literature and therefore adds substantively and can make a lasting contribution to academic debates. One key criterion for writing a successful PhD is that it is original work, so you must try to avoid setting up your analysis in a way which simply replicates work which can already be found within the literature.

Theoretical framework

The department has a reputation for prioritising doctoral work which has a strong grounding in theory. As a consequence, you are much more likely to be successful in your application if you are authoritative in your treatment of theoretical debates. You need to say which body of theory will underpin the explanatory framework to be used in your PhD, why that particular theory was chosen, and what advantages it gives you for addressing your central research question.

Case studies and methodology

You must convincingly discuss the type of research you will need to conduct in order to empirically ground your research. The only exception in this respect is for projects centred on matters of abstract political theory. It is important to draw attention to the links between your chosen body of theory, and the substantive case study, (or studies), you will be using. To do so, you will need to name your case studies and demonstrate why they are appropriate to your central research question, outline the methodologies you will adopt, and comment on the relevance of those methodologies to meeting your central research aims, through focusing on their generic strengths.


You should reflect on the types of problems you are likely to encounter whilst undertaking your research and how these might be overcome. This will demonstrate that you are forward-thinking in your approach to doctoral studies, and that you are aware of the fact that writing a PhD often requires you to activate a secondary plan at some stage of your studies.

Finally, the research you propose should be realistic, neither under- nor over-ambitious for a three-year project.