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The research proposal

The research proposal is the most important element of your PhD application. You need to submit a fully specified research proposal when you apply. This is your statement about why your project is interesting, how you will carry it out, and what academic debates and social problems your work addresses. It's your chance to show us how you think and what kind of sociologist your are.

We look for a robust research proposal of around 2,000-3,000 words, although this is only a guideline. It has to convince us that your topic is feasible and that we have the right expertise to supervise it. 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 is theoretically oriented. 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 data you will need to collect in order to empirically ground your research. The only exception in this respect is for projects centred on matters of abstract 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.

Examples of current PhD project titles include:
  • Social media and distant others: The mediation of distant suffering among Chinese youth
  • An exploration of family life in Chile: practices, gender and social class
  • Anti-café, pay-per-minute café, or post-café. A new type of urban public space in Russia and the UK: the case study of Ziferblat
  • The 'speaking for' issue, from Spivak to Gramsci, and back: challenging sociological imagination and the (post)modern condition, starting from political struggles and multiple locations
  • Migration for work and play: a qualitative study of the Tier-5 Youth Mobility Scheme of the UK immigration system
  • Teenagers and technology: bridging gender and memory in Social Media
  • De-politicising education: a critical look at the discourse of educational neutrality
  • Surveillance, resistance and identity: if and how does the medicalisation of women’s reproductive care shape British women’s identities?
  • Life course, welfare state, and national context: towards politics and policy of justice in Taiwan