Writing a research degree proposal

Guidance for writing a proposal for a research degree application

The research proposal is a vital component of your application for a research degree at the University of Northampton. You are required to submit a detailed proposal ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 words in length. For the MRes in Sport and Exercise, the proposal should be 1,000 words, including references, and not exceed 1-2 pages.

This proposal is instrumental for the university to evaluate and distinguish among candidates, influencing their decision to extend offers for their research programmes. It is imperative that your proposal is comprehensible to a broad audience, not solely experts in your field. It should encapsulate all necessary details of your intended research and objectives, crafted in a manner that is easily understood by any university member. As a significant part of the application, it warrants considerable effort and attention in its preparation and composition.

This page will give you more information on how to write a research proposal, with a few suggestions on what to include and what to avoid.

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal serves as a brief yet comprehensive overview of your intended study. It’s an essential component of your application that informs potential supervisors about the feasibility and value of your research idea. Typically, a research proposal outlines the framework of your research initiative, detailing the primary questions you aim to address and the methodology you plan to employ. Additionally, it’s important to articulate the significance and potential contributions of your research, as well as its relevance to ongoing developments within your scholarly discipline.

An outline of your research proposal is designed to:

  • Develop a concise and engaging research question, which could be a testable hypothesis or a broad enquiry.
  • Demonstrate the importance and contribution of your research question within the sphere of contemporary scholarly debate, emphasising its novelty and impact.
  • Design a straightforward and feasible methodological approach to address your research question, including a thorough assessment of the data or sources you intend to utilise.
  • Predict the potential findings of your study and the subsequent fields of exploration it may unveil.
  • Construct a tentative schedule for the progression of your research activities.

When selecting a topic for extended study, it’s crucial to pick a subject that sparks your curiosity and enthusiasm. Remember, this will be your academic focus for at least three years, so a deep-seated interest and dedication are essential. As you journey through your research, expect your project to grow and change shape; it’s a natural part of the learning process. Students often fine-tune their initial concepts, proposals, or titles, adapting to new insights as they delve deeper. Envision your proposal as a flexible framework that will guide the early stages of your research, rather than a fixed declaration of your project’s endgame. Embrace the evolution of your work as you uncover the many directions your topic can take you.

What is the purpose of the research proposal?

Your proposal succinctly outlines your intended area of study, providing a snapshot of the research you wish to undertake. It will illustrate the rationale behind your choice of topic, enabling the university to assess its suitability for a research degree.

This is an opportunity to highlight your academic acumen and familiarity with the subject, detailing not only your current understanding but also the insights you aim to contribute. It’s a platform for you to articulate the unique value your research will bring to the field.

The proposal reflects a well-considered perception of what a research degree entails. Moreover, it should convey your enthusiasm for the topic and construct a compelling case for the potential impact of your work.  The University can assess that is has the expertise to support your research ambitions, ensuring the feasibility of your proposed study.

What are we not expecting?

At this point, it’s not anticipated that you’ve commenced your research or drafted your thesis. However, it’s crucial to approach a research degree with a clear and focused research question, rather than a broad, undefined interest in a subject area. Keep in mind, the goal of a research degree is not just to add to the body of knowledge but also to develop your research skills. Aim for clarity and conciseness in your documentation, avoiding unnecessary complexity.

In our experience, there are a number of common reasons why proposals from well qualified potential students are rejected. Some common problems are outlined below:

  • Your research topic is inadequately specified. You must write to a very tight format stating what you plan to research, why and how. The format is clearly outlined within this webpage and relevant course pages.
  • A study that merely aims to discover new empirical information or simply solve a current issue will probably not be accepted. Your proposal must engage new ideas/thought and demonstrate strong critical insight into one or more academic disciplines to succeed in your research.

What to include in your research proposal and how is it structured?

Your research proposal should encompass the following sections; however, it’s important to remember that this serves as a basic framework. Specific guidance may be provided by your potential supervisor.  Generally, you’ll be expected to address the fundamental topics outlined, but be prepared to tailor your proposal with additional sections as requested.

Structuring your proposal

You may wish to use the following sub-headings in your proposal (although these are not prescriptive):

  • Project title
  • Overview
  • Key research questions
  • Relevant literature
  • Methodology
  • Outcomes
  • Timescale
  • Your project title may not be set in stone yet, but it should reflect your objectives and the essence of your work. It’s important to incorporate key terms that are central to your project, ensuring they’re present in the provisional title. Aim for a title that is focused and succinct, steering clear of overly general or excessively long phrases. For example, instead of “Health Care in the West Midlands,” consider a more precise title like “Community Health Interventions in Birmingham: A Targeted Approach.”

    Other examples of project titles have included:

    • Sustainable management of tannery hair waste through composting.
    • Viewpoints: The interpretation of anomalous experiences.
    • Occupational identity changes in later life.
    • Millennial and postmillennial London in British fiction.

    When crafting your proposal, consider the common viva question that challenges you to hone your research into a single sentence. This approach can sharpen your focus and prevent your project from becoming unwieldy.

  • Begin your proposal with a concise paragraph that encapsulates your research question and its significance in academia or practical applications. This should highlight the relevance of your study within the broader scope of the discipline(s) and its timeliness. Your introduction should also touch upon your personal connection and expertise in the subject matter. Ensure that your research objectives are realistic and well-defined, acknowledging the scope and limitations of your study. A focused and feasible proposal will demonstrate thorough planning and consideration of the project’s duration and scope.

  • What are the questions you’ll be looking to answer? What are you hoping to find out?

    It is advisable to define and identify the primary elements and the essential questions or facets you intend to address. It is beneficial to elaborate on at least two or three principal aspects. While these can be articulated as goals and objectives, such formal designation is not mandatory.

    Examples of overall research questions, which are often expressed as aims, have included:

    • To explore how individuals in strategic leadership roles in the Muscat Municipality affect the delivery of large-scale projects.
    • To examine the potential of landfill sites to support pollinating insect assemblages.
    • Enable a deeper understanding of the processes of engaging in different occupations in later life.

    Subsidiary research questions, which are often expressed as objectives, have included:

    • Critically examine the strategic leadership literature in the delivery of large-scale projects.
    • Determine how the plant assemblage is being affected by the landfill site in terms of plant growth, phenology and pollen production through field data.
    • Use a survey questionnaire to determine whether changes to occupational identity occur in later life.

    Explain what you are intending to achieve. You might use:

    • Hypotheses: an assumed relationship between two or more variables
    • Propositions: statements that explain likely phenomena
    • Objectives or a set of research questions
    • Problems: identify existing unsatisfactory conditions and propose a solution

    Your research questions should clearly define the goals and objectives of your study.

    When proposing original research, articulate your hypothesis within this section, ensuring your goals are realistic and attainable. While ambition is encouraged, it’s crucial that your objectives are feasible.

    In research degrees, it’s essential to contribute new knowledge through independent research.  An MPhil requires a narrower focus than a PhD, with a more defined project scope, yet both must be achievable within the allotted timeframe. Ultimately, your proposed work should align with the intended degree and be completable within the university’s time constraints.

  • In this section, you are expected to display a grasp of pertinent literature, indicating an understanding of past research while detailing how your study seeks to add new insights. While exhaustive knowledge of all literature is not required, it’s essential to demonstrate knowledge of key themes and ongoing debates. A concise literature review is advisable, underscoring the significance of prior work and positioning your research question as a valuable addition to the field.

    It’s important to articulate your comprehension of fundamental academic contributions, recognising precursor research and defining the novel aspects of your inquiry. Highlight current scholarly dialogues and obstacles in your area, citing authoritative works to underscore their pertinence to your research.  Typically at the University of Northampton, we used the Harvard referencing system.

    To make a compelling case you should aim to:

    • Demonstrate your strategic fit: how does your research and/or previous experience fit in with the research strengths, agendas and priorities of the University?
    • Make a positive and powerful first impression about your potential as a researcher
    • The proposal and supporting statement are for you to show that you have the ability to take ownership over your project and demonstrate research leadership
    • State and justify your objectives clearly (“because it is interesting” is not enough!) – make sure that you address a clear gap in existing work
    • Persuade potential supervisors and/or funders of the importance of the research, and why you are the right person to undertake it

    Remember that a PhD is original research, so for PhD proposals you will also need to show that what you’ll be studying hasn’t been done before.

  • Crafting a research strategy is essential for your project’s triumph. It involves selecting the most appropriate methods for data collection, such as physiological measurements, surveys, interviews, or mixed methods, depending on the research question.  It’s important to engage with methodological discussions within your field to inform your approach. Moreover, outlining your data collection plan, pinpointing sources, and foreseeing any obstacles in obtaining data is advised.

    At this point, it’s important to outline your proposed approach rather than delve into exhaustive specifics. You should provide an overview of the analytical methods you plan to employ, justify your choice of techniques, and ensure that you have addressed any ethical considerations relevant to your project.

    You need to ask yourself how you are planning to do this research:

    • What methods will you use?
    • Are you looking for qualitative or quantitative data, or both?
    • Will you be carrying out laboratory experiments or questionnaires?
    • What options are open to you or what different methods could you use, and why have you chosen the ones you have?
    • What other sources will you need to access?
    • Is all the information available in the UK, or will you have to travel?
    • If you are studying via off-site study will this affect the access to materials and sources?
    • Are there any ethical considerations relevant to your project?
  • While it is premature to predict the specific outcomes of the research, it is possible to outline the anticipated contributions to the field.

    The research aims to enhance understanding of the subject, develop innovative methods, and offer fresh perspectives on established debates. By focusing on unexplored areas, introducing novel techniques, or building upon current knowledge, the research is expected to provide significant insights.

    The results should align with the initial objectives and questions, demonstrating a meaningful impact on the discipline and highlighting the study’s unique addition to the scholarly conversation.

  • In this section, outline your activity schedule and resource planning. Describe the research phases and their respective timelines.

    Provide an estimated duration for your degree completion and a preliminary plan for allocating time to major tasks, such as literature review, data collection, analysis, and composition.

    Incorporate a timeline to demonstrate a well-considered plan for your research, indicating the feasibility of your project within the allotted time. While the timeline need not be exhaustive, it should reflect whether you intend to pursue your studies on a full-time or part-time basis.

    Utilising a Research Gantt Chart could be beneficial for your study. This tool offers a structured approach to scheduling and managing the various components required in a research project. It allows for the division of the project into manageable segments and appropriate distribution of resources. Moreover, the chart provides a visual representation of the project’s timeline, highlighting essential tasks that need timely completion to achieve project objectives. This methodical breakdown and assignment facilitate orderly progress and adherence to project deadlines.

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