All Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) students must write an acceptable research proposal.

This has a clear and explicit purpose:

  • it makes certain that you have a worthwhile research project - you have a good grasp of the relevant literature and the major issues, and that your methodology is sound;
  • it will show that you have the competence and work-plan to complete the research;
  • it includes sufficient information for us to evaluate the proposed study; and
  • we can be certain we have the right staff expertise to supervise you.

All research proposals must address the question of what you plan to accomplish and why you want to and how you are going to do it.

A research proposal is usually around 2,500 words long although there is no upper or lower limit to this.

In preparing a research proposal, the first thing that you have to do is to decide what it really is that you want to know more about. The questions that you want to research have to viable as a research project and lead to the creation of new knowledge and understanding.

Your research proposal should include a section on each of the following areas:


This should be concise and descriptive.

Background and Rationale

This section needs to explain the background and issues of your proposed research - how you came to be interested in this subject.

You can summarise what you know of the existing literature in this area, perhaps identifying where it does and does not provide enlightenment on what you are interested in.

Most importantly, you must make a convincing case as to why your research would create valuable and useful knowledge.

Research Questions

Here you need to formulate your research questions clearly. You should have an answerable question that is clear and sufficiently well defined/focussed for you to do the research implied within an appropriate time frame.

Theoretical Framework / Methodology

In this section you need to clarify what theoretical resources you will be drawing on and why. You should demonstrate your knowledge of the research problem and your understanding of the theoretical and research issues related to your research question and their relevance and usefulness to your particular project. Give consideration to the larger issues within your chosen theoretical framework and how they will affect the research process. Give credit to those who have laid the groundwork for your research.


This section is very important as it informs the admissions committee how you plan to tackle your research problem. It is your work plan and describes the activities necessary for the completion of your project and should consist of a description of how you intend to go about the research. You could demonstrate your knowledge of alternative methods and make the case that your approach is the most appropriate and most valid way to address your research question. Explain about the data you will collect; how you will collect it and how your will analyse it. Explain what skills you will need and whether you have them or how you will acquire them.

You need to think about practical issues: if you are intending to undertake fieldwork, where and for how long? Consider questions of access, for instance, will organisations etc. where you intend to undertake fieldwork wish to give you access (physical, time, documents) to what you need?

Ethical Considerations

You will need to give consideration to issues of power and confidentiality. You should read any appropriate ethical guidelines and ask yourself how/whether you project follows these. [All research students at Oxford University are required (before they commence fieldwork) to complete the Central University Research Ethics Committee (CUREC) checklist and obtain permission to undertake any fieldwork].

Time Scales

It is important that you map out a reasonable schedule of your work so that you can monitor your own progress and manage your project effectively. Start with your intended finishing date and do not underestimate the amount of time that it takes to finalise your drafts into a finished product.


A key indicator of the work of much research is whether it is of publishable quality. You might like to give some consideration at this stage as to what sorts of things might be publishable and where you would like them to appear. This is especially important if you wish to pursue a career as an academic in a UK university.

When you have completed all of this then get other people, your peers as well as those more experienced than you, to read it and comment. This will help you to revise the proposal before you submit it. You can also make contact with departmental staff whose research interests are in a similar area to those you intend to undertake. They would be happy to give you advice and to discuss possible supervision.