A group of women PhD students working at a table with a large vase of white flowers on it

Writing a PhD application or proposal

This article was written by Juanita Elias and Lena Rethel (University of Warwick)
This article was published on

This article follows on from Simon Rushton’s recent post about approaching a potential PhD supervisor. As Simon points out, it’s useful to have a clear and well-developed research proposal that you can share with a potential supervisor who has expressed an interest in your research area. In this piece we discuss how to make an application and write your proposal. 

The research proposal helps the supervisor to gauge whether this is a project that they would be interested in potentially supervising. Potential PhD supervisors reading through research proposals are most likely focusing on two things: 

(a) fit: is this a topic that they can reasonably supervise – i.e. does it connect with themes, issues and theoretical perspective that they have an interest/expertise in; and 

(b) quality: is this a well put together and well written proposal – i.e. does it give a clear impression that this is someone who has a good understanding of what doing a PhD is likely to involve and has a well-designed and ‘doable’ project.

So, what might a good research proposal look like? The first thing to know is that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ way to write a PhD proposal. Importantly, you might like to see if the institution or academic department that you wish to apply for has specific rules about what should go into a PhD application - what sections to include, word length, that sort of thing.

There are various important things that you should include in a PhD proposal:  

  • A clear title for the project. Don’t get too hung up on a title at this stage. Something that accurately describes the nature of your project is sufficient.
  • A discussion of the context/motivation for your project. Setting out basic information about the topic and background, but also making clear to the reader what you intend to do in the PhD (i.e. there is a clear plan to do something). As supervisors we are especially keen to know why it is that you are interested in spending three to four years working on this topic. What is it that fascinates you so in this area? Have you already done some research on this topic? Is there a puzzle or problem that animates your curiosity, and do you want to find out more? 
  • A review of existing literature relating to your topic. This should situate your project within wider academic debates. Importantly, this is not an overview of everything you have ever read on the topic. Rather, the idea here is that you demonstrate exactly how you think that you will be making an original contribution to the relevant literature.
  • Your central research question/overarching research questions and sub-questions that inform the basis of the study. 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. 
  • Theoretical framework. The proposal should include reflections on the theoretical and conceptual frameworks for the PhD project (you might introduce these in the proposal’s introduction or in a later section of the proposal). The key thing to note is that a supervisor wants to be confident that you can handle theoretical ideas and concepts – since you cannot avoid theory when doing a PhD! This is not just a question of mixing in some theory and 'stir'; your potential supervisor needs to be able to see how theoretical ideas inform your project and will help you to tackle the questions and issues that interest you. This is especially important if your academic background is in a cognate field – you have to demonstrate familiarity with the theoretical literature in your chosen field of study.
  • Study design. You will need to explain your approach, methods, cases, key sources, and ethical considerations - i.e. what will you actually do during your time as a PhD student.
  • Problems. If its relevant to your project, then it would also be a good idea to reflect on any problems you are likely to encounter during your research process and how are you planning to tackle them to ensure successful completion of your project.
  • Timeline. This should set out the major project milestones and, if you plan to undertake fieldwork, when this will take place. In the UK the standard time frame for completion of a PhD is four years (full time), although certain students on home country or other scholarships may be required to complete their PhDs within a three-year time frame. It is also unusual for students to undertake any fieldwork in the first year of their PhD project, so keep that in mind when you write a draft timeline.
  • References. Finally, make sure that you include references to works cited in the proposal using a consistent academic referencing style.

In the UK, typical research proposals are around 2,000-3,000 words long, so around 6-8 pages plus references. 

A PhD proposal that you share with a potential PhD supervisor needs to be reasonably well polished. However, at the same time, it does not need to be perfect. It’s very likely that a potential supervisor will want to read and comment on your proposal, and you will then have a chance to refine the proposal further. This can also provide a good insight into what this individual might be like as a supervisor – and for the supervisor to gauge how you are reacting to their advice and incorporating their feedback. It's important to note that preparing your own PhD application can be a lengthy process: writing a proposal, finding a supervisor, navigating an admissions system, investigating and applying for funding opportunities (see below). Give yourself plenty of time to do this – keeping in mind any strict deadlines for applications (especially funding!). Remember that there is more than likely going to be some back and forth between you and the supervisor who may wish for you to revise the proposal in light of their feedback and suggestions.

"The first thing to know is that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ way to write a PhD proposal. Importantly, you might like to see if the institution or academic department that you wish to apply for has specific rules about what should go into a PhD application."
Juanita Elias and Lena Rethel

Something to keep in mind also is that applying for a PhD programme is about more than simply putting together a great proposal. Each institution will also have entry requirements relating to your academic track record such as a Masters-level degree in Politics or a closely related subject; your academic CV; and transcripts of your undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Typically, you are also required to provide details for at least two referees. And, if you are applying to a UK institution as an international student, you should also be prepared to provide evidence of your English language competency. Be aware then, that you could end up in a situation where a supervisor expresses interest in supervising your project only for you to be rejected by the institution because you don’t meet the threshold for entry. If you have concerns, then it can be useful to raise these issues with a potential supervisor who may have some capacity to advocate on your behalf for entry. This can be especially useful if your education to date has taken place in an academic system that many UK universities may be unfamiliar with. In such cases, it can be useful to provide some contextual information about the status of the institutions at which you studied and the nature of your academic qualifications.

You should note that getting a place on a PhD programme is contingent on there being someone at that institution who has the capacity to supervise your project. It is generally the case that if you want to do a PhD somewhere you will have already initiated contact with a potential supervisor. Don’t put together a proposal and application materials and submit them to a generic PhD application portal at an institution unless you have already been in contact with a potential supervisor who has agreed, in principle, to supervise your work.


Another issue to consider is that the process for applying for a PhD place and the process of applying for PhD funding are usually separate processes in the UK. Many UK universities offer a small number of scholarships to international students and you should be able to find more information on their websites. Make sure that you read the rules around applying to such schemes very carefully, in particular when it comes to deadlines as some funding schemes may require you already having been offered a place as a PhD student before you are eligible to apply to them. Don’t just assume that getting an offer of a PhD place means that you will be entered for institutional funding competitions; these may well involve a completely separate application process. Make sure you read all the available guidance that you can find about applying for funding and consult with your potential supervisor as well. Funding for international students seeking to do PhDs in the UK is highly competitive and students come to the UK on a variety of different scholarships and bursaries including from their home countries, from different funding bodies – both UK based and international, and from specific academic institutions.

"Don’t put together a proposal and application materials and submit them to a generic PhD application portal at an institution unless you have already been in contact with a potential supervisor who has agreed, in principle, to supervise your work."
Juanita Elias and Lena Rethel

In subsequent articles in this series, some current international PhD students will discuss their experiences of coming to the UK to study and how they went about applying for a PhD and getting funding for their work. In the meantime, take a look at the previous article on 'How to approach a PhD supervisor'.