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When applying to study for a PhD or MPhil in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, you will typically need to send us an initial 500-word research proposal.

The content and structure of your research proposal will be influenced by the nature of the project you wish to pursue. The guidance and suggested headings provided here should help you to structure and present your ideas clearly.

Your initial research proposal

When writing your initial research proposal, you can either address it to the School generally, or to a specific supervisor if you have one in mind. 

Potential supervisors in the School will review your initial research proposal, and get in touch with you to discuss it. Your proposal may change following this conversation. Depending on the supervisor and the outcome of this discussion, you may be asked to produce a longer research proposal of between 2,000 and 4,000 words.

Tips on writing a research proposal

Before you write your research proposal, we strongly recommend that you check our research page and individual supervisor profiles to view our areas of expertise.

  • You should avoid the use of overly long sentences and technical jargon.
  • It is important that the proposed research is realistic and feasible so that the outcomes can be achieved within the scale of a typical research degree programme. This is usually three years full-time for a PhD (or two years for an MPhil). 
  • A strong research proposal can and should make a positive first impression about your potential to become a good researcher. It should demonstrate that your ideas are focused, interesting and realistic.

Although you should write your proposal yourself, it is best if you discuss its contents with your proposed supervisor before you submit it. If this is not possible, then try to get someone else (such as an academic at your current or previous institution) to read and comment on it to ensure that it is sufficiently clear.


Your proposal needs a clear working title that gives an indication of what you want to study. You are not committed to continuing with the same title once you begin your studies.

Research question

For many projects, you'll usually address one main question, which can sometimes be broken down into several sub-questions. However, it's OK to have two or three research questions where appropriate.

In your research proposal, you'll need to state your main research question(s), explain its significance, and locate it within the relevant literature, in order to set out the context into which your research will fit. You should only refer to research that is directly relevant to your proposal. 

Questions to address in your research proposal

You will need to address questions such as:

  • What is the general area in which you will be working, and the specific aspect(s) of that area that will be your focus of inquiry?
  • What is the problem, shortcoming, or gap in this area that you would like to address?
  • What is the main research question or aim that you want to address?
  • What are the specific objectives for the proposed research that follow from this?
  • Why is the proposed research significant, why does it matter (either theoretically or practically), and why does it excite you?
  • How does your work relate to other relevant research in the department?


You will need to explain how you will go about answering your question (or achieving your aim), and why you will use your intended approach to address the question/aim. 

Questions you might need to address include:

  • What steps will you take and what methods will you use to address your question? For instance, do you plan to use quantitative or qualitative methods?
  • How will your proposed method provide a reliable answer to your question?
  • What sources or data will you use?
  • If your project involves an experimental approach, what specific hypothesis or hypotheses will you address?
  • What specific techniques will you use to test the hypothesis? For example, laboratory procedures, interviews, questionnaires, modelling, simulation, text analysis, use of secondary data sources.
  • What practical considerations are there? For example, what equipment, facilities, and other resources will be required?
  • What relevant skills and experience do you have with the proposed methods?
  • Will you need to collaborate with other researchers and organisations?
  • Are there particular ethical issues that will need to be considered (for example, all projects using human participants require ethical approval)?
  • Are there any potential problems or difficulties that you foresee (for example, delays in gaining access to special populations or materials) that might affect your rate of progress?


You will need to provide a rough timeline for the completion of your research to show that the project is achievable (given the facilities and resources required) in no more than three years of full-time study (or part-time equivalent) for a PhD, and two years for an MPhil.

Expected outcomes

You need to say something about what the expected outcomes of your project would be.

How, for example, does it make a contribution to knowledge? How does it advance theoretical understanding? How might it contribute to policy or practice?

If you are aiming to study for a PhD, then you need to say how your proposed research will make an original contribution to knowledge. This is not essential if you are aiming to study for an MPhil, although you will still need to show originality in the application of knowledge.

List of references

You will need to provide a list of any key articles or texts that you have referred to in your proposal.

References should be listed in the appropriate style for your subject area (e.g. Harvard). You should only reference texts that you think are central to your proposed work, rather than a bibliography listing everything written on the subject. 

Format and proofreading

Make sure that your proposal is well structured and clearly written. It is important that you carefully check your proposal for typographical and spelling errors, consistency of style, and accuracy of references, before submitting it.

The proposal should be aesthetically well presented, and look professional (e.g. no font inconsistencies, headings clearly identifiable). If you include figures, then they should be accompanied by captions underneath).

How to apply for a PhD

Read our step-by-step guide to applying for doctoral study in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences.

PhD opportunities

Discover our PhD opportunities. We offer flexible modes of study designed to fit your needs.

Our research

Our research centres have an international reputation for research in areas such as child development and psychopathology, neuroscience and clinical training.
Athena SWAN Silver Award