How to write a good legal research proposal for masters degree
Apr 26, 2018
How to write a research proposal
If you wish to study for a Manchester PhD, you may need to submit a research proposal with your application. This is crucial in the assessment of your application and it warrants plenty of your time and energy.
Your research proposal should:
- demonstrate evidence of intellectual purpose and originality;
- show that you are capable of communicating your ideas clearly, concisely and coherently;
- define the topic you are interested in and show good awareness of the research context.
Typical proposals range between 1,000 and 1,500 words; however, we advise you to consult with your School for specific guidance on word count.
Structuring your research proposal
Please check with the relevant School for the specific conventions and expectations of your research proposal. The following are general considerations that we deem important:
- Create a clear working title for your research project.
- Introduce your proposal, identifying the subject for research in terms of theoretical issues and relevant empirical applications, and highlighting why you wish to pursue this project.
- Review the relevant literature and theories relating to your proposed research area, showing that you clearly understand the key arguments that have been developed and the ideas and findings of key researchers working on the topic. This should demonstrate your familiarity with the subject area, and your ability to communicate clearly and concisely.
- Summarise the central aims and questions that will guide your research.
- Outline the research methods you will use, explaining how you will conduct your research. What form will the resources take? Where are they located? Will there be any problems of access?
- Indicate your project strategy and timetable. What are the main project stages? What would the annual completion expectations be? What are the perceived challenges, and how will these be overcome?
- Explain why your proposed project is important. How will your research make an original contribution?
- Include a bibliography highlighting the key references that will support your research topic.
Before submitting your research proposal
Contact an academic member of our staff to discuss your research proposal and key objectives before you submit your formal application. This will enable you to fine-tune your proposal and check that we can identify a suitable supervisory team for you.
Find out more about choosing a suitable supervisor.
Refining your proposal
When you submit your research proposal for application purposes, you will not be committing yourself to the precise detail or methodology. Once we accept you onto a PhD programme, you can refine your original proposal following discussions with your supervisory team.
Example research proposals are listed by category below.
History of Education
Karen Marais, 2005, EdD
From finishing school to feminist academy: the impact of changing social constructions of gender on education in a private girls' school in Western Australia, 1945 - 1997.
Ian Melville, 2006, PhD
An historical analysis of the structures established for the provision of Anglican education in the Diocese of Perth, Western Australia between 1917 and 1992.
Qualitative Longitudinal Study
Karen Anderson, 2005, EdD
The novice experience: Western Australian primary deputy principals' first year in school leadership and management.
Stefania Giamminuti, 2005, PhD
Documentation as a tool for co-constructing situated communities of learners: a case study of early years, educational environments in Reggio Emilia and Western Australia.
Jasmine McDonald, 2005, PhD
How parents deal with the education of their child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder: a constructivist grounded theory study.
Shardlow Mignon, 2005, PhD
Teaching the watchdogs of democracy: The professional formation of journalists through Australian university study and early employment.
Point Qualitative Study
Debra Shilkin, 2005, EdD
Why we suspend: teachers' and administrators' perspectives on student suspensions.
Multiple-question Qualitative Study
Theresa Martin, 2006, EdD
Qualifications in education for TAFE lecturers in Western Australia: background, functions and concerns.
Jolee Boakes, 2005, PhD
Development and validation of the test battery to evaluate employability skills.
Charles Chew, 2005, EdD
Effects of biology-infused demonstrations on achievement and attitudes in junior college Physics.
Richard Hewison, 2005, EdD
Predictors of tertiary level performance in non-English speaking background students.
David Kwok, 2005, EdD
Profiles of high-performing call centre agents.
Joseph Njiru, 2005, PhD
Self-regulated learning in working with information and communication technology (ICT).
Delphine Shaw, 2005, EdD
Thinking patterns, pupil engagement, and understanding in early childhood.
Writing a Good PhD Research Proposal
What is a PhD proposal?
A PhD proposal is a an outline of your proposed project that is designed to:
- Define a clear question and approach to answering it
- Highlight its originality and/or significance
- Explain how it adds to, develops (or challenges) existing literature in the field
- Persuade potential supervisors and/or funders of the importance of the work, and why you are the right person to undertake it
Research proposals may vary in length, so it is important to check with the department(s) to which you are applying to check word limits and guidelines. Generally speaking, a proposal should be around 3,000 words which you write as part of the application process.
What is the research proposal for?
Potential supervisors, admissions tutors and/or funders use research proposals to assess the quality and originality of your ideas, your skills in critical thinking and the feasibility of the research project. Please bear in mind that PhD programmes in the UK are designed to be completed in three years (full time) or six years (part time). Think very carefully about the scope of your research and be prepared to explain how you will complete it within this timeframe.
Research proposals are also used to assess your expertise in the area in which you want to conduct research, you knowledge of the existing literature (and how your project will enhance it). Moreover, they are used to assess and assign appropriate supervision teams. If you are interested in the work of a particular potential supervisor – and especially if you have discussed your work with this person – be sure to mention this in your proposal. We encourage you strongly to identify a prospective supervisor and get in touch with them to discuss your proposal informally BEFORE making a formal application, to ensure it is of mutual interest and to gain input on the design, scope and feasibility of your project. Remember, however, that it may not be possible to guarantee that you are supervised by a specific academic.
Crucially, it is also an opportunity for you to communicate your passion in the subject area and to make a persuasive argument about what your project can accomplish. Although the proposal should include an outline, it should also be approached as a persuasive essay – that is, as an opportunity to establish the attention of readers and convince them of the importance of your project.
Is the research proposal ‘set in stone’?
No. Good PhD proposals evolve as the work progresses. It is normal for students to refine their original proposal in light of detailed literature reviews, further consideration of research approaches and comments received from the supervisors (and other academic staff). It is useful to view your proposal as an initial outline rather than a summary of the ‘final product’.
Structuring a Research Proposal
Please check carefully with each department to find out whether a specific template is provided or required. In general, however, the following elements are crucial in a good research proposal:
This can change, but make sure to include important ‘key words’ that will relate your proposal to relevant potential supervisors, funding schemes and so on. Make sure that your title goes beyond simply describing the subject matter – it should give an indication of your approach or key questions.
Overview of the research
In this section you should provide a short overview of your research and where it fits within the existing academic discourses, debates or literature. Be as specific as possible in identifying influences or debates you wish to engage with, but try not to get lead astray into a long exegesis of specific sources. Rather, the point is to sketch out the context into which your work will fit.
You should also use this section to make links between your research and the existing strengths of the department to which you are applying. Visit appropriate websites to find out about existing research taking place in the department and how your project can complement this.
If applying to multiple departments, be sure to tailor a unique proposal to each department – readers can tell if a proposal has been produced for ‘mass consumption’!
Be sure to establish a solid and convincing framework for your research in this section. This should include:
- research questions (usually, 1-3 should suffice) and the reason for asking them
- the major approach(es) you will take (conceptual, theoretical, empirical and normative, as appropriate) and rationale
- significance of the research (in academic and, if appropriate, other fields)
Positioning of the research (approx. 900 words)
This section should discuss the texts which you believe are most important to the project, demonstrate your understanding of the research issues, and identify existing gaps (both theoretical and practical) that the research is intended to address. This section is intended to ‘sign-post’ and contextualize your research questions, not to provide a detailed analysis of existing debates.
Research design & methodology (approx. 900 words)
This section should lay out, in clear terms, the way in which you will structure your research and the specific methods you will use. Research design should include (but is not limited to):
- The parameters of the research (ie the definition of the subject matter)
- A discussion of the overall approach (e.g. is it solely theoretical, or does it involve primary/empirical research) and your rationale for adopting this approach
- Specific aims and objectives (e.g. ‘complete 20 interviews with members of group x’)
- A brief discussion of the timeline for achieving this
A well developed methodology section is crucial, particularly if you intend to conduct significant empirical research. Be sure to include specific techniques, not just your general approach. This should include: kinds of resources consulted; methods for collecting and analyzing data; specific techniques (ie statistical analysis; semi-structured interviewing; participant observation); and (brief) rationale for adopting these methods.
Your references should provide the reader with a good sense of your grasp on the literature and how you can contribute to it. Be sure to reference texts and resources that you think will play a large role in your analysis. Remember that this is not simply a bibliography listing ‘everything written on the subject’. Rather, it should show critical reflection in the selection of appropriate texts.
Quite often, students who fit the minimum entrance criteria fail to be accepted as PhD candidates as a result of weaknesses in the research proposal. To avoid this, keep the following advice in mind:
- Make sure that your research idea, question or problem is very clearly stated, persuasive and addresses a demonstrable gap in the existing literature. Put time into formulating the questions- in the early stages of a project, they can be as important as the projected results.
- Make sure that you have researched the departments to which you are applying to ensure that there are staff interested in your subject area and available to supervise your project. As mentioned above it is strongly advised that you contact potential supervisors in advance, and provide them with a polished version of your proposal for comment.
- Make sure that your proposal is well structured. Poorly formed or rambling proposals indicate that the proposed project may suffer the same fate.
- Ensure that the scope of your project is reasonable, and remember that there are significant limits to the size and complexity of a project that can be completed and written up in three years. We will be assessing proposals not only for their intellectual ambition and significance, but also for the likelihood that the candidate can complete this project.
- Make sure that your passion for the subject matter shines through in the structure and arguments presented within your proposal. Remember that we may not be experts in your field – it is up to you to make your project and subject matter engaging to your readers!
The following books are widely available from bookshops and libraries and may help in preparing your research proposal (as well as in doing your research degree):
Bell, J. (1999): Doing Your Research Project: A Guide for First-time Researchers in Education & Social Science, (Oxford University Press, Oxford).
Baxter, L, Hughes, C. and Tight, M. (2001): How to Research, (Open University Press, Milton Keynes).
Cryer, P. (2000): The Research Student's Guide to Success, (Open University, Milton Keynes).
Delamont, S., Atkinson, P. and Parry, O. (1997): Supervising the PhD, (Open University Press, Milton Keynes).
Philips, E. and Pugh, D. (2005): How to get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors, (Open University Press, Milton Keynes).
This article is based on material originally published at the One Hundred Thousand Words blog, used with kind permission.
Click here to search our database of PhDs
The ultimate goal of the architect...is to create a paradise. Every house, every product of architecture... should be a fruit of our endeavour to build an earthly paradise for people. Alvar Aalto