How to write a research proposal

Not sure if you’re on the right track? Our DPhil (PhD) students and admissions staff have some advice.

Researching in the Weston Library | Photograph by Elizabeth Nyikos (DPhil Music)

Drafting your first research proposal can be intimidating if you’ve never written (or seen) one before. Our grad students and admissions staff have some advice on making a start.

First off: do you even need one?

For some research courses in sciences you’ll join an existing research group so you don’t need to write a full research proposal, just a list of the groups and/or supervisors you want to work with. You might be asked to write a personal statement instead, giving your research interests and experience.

Still, for many of our DPhil (PhD) courses — especially in humanities and social sciences — your research proposal is one of the most significant parts of your application. Grades and other evidence of your academic ability and potential are important, but even if you’re academically outstanding you’ll need to show you’re a good match for the department’s staff expertise and research interests.

Every course page on the University website has detailed info on what you’ll need to send with your application, so make sure that’s your first step before you continue:

I need one! Where do I start?

“There are many ways to start, I’ve heard stories about people approaching it totally differently.”

Yannis (DPhil in Computer Science)

There isn’t one right way to start writing a research proposal.

First of all, make sure you’ve read your course page — it’ll have instructions for what to include in your research proposal (as well as anything to avoid) and how your department will assess it.

Once you know the format you’re working with, you’re good to start to getting your ideas down on paper.

Start small, think big

Layal (DPhil in Infection, Immunology and Translational Medicine)

“I looked at what I’d done so far and projected from that: what’s missing, what are the gaps in the literature, and what I’m interested in.”

Layal (DPhil in Infection, Immunology and Translational Medicine)

A DPhil is a big undertaking, and it’s normal to feel a bit overwhelmed at first. One way to start writing is to look back at the work you’ve already done. How does your proposed research build on this, and the other research in the area?

One of the most important things you’ll be showing through your research project is that your project is achievable in the time available for your course, and that you’ve got (or know how you’ll get) the right skills and experience to pull off your plan.

However, you don’t have to know everything — after all, you haven’t started yet! When reading your proposal, your department will be looking at the potential and originality of your research, and whether you have a solid understanding of the topic you’ve chosen.

“They don’t expect you to be the expert, you just have to have good ideas. Be willing to challenge things and do something new.”

Rebecca (DPhil in Medieval and Modern Languages)

But why Oxford?

Sarah (Admissions Officer at Nuffield College) says that it’s important to explain why you’re applying to Oxford, and to your department in particular:

“Really, this is all dependent on a department. Look at the department in depth, and look at what they offer — how is it in line with your interests?”

Think about what you need to successfully execute your research plans and explain how Oxford’s academic facilities and community will support your work.

Should I email a potential supervisor?

Got an idea? If your course page says it’s alright to contact a supervisor (check the top of the ‘how to apply’ tab), it’s a good idea to get in touch with potential supervisors when you come to write your proposal.

Sarah (Admissions Officer at Nuffield College)

“Not everybody realises that you can do that. You’re allowed to reach out to academics that you might be interested in supervising you. They can tell you if your research is something that we can support here, and how, and give you ideas.”

Sarah (Admissions Officer at Nuffield College)

You’ll find more info about the academics working in your area on your department’s website (follow the department links on your course page).

John (DPhil in Earth Sciences) emailed a professor who had the same research interests as he did. “Luckily enough, he replied the next day and was keen to support me in the application.”

These discussions might help you to refine your ideas and your research proposal.

Layal says, “I discussed ideas with my supervisor — what’s feasible, what would be interesting. He supported me a lot with that, and I went away and wrote it.” It’s also an opportunity to find out more about the programme and the department: “Getting in touch with people who are here is a really good way to ask questions.”

If you want to know more about how to find a supervisor for your research, we have another article just on this:

On the right track

Nyree (DPhil in Archaeological Science)

“My supervisors helped me with my research proposal, which is great. You don’t expect that, but they were really helpful prior to my application.”

Nyree (DPhil in Archaeological Science)

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and feedback as you go. Graihagh (DPhil in Music) took time out between her master’s and DPhil: “When I was writing the proposal I felt a bit out of it — that I wasn’t in the academic mindset, or the right environment.”

She reached out to her supervisor from her master’s degree, as well as friends who were still studying:

“I said, ‘Would you give it a read and see if I’m on the right track or on a completely different planet?’ Having people who can help you out is really important.”

Graihagh (DPhil in Music)
Our DPhil (PhD) students talk research proposals, supervisors and their Oxford experiences in our video on applying for DPhil

More help with your application

We’ll have more insights from Oxford students and staff on making a grad application leading up to our major deadlines in January.

You can find instructions for the supporting documents you’ll need to include in your application to Oxford on your course page and the Application Guide.

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