What is a research proposal?

A doctoral research proposal outlines the research that a candidate wishes to carry out as part of a programme of supervised doctoral research. Writing your research proposal is your opportunity to tell us about the research you would like to do and gives you the opportunity to articulate your research ideas, demonstrate your critical thinking skills and capacity to undertake a research project, along with your academic writing skills. Many of Cranfield’s doctoral programmes will require you to produce a research proposal as part of the application process. Your research proposal will help us to establish your motivations for carrying out a doctorate and determine whether your proposed research is interesting, significant, necessary and feasible. It also helps us to ensure that we have the supervisory expertise to support your proposed research.

Your research proposal is a concise and coherent summary of your proposed research. It sets out the key issues or questions that your research intends to address, including:

  • A summary of your proposed research;
  • The key research questions that your research will answer;
  • The current state of knowledge in the area you wish to research and how your research contributes to this;
  • The originality of your proposed research.

Where do I start?

Select an area of research or a problem that you are passionate about, it will be your focus for at least three years and possibly beyond – so it needs to be interesting to you!

Once you have identified an area of potential study, undertake a literature review of current research in that area. This will help you to evaluate the current state of the literature in that field and allow you to consider how you might create new knowledge which contributes to this literature. Is there a problem which is yet to be addressed or a perspective that has not been taken previously? Or can you identify a 'gap' in the knowledge pool, something that has not been discovered or researched in a particular way before, which you could try to address with your proposed research? Doctoral research needs to create new knowledge and make a contribution but it also needs to be interesting, relevant and important. Just because an area has not been researched before does not make it an appropriate doctoral project!

What do I need to include in my research proposal?

Your research proposal should be approximately 2,000 words, or 4 to 5 pages, and should contain the following:

  • Title: A working title for your research proposal, which gives a clear indication of your proposed research project.
  • Abstract: A summary of approximately 100 words, where you outline the problem that you want to examine, explain why it is interesting, important and relevant and how you might go about studying it. You should include the central question or issue that your research will be based on.
  • Background and rationale: This will form the body of your research proposal. In this section you should confirm the problem your research will address, summarise what the current state of the art is in this area and identify the key conversations and players. Present the results of your literature review and articulate how your research might contribute to this knowledge and extend this literature.
  • Research questions/research aims and objectives/research hypothesis: Outline what your provisional research questions might be. There are different ways to structure this; they may take the form of questions, aims and objectives or research hypothesis/es.
  • Research methods: In this section you should present your initial thoughts about how you might answer your research question and what methods you propose to use. Your approach should be systematic and structured as your results need to be robust and repeatable. This is the part of your proposal where you can demonstrate your understanding of what research is and what a research project entails.
  • Plan of work: This is an outline of the various stages for developing and implementing your research project, together with a timeline. This could be in a Gantt chart that is tailored to your specific project.
  • Significance and contribution of the research: Your initial thoughts on what the potential significance of your research is. What will the contribution of your research be to knowledge, literature, theory and/or methodology and what might be the impact of your research on policy, practice or scientific understanding?
  • Bibliography/references: The references to the key articles and texts that you have used in preparing your research proposal.

Where can I find more help?

You are not alone. Academics at Cranfield will be happy to help you. Using our 'Find an Expert' locator you will be able to find an academic at Cranfield who is most aligned with your area of research and get in touch with them.