How to Write a Proposal for a Doctorate

A sound proposal is the key to successfully researching, writing and defending your doctoral dissertation. Admissions decisions are based on your proposal and that same proposal often serves as the basis for securing research funding. Standard sections exist for every kind of proposal in the physical, health or social sciences. The proposal previews your research question, describes your research design, discusses previous studies on the subject and outlines the time frame for completion.

Title and Abstract

The title of your proposal should be concise yet capture the attention of the selection committee, while the abstract must give readers a quick overview of the substance of your proposed research. Some doctoral research proposals have both a title and a subtitle giving more details about the research theme, for example -- "The United Nations Human Rights Council: Understanding the Role of the Special Rapporteurs." The abstract -- a brief summary -- highlights the research question and explains research methods in 250 words or less and is sometimes accompanied by five to seven key words or phrases that describe the subject matter of the research, for example, "rapporteurs, "human rights" and "Human Rights Council."


The proposal identifies the principle aim of your research, taking into consideration the available information and data already published on the topic and explaining what your study will add to current scientific knowledge. This section also illustrates the usability of the knowledge gained from the proposed project by explaining how people in and outside of the field of study can put your research findings to work. If you are conducting research on peer review procedures within the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, you may write the following as the purpose of your research: "to contribute to data available to researchers, journalists and scholars by describing the peer review mechanism of the OECD and tracing how the recommendations from such reviews are implemented in OECD member states."

Research Question and Design

Doctoral research proposals set forth the exact question or hypothesis to be answered by the research, together with any sub questions that must be considered to answer the main research question. The research design demonstrates the research methods employed and distinguishes between quantitative research methods such as statistics- or indicator-based findings and qualitative research methods such as interviews or case studies. For example, if your research question is asking the ways in which the International Criminal Court has impacted human rights violations by heads of state, you may choose to use qualitative research methods such as interviews of key participants in ICC trials, including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and victims.

Literature Review

The literature review surveys existing articles covering your research topic to map the current state of scholarship and knowledge in your subject area and to illustrate where your proposed research will contribute new understanding or data to the field. The proposal should include an overview, in the form of a bibliography, of scholarly articles written about your topic in journals or periodicals from your field of study; the style of the bibliography varies according to the standards in your field of research -- APA, Chicago, Bluebook or MLA, among others. Carry out your literature review both electronically and manually by using Internet and library resources to locate all scholarship written to date on the topic.

Other Considerations

Some research proposals include historical background to give the reader necessary information to understand the context of the topic; for example, if you are proposing to study the impact of the war in Afghanistan on educational opportunities for children, you may need to explain the historical evolution of the armed conflict in the country. Your research proposal may also include a conclusions section where you give the expected outcome to your research question or hypothesis. Every research proposal should also include a time frame for completion, including a month-by-month research plan listing what must be accomplished -- for example, conclude writing first chapter or interviewing two key informants by a specific date.