Title – this should be concise and descriptive.
Background and rationale – this section sets up why this proposed research is needed. You can briefly summarise the key literature in this area, identifying the gaps in knowledge concerning your topic of interest. Most importantly, you must make a convincing case as to why your research would create valuable and original knowledge.
Research questions – you need to formulate your research questions clearly and concisely. You should have an answerable question that can be investigated thoroughly within the available timeframe. (You will need to judge whether these are most clearly expressed before or after the theoretical framework.) Note: it’s important to keep these questions brief and reasonable in scope to avoid appearing overambitious.
Theoretical framework – in this section you expand on the background by clarifying which theoretical approaches you will be drawing on and why. You can demonstrate your knowledge of the research problem and your understanding of the theoretical context. Give consideration to broad issues within your chosen theoretical framework where appropriate, and note how they will affect the research process. Fully acknowledge those who have laid the groundwork for your research proposal.
Methods – this section should describe the practical steps necessary for the execution and completion of your project. If appropriate, you could demonstrate your knowledge of alternative methods, and make the case that your approach is the most appropriate and most valid way to address your research questions. Explain what data (broadly-defined) you will collect; how you will collect them, and what analyses you will perform on them. Explain what research skills you have, or state how you will acquire them. Do not skimp on the methods and practical sections by writing too much one the background and theoretical context.
Practical issues – these must be considered in relation to your methods. If you are intending to undertake labwork, consider where this might best be undertaken and for how long. If your work involves external organisations, then can you demonstrate that they will give you access to all the resources you need. Will your proposed research require specialised training? If so, where can you obtain such training and what will it cost? Does you research involve significant running costs for materials, specialist equipment and consumables? Have you got plans for securing the necessary funds?
Timescales – it is important that you map out a reasonable schedule of your work so that you can monitor your own progress and manage your project effectively. Start with your intended finishing date and work backwards. Do not underestimate the amount of time that it takes to write a polished final thesis.
Dissemination – your PhD should produce research of publishable quality. You might briefly note the type of publishable outputs you expect to generate and where you would like them to appear. This is especially important if you wish to pursue a career as an academic in a UK university.
Length – 1,000 words for the short-version proposal to identify a potential supervisor; 2,000 to 3,000 words for the full-length proposal for your formal application.