Research Proposals

All of our postgraduate courses require you to give a detailed description of the proposed topic of your dissertation. This enables us to be sure that we have potential supervisors for you and enables us to judge the level of your present knowledge of your field. It’s important that your proposal is well-written, well-structured and persuasive. Where possible, please draw on the support of your existing academic peers and mentors in order to get feedback on your proposal drafts, and give yourself enough time to revise the proposal until it is as strong as you can make it.

In addition, we offer the following suggestions, which are intended to help those applying to the MPhil, PhD, and to funding bodies.

An MPhil research proposal should be 500 words long, while a PhD proposal should be 800 words long. It needs to give those assessing your application an impression of the strength and originality of your proposed research, and its potential to make a contribution to knowledge. It should be written in clear, jargon-free prose. Grammatical mistakes and typographical errors give a very bad impression, so make sure you proof read it in advance, and/or ask someone else to check it too. You should make sure you cover the following areas (without necessarily dividing the proposal into headings):

  • the research topic
    briefly outline the area and topic of your research.
  • the research context
    relate your proposed research to other work in its field or related fields, and indicate in what ways your research will differ; you might mention monographs on the subject, as well as important theoretical models or methodological exemplars. This is a chance to show your understanding of the background against which your research will be defined.
  • the contribution you will make
    this is your chance to show how you have arrived at your position and recognised the need for your research, and what it is that makes it both new and important; you should indicate what areas and debates it will have an impact on, what methodological example it sets (if appropriate) – in short how it contributes to knowledge and to the practice of our subject. Give examples of the sort of evidence you might consider, and of the questions it might help you to raise. Show that you are already thinking about the area in detail and not only in outline.
  • your methods
    in some cases there will be little to say here, but if there is something striking about your methodology, you should explain it.
  • the sources and resources you will use
    you should delimit your field of enquiry, showing where the project begins and ends; in certain cases, Cambridge will have unique collections and resources of central relevance to your project, and you should mention these.
  • how the project will develop
    you might indicate some of the possible ways in which the project could develop, perhaps by giving a broader or narrower version depending on what materials and issues you uncover

You should ask yourself how your work might change the present state of scholarship in your field, and whether the topic is well suited to the resources provided at Cambridge. Even for MPhil courses we generally aim to admit not just those who propose a sensible topic, but those who have the potential to modify the present paradigms of research in their field. Most students, though, refine their research topics after they arrive in the light of what they discover or of advice from their supervisor, so you need not feel that you are inscribing your future in tablets of stone as you compose your proposal.

You may find it helpful to look at the following examples of successful research proposals.

MPhil 1
MPhil 2
MPhil 3
MPhil 4
MPhil 5
PhD 1
PhD 2
PhD 3
PhD 4


It is vital that you show that your research is necessary. It is not enough that it happens to interest you. You should make clear that it will be of use and interest to others working in your field, or on a particular author, or indeed in neighbouring fields. You should show how your work will make a contribution to knowledge and to the practice of our subject.