How to write a PhD proposal

We are delighted to consider applications for PhD research. We have a fantastic, diverse and energetic student body who are making the most of fabulous resources for postgraduate students. We welcome you to join us.

In order to help you with your application, the information below aims to give some guidance on how a typical research proposal might look.

A PhD research proposal should be between 1,000-1,500 words in length. Please be aware that if you are applying for ESRC funding then the proposal must be no longer than 1,000 words.

Your aim here is to showcase your ability to carry out postgraduate research. PhD research often travels and what you apply to study for may differ from your ultimate PhD. It is perfectly acceptable for research to move over time in response to findings or changes in preference/supervision.

Please note: we do not generally have the expertise to supervise PhD proposals that are exclusively in a jurisdiction outside UK, EU or international law. We have many expert supervisors in comparative, international and regional law but if your proposal is only to study the law in your home country, we may not be able to offer you supervision even if you meet the admission requirements.

Title. A short, indicative title is best.

Abstract. This is a succinct summary of your research proposal that will present a condensed outline, enabling the reader to get a very quick overview of your proposed project, lines of inquiry and possible outcomes. An abstract is often written last, after you have written the proposal and are able to summarise it effectively.

Rationale for the research project. This might include a description of the question/debate/phenomenon of interest, and the context(s) and situation in which you think the research will take place; an explanation of why the topic is of interest to you; and an outline of the reasons why the topic should be of interest to research and/ or practice (the 'so what?' question).

Issues and initial research question. What legal or governance question(s) do you intend to investigate? (This may be quite imprecise at the application stage); what might be some of the key literatures that might inform the issues (again, indicative at the application stage); and, as precisely as you can, what is the question you are trying to answer? A research proposal can and should make a positive and persuasive first impression and demonstrate your potential to become a good researcher. In particular, you need to demonstrate that you can think critically and analytically as well as communicate your ideas clearly.

Intended methodology. How do you think you might go about answering the question? At Bristol we supervise an incredibly wide range of PhDs, including doctrinal, theoretical, empirical, historical, comparative or policy-focused work. Even if your methods are, for example, doctrinal, please do make this clear and give some indication why you think this is the best methodology for your proposed study. If you have a key theorist in mind, do please outline this in your application, together with some understanding of any critiques that have been raised. If you are planning to do empirical work, do please give some indication of what your methods might be (quantitative (surveys, statistics etc); qualitative (interviews, ethnography etc)

Expected outcomes and impact. How do you think the research might add to existing knowledge; what might it enable organisations or interested parties to do differently? Increasingly in academia (and this is particularly so for ESRC-funded studentships) PhD students are being asked to consider how their research might contribute to both academic impact and/or economic and societal impact. This is well explained on the ESRC website if you would like to find out more.

Timetable. What is your initial estimation of the timetable of the dissertation? When will each of the key stages start and finish (refining proposal; literature review; developing research methods; fieldwork; analysis; writing the draft; final submission). There are likely to overlaps between the stages.

Why Bristol? Why –specifically - do you want to study for your PhD at Bristol? How would you fit into our research themes and research culture (please see the ’10 reasons to study for a PhD at Bristol’ section on the website for more information). You do not need to identify supervisors at the application stage.

Bibliography. Do make sure that you cite what you see as the key readings in the field. This does not have to be comprehensive but you are illustrating the range of sources you might use in your research.


A number of scholarships are available to study for a PhD at Bristol. You can see more information regarding scholarships on our fees and funding page. If you have any questions about which scholarship to apply for and how your research might fit in please contact the PGR Director, Alan Bogg

Application assessment criteria

The criteria we use to assess applications and to decide whether or not to make an offer of a place include:

  • The strength of your academic record
  • The quality of your research proposal
  • The strength of your references
  • Whether the Department can offer appropriate supervision
  • Whether your project fits well with School research priorities

Visits and interviews

You may be required to attend an interview with your potential supervisors and if you are shortlisted for funding

If you are admitted, we strongly recommend that you do visit the School and meet with your proposed supervisors and the Director of MPhil and PhD Programmes prior to commencing study.

Contact us

For more information and general enquiries, please contact the Law Postgraduate Admissions team:

Tel: +44 (0) 117 39 40062

Edit this page