Cambridge University Research Proposal

If you’re applying for a PhD or Master’s level research programme at Cambridge, you will usually be required to submit a research proposal. Crafting an excellent research proposal is more than simply choosing a compelling topic – it involves careful planning and putting thought into your research aims, research methods, references, and more.

Whether you’ve never written a research proposal before or are looking for a few tips to improve your proposal writing and tailor your proposal to Cambridge specifically, this guide contains everything you need. You’ll also find top tips from The Profs co-founder and ex-lecturer Dr Leo Evans, who has personally helped students develop successful research proposals for the UK’s top universities.

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is a document that presents your topic or question for a research project. It should outline what you are planning to research and what your expected outcomes are, why your topic/question is significant, and what value your research will bring to the wider discipline.

You can complete a PhD in almost any discipline, including Biology, Computer Science, Economics, History, Law, and many more. Bear in mind that research proposals can look different depending on the field you are in and the type of research you plan on undertaking.

How long should a Cambridge research proposal be?

There are two ways you may be expected to submit a research proposal at Cambridge. The first is as a research summary as part of the questions asked in the applicant portal; this summary must be less than 1,500 characters. Some courses may also ask you to submit a full research proposal as part of the additional documentation; the length of this proposal will vary depending on the department, so you should check directly.

Do you need to find a research supervisor when applying for a PhD at Cambridge?

If you have a specific academic in mind who you would like to be your supervisor, you can use the field on the applicant portal to indicate so. If you have multiple preferred supervisors, you may list more than one in the relevant field.

However, note that by indicating a preferred supervisor you are not guaranteeing that they will become your supervisor. Supervisor requests will only be accommodated by the university where possible based on availability and compatibility with your proposed research.

If you do not have a preferred supervisor, you can leave the supervisor field blank. Finding a supervisor before you apply is only optional.

What to include in a Cambridge research proposal

The purpose of your Cambridge research proposal is to explain what you intend to research, why you intend to research it, and persuade potential universities, supervisors, and funders that your project is worthy of their support.

What exactly you should include in your research proposal will depend on what type of research you are undertaking and which university you are applying for. Below, you will find a general outline of what sections to include in your research proposal.

Dr Leo’s tip: Ideally, your research proposal should be focussed on an active or currently ‘hot’ area of research (for example, the impacts of COVID or some other significant event in your field). That is, something that is meaningful and interesting for both understanding current problems but also identifying future solutions.

In addition to checking on university course pages to find out which topics they are open to accepting proposals on, you should also check what research is already being undertaken at the university by its faculty. The more tailored your proposal is to active areas of research at a faculty, the better. After all, every school/department has different focusses and you want to align your research with their interests and objectives.


Your research proposal should begin with the title of your research project. Keep this title simple and descriptive, as you want the person reading to know exactly what your research is about and whether it is realistic.

If you don’t yet have a final title, you can include an initial idea or ‘working title’. Your research title is likely to be revised as your research progresses anyway and can therefore be a suggestion at the proposal stage.


The introduction section of your proposal should include a brief overview of your intended research. This includes the context and background of the research topic, as well as the rationale for undertaking the research. You should also reference key literature (more details on this will be included in your literature review) as this will strengthen the rationale. You can also include previous research you have done personally – for example, if you have studied a Master’s on a similar topic, explain what you learnt and how that has informed your decision to research this particular area.

Dr Leo’s tip: A good place to start when developing your research proposal is doing research on a specific university department’s active areas of research and the researchers involved. Work out who in that faculty you might like your supervisor to be, and read and cite their top papers extensively in your proposal (starting with including it in the key literature in your introduction). This will capture your chosen university’s attention early, scoring big points with them and showing them that you mean business.

Research aims and questions

The next section of your research proposal should set out to define your research question and explain how it contributes to current work in your field. The aims of your research relate to the purpose of conducting the research and what you specifically want to achieve. Your research questions should be formulated to show how you will achieve those aims and what you want to find out through your research.

Both your aims and questions should be used to guide your research, so they are an important stage of your proposal. Make sure you think carefully about the specifics here – if you make your questions too broad, you will have too much information to explore and will find that you won’t be able to answer the exact question sufficiently. However, if your questions are too narrow, they may not be suitable to base an entire PhD on.

Your proposal’s research aims and questions can either be included at the end of the introduction or after the literature review – your chosen university may specify the structure they are looking for, so make sure to check.

Some universities may also ask you to build on your research aims by explaining the significance and value of conducting the research in a separate section. In this section, you should explain why your research is important (for example, how your research adds to the current state of knowledge in the field or why it is timely to research your proposed topic).

Dr Leo’s tip: When looking for gaps in research, look for questions that have been posed and not investigated in existing papers, ideally from the top journals in your fields. For example, they may say something like, “This finding would suggest X is true, or that X is related to Y, but this is beyond the scope of this paper.” This type of reasoning represents a gap in the literature and suggests that it might be a fruitful avenue for further research or a necessary extension to current areas of research that you could pursue.

Literature review

Your literature review should identify and expand on the key literature relating to your research topic. You will need to not only provide individual studies and theories, but also critically analyse and evaluate this literature. You should also demonstrate an awareness of the current state of knowledge more generally and an understanding of any key arguments and debates on the topic you plan to research. It is important to not just regurgitate long lists of papers and findings, but show that you can link together different papers and ideas, critically analyse them, and expand on how the literature shapes or frames your research question.

Dr Leo’s tip: Some people choose to do a PhD in their Master’s area and so have a good idea of topics already, but many people come from other disciplines and so they have a lot more to do to show an understanding of the literature. A good starting point is to find out what the top journals in your intended field are, read all of the papers in the most recent editions, and start going down the rabbit hole of what you find interesting (and what is relevant) from there.

One caveat is that getting papers and/or top journals can be tricky and expensive as an independent researcher, and so if you are at a university already and have access to their library, take advantage of this to get into recent journals and gain access to the references within on campus. If not, you might want to find a library that has scientific journal subscriptions and go from there.

Methodology/research methods

The purpose of the methodology/research methods section is to explain how you plan to conduct your research and the practical and/or theoretical approaches you will take. This typically includes describing and justifying a sample/participants you plan to use, research methods and models you plan on implementing, and plans for data collection and data analysis.

You should provide all of this relevant methodological information in an overall roadmap. This should ideally show how your 3-4 year research project will be spent – or at least how you plan to spend it. Sometimes, you will need to elaborate on this further in a separate section (see ‘Timescale’ below) but not always. Either way, don’t worry about sticking to this plan – it will almost certainly change as you go, and your university will expect this to be the case.

Again, use existing research and papers to guide your methodologies, and don’t worry if you do not fully understand them scientifically yet; that is par for the course of doing a PhD. Just make sure you at least demonstrate you have considered viable approaches that do not sound out of place in your field.

You should also include an Ethics section in your methodology if it is relevant (i.e. if the topic you are researching is highly sensitive or involves lots of work with participants). In this section, you should explain how you will ensure that your research is ethical and, if necessary, adheres to the UK Data Protection Act (1998). You should acknowledge that you are familiar with ethical research practices, including the fact that respondents’ participation is voluntary and that they have rights to withdraw from the study at any stage, that you are maintaining respondents’ privacy and anonymity at all times, and that participants are participating on the basis of informed consent.

Outcomes and impact

One of the final paragraphs of your research proposal will typically explain the expected outcomes and/or impact of your research. You don’t need to identify every specific/possible outcome from your research project but you should think about what some potential outcomes might be.

Think back to any gaps you identified in the research field and summarise what impact your work will have on filling them. Make sure your assessors know why your research is important and ultimately worth investing time, money and resources into.

You may also be required to consider any potential risks that your research could present. A risk analysis should identify reasonably foreseeable risks associated with your research and outline how you intend to control and/or mitigate those risks. If you’re unsure of what the risks of your research might be, it’s worth talking through your research proposal with a professional, such as a specialist tutor.


At the end of your research proposal, you may also be required to outline a schedule/timescale of when you plan to conduct and write up your research. Usually, you should outline the following 3 years and include achievable ‘deadlines’ throughout that period. You won’t necessarily have to stick to this plan throughout your PhD, but it’s important to show assessors that you have a plan and that you are committed to completing the research you set out to do.

Dr Leo explains that, “in reality, pretty much as soon as you start on a PhD, your chosen area could change or your interests or findings evolve – but this isn’t a problem. Universities won’t hold you to the proposal or timelines you set out. You are showing you can think and are capable of independent study and ideas, not that you can predict the future of your workload.”

Bibliography/reference list

Finally, your research proposal should end with a short bibliography identifying the most relevant literature for your topic. The reference list should include all sources cited throughout your research proposal. You should write this bibliography in line with the specific departmental referencing guidelines for the university you are applying to.

The bibliography is often not included in your total word count allowance – make sure you check this to ensure that you make the most of the number of words available.

Dr Leo’s tip: Ideally, the reference list should be from top journals in the fields as a primary resource (not just unpublished research or white papers you find with a Google search). Candidates should find a broad area of interest and then explore topics in deeper detail by reading papers in top journals and the references within to get a good grasp of new or important questions for the focus of your PhD. Also, the more you can reference a potential supervisor’s work from the department you are applying to, the better.

How is a research proposal assessed?

Your research proposal will be a key document upon which your application as a whole is assessed. Universities will broadly be looking for research proposals that are well-written, clear, concise, and convincing. They will want to see that you have considered every aspect of your research project carefully and that you will be committed to the topic for the 3+ years to come.

Your research proposal will typically be assessed on a range of criteria, including:

  • Coherence;
  • Originality;
  • Evidence of motivation for and understanding of the proposed area of study;
  • Ability to present a reasoned case in English;
  • Feasibility of successfully completing the project in the time available for the course (typically 3-4 years);
  • Commitment to the subject;
  • Knowledge of research techniques;
  • Capacity for sustained and intense work;
  • Reasoning ability;
  • Ability to absorb new ideas, often presented abstractly, at a rapid pace.

As you can probably infer from the above criteria, Cambridge will also be looking for what your research proposal says about you as a person and as an academic. Dr Leo explains:

“What the academics are trying to gauge is firstly whether you are suitable for a PhD (i.e. that you are intelligent, qualified, a self-starter, driven and committed).

A big question for them is whether you are going to see it out when the going gets hard, as drop off rates are high in PhDs and it is quite expensive for departments to essentially train people who then leave (i.e. they take up departmental resources by having classes and taking up supervisors’ time, etc.). You are also taking a place from another potential candidate, so if you drop out they are really losing two people.

Universities will also use your research proposal to gauge your interest/topic area and might even assign you to a supervisor on the back of it (but you can usually change supervisors later on if you find it isn’t a good fit).

Funding is also a consideration, as ideally PhD candidates get research funding and avoid funding it themselves (funding also makes candidates less likely to drop off). This isn’t so much part of the proposal, but does feed into the commitment aspect that departments will be looking for.”

The Profs’ experienced postgraduate admissions consultants have in-depth knowledge of how to write a compelling research proposal that meets the specific requirements of Cambridge University. 95% of our students get into their first or second choice university thanks to the thoughtful guidance and ongoing support of our experts. Reach out to our team to find out more about how we can help you with your research proposal today.


How do I create a PhD timescale/timeline?

Many universities request that PhD applicants submit a timescale/timeline detailing how they plan to spend the 3-4 years on their research. There are many ways you can do this, but one of the most popular methods (and one that is often suggested by university experts) is to use a Gantt chart. A Gantt chart is a useful way of showing tasks displayed against time. On the left of the chart is a list of the activities and along the top is a suitable time scale. Each activity is represented by a bar; the position and length of the bar reflects the proposed start date, duration and end date of the task.

How long does it take to write a research proposal?

The amount of time you need to write a research proposal will depend on many factors, including the word count, when your application deadline is, and how developed your research plan is. On average, it takes applicants about 2-3 months to research, write, rewrite, edit, and submit a strong proposal.

How do I find a research proposal topic?

Choosing a research topic is one of the most important stages of submitting a PhD research proposal. Primarily, you should look to choose a topic that you are interested in/that you care about; you will be researching this topic for 3-4 years at least, so it’s important that you are invested in it. Secondly, your research topic needs to be narrow enough that it is manageable. If your topic is too broad, there will be too much information to consider and you will not be able to draw concise conclusions or focus deeply enough.

In order to find a research proposal topic, first look to the areas that you have previously studied. Reviewing past lecture notes and assignments can be a helpful way of finding inspiration. Background reading can also help you to explore topics in more depth and limit the scope of your research question. You can also discuss your ideas/areas of interest with a lecturer or professor, potential dissertation supervisor, or specialist tutor to get an academic perspective.

How do I write ethical considerations in a research proposal?

It is important to include any ethical considerations of your research project in your research proposal. Your ethical considerations should be around one paragraph long and should expand on each of the following points:

  • It is important that respondents’ participation in your research is voluntary. Participants also have rights to withdraw from the study at any stage if they wish.
  • Respondents should always participate in research on the basis of informed consent. Informed consent involves researchers providing adequate information and assurances about taking part to ensure that respondents understand the implications of participating and are able to reach a fully informed, considered and freely given decision without any pressure or coercion.
  • You should avoid the use of offensive, discriminatory, or other unacceptable language in any questionnaires, interviews, focus group questions, or other research methods.
  • It is vital that the privacy and anonymity of respondents is maintained.
  • You should acknowledge the works of other authors used in any part of the research project and reference in line with the appropriate referencing system.
  • You should maintain the highest level of objectivity in discussions and analyses throughout the research.
  • You should adhere to the Data Protection Act (1998) if you are studying in the UK.

Cambridge PhD acceptance rates

Acceptance rates for PhD programmes can vary significantly depending on the subject area, but you can expect acceptance rates at Cambridge of less than 30% for many courses. For example, Cambridge’s PhD Politics and International Studies has an 11% acceptance rate (2021/2022), while PhD Medical Science has an acceptance rate of 9.5%.

How to apply for a Cambridge PhD

To apply for a PhD at Cambridge, you will need to complete the questions on the Applicant Portal. Below are the typical sections and character limits on answering each question.

  • Research summary (1,500 characters)
  • Research experience (1,500 characters)
  • Career goals (1,000 characters)
  • Additional information to support application (1,000 characters)
  • Funding opportunities identified (1,000 characters)
  • Gates Cambridge personal statement (3,000 characters)
  • Required adjustments (1,000 characters)

The research summary field in the online form is separate from a more detailed research proposal supporting document you may be required to upload.