Oxford University Research Proposal

If you’re applying for a DPhil or Master’s level research programme at Oxford, 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 Oxford 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 DPhil 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 an Oxford University research proposal be?

Oxford research proposals should be between 1,000 and 3,000 words depending on the programme (excluding the reference list/bibliography). Make sure to check directly on your chosen course page or contact the relevant department for more information on the word count and what to include in your proposal.

What to include in an Oxford research proposal

The purpose of your Oxford 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 to. Oxford University publishes a list of the sections you should include in your research proposal which you can find below.

Title sheet

Your Oxford research proposal should begin with completing the title sheet. This should include your name, the degree programme to which you are applying and your thesis proposal title. Keep the title of your proposal 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 and can therefore be a suggestion at the proposal stage.

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.

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.

Topic statement

The topic statement section should come next and establish the general subject area you will be working in and how your topic relates to it. Explain briefly why your topic is significant (e.g. the context and background of the research topic and the rationale for undertaking the research) and what contribution your research will make to the field.

Dr Leo’s tip: A good place to start when developing your research proposal is doing research on the specific active areas of research and the researchers involved in your relevant Oxford department. 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 their 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 aims. The aims of your research relate to the purpose of conducting the research and what you specifically want to achieve. If relevant to your topic, you should also include some research questions that will help you to achieve your research 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 research on.

Dr Leo’s tip: When looking for gaps in the research that you are aiming to fill, 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

Next, you should provide a brief review of the significant literature and current research in your field in a literature review. 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. You should also outline the theoretical approaches taken in your topic, indicate which approach(es) you propose to use in your research, and why you plan to do so. This section will help to place your own research in context and establish its potential contribution to the field.

Dr Leo’s tip: Some people choose to do a DPhil 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.

Research methods

Here, you should briefly describe your proposed research methods, including:

  • The type of information and sources you will use
  • The main research methods you will employ
  • Any resources needed
  • Any ethical or safety issues identified.

The purpose of the research methods section is to explain how you plan to conduct your research and the practical and/or theoretical approaches you will take.
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.

Chapter outline

Based on the research methods outlined above, you may wish to propose a tentative chapter outline. This may not always be possible and is often developed and changed when working with your dissertation supervisor anyway, but it can help to show that you are committed to the research and have really thought it through.

You can also use these chapters to 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/DPhil, 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 DPhil/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, you should list all publications cited in your proposal. You should write this bibliography/reference list in line with the specific departmental referencing guidelines for your relevant Oxford department. This section of your proposal is not included in your total word count allowance so you should not hesitate to include every reference you’ve used.

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 DPhil. 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. Oxford University 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.

Oxford specifies that your research proposal will be assessed based on the following criteria:

  • 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, Oxford 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 first whether you are suitable for a PhD/DPhil (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 PhD/DPhils 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/DPhil 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 Oxford 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 DPhil timescale/timeline?

There are many ways you can show a timeline of your research, 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 reflect 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 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 at 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 usually 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 the right 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.

Oxford University DPhil acceptance rates

Acceptance rates for Oxford DPhil programmes can vary significantly depending on the subject area, but you can expect acceptance rates of less than 30% for many courses. For example, Oxford’s DPhil Economics had a 28% acceptance rate and DPhil Mathematics had a 16% acceptance rate in 2019/2020.