The University of Southampton
Southampton Law SchoolPostgraduate study

Writing a Research Proposal

Choosing your topic

When choosing your topic, it is essential, that you consider the word-length and time limits of the MPhil/PhD. It is easy to over-estimate what can be achieved in the available time and within the available word constraints. You should seek to be realistic, and may wish to take advice as to what might be possible.

The fundamental requirement of the PhD is that you make an original contribution to knowledge in the field. That is, that you advance existing knowledge within the field in a manner that extends the forefront of the discipline. This does not mean that you must study something completely new, which has never been studied before (although you could do this). The requirement of originality can also be satisfied, for example, by studying something from a new perspective, or drawing it together with another area in a manner which has not previously been done.

Whatever subject you choose, you must ensure that your research is not too broad – either in terms of the breadth of the topic or, for comparative legal research, in terms of the number of jurisdictions to be compared - both the PhD and MPhil theses require engagement in critical analysis of the relevant law, as well as a demonstration of comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the field.

The most important personal consideration when selecting a topic for a PhD is that you have a genuine and keen interest in the field. Three years of full-time study, on a relatively narrow subject, will test even the greatest passion: it is essential that you are fully, personally committed to the subject of your research and motivated to see it through.

Purpose of the proposal

To write a successful research proposal it is worth giving some consideration to the purpose of the proposal, which is essentially three-fold:

  1. The proposal must demonstrate that the research project has the potential to be developed into an MPhil or PhD.
  2. The proposal allows the School of Law to determine whether we have the appropriate resources and expertise to supervise the research. (For instance, it is worth noting that we are generally unable to consider proposals which are entirely or principally concerned with the internal law of a country outside the United Kingdom). It may be necessary or helpful for students to discuss a proposed topic with potential supervisors in order to refine the precise topic area. Contact details of academic staff can be found on their personal staff web-pages. You are encouraged to be as specific as possible in your enquiries.
  3. Since the School of Law receives far more applications than it has places available, the proposal allows us to make a qualitative judgment which forms one factor in the decision whether to admit an applicant. The proposal should thus contain sufficient detail to allow a genuine academic evaluation of its merits to be made.

Length of the proposal

In order that the proposal is sufficiently detailed to allow a genuine evaluation of its merits to be made, without being overly lengthy, it should be in the region of 2-3 A4 pages. The proposal should be carefully structured to include the detail indicated below: conciseness is valued.

Content of proposal

In this section you should indicate how you intend to carry out your research, for example:

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