Some Notes on Preparing a ‘Research Outline’ for PhD Application

In recent years we have received a number of enquiries about how to prepare a ‘research outline’ for the application to the PhD programme. The following notes are meant to suggest some of the considerations and issues to take into account in preparing this part of the application.


We are interested in how and why the student has come to be interested in postgraduate study at the PhD level. This encompasses two questions 1) From your prior experience and study, what has stimulated you to wish to continue your education at the PhD level? 2) Why do you believe that a course of study at the PhD level is the appropriate goal for your future work? (Answers to the latter question range from an interest in a deeper understanding of particular intellectual issues that the applicant wishes to study to the requirement of a PhD to engage in particular careers in university, government or industry.)


The applicant should identify the research topic that they wish to study, indicating why they believe deeper knowledge about this topic is needed. This often involves identifying key articles or books from the scholarly literature that has stimulated their interest, the questions that have not been answered by this literature, and/or why the existing literature provides a misleading or incorrect understanding.


The applicant should provide some description of the research methods that they intend to employ in addressing their research topic. However, it is important not to become too concerned at this stage about the depth or specificity of the proposal with respect to research method. Much of the first year is engaged in refining and developing the research method. Nonetheless, it is useful to know whether the applicant is proposing to examine the research topic through theoretical or empirical methods and, if the latter, the types of qualitative or quantitative information that might be examined and how this might be assembled. In the past, some proposals have been so general or broad that there were concerns about whether they could be undertaken by a single researcher in a lifetime rather than in the 3-4 years of a PhD research project.


It does not disadvantage an applicant to admit that they believe they may need further training or reading in particular areas. On the contrary, it often increases our confidence in the maturity of the applicant that they are able to identify the limitations of their prior training.


Many applicants find that reviewing the work of departmental researchers provides them with a better idea of the type of work that is done at the University of Sussex and often provides some specific guidance about who might be a suitable supervisor. It is not essential, however, for an applicant to identify a particular supervisor and an applicant should not be discouraged if they do not find a current researcher that closely shares their interests. Many researchers have a much broader range of experience and knowledge than is reflected in their publication record or their website.

The following references may also prove useful.

  • Cryer, P (1996): The Research Student’s Guide to Success, Buckingham: Open University Press.
    Booth, W C; Colomb, G G and Williams, J M (1995): The Craft of Research, University of Chicago Press.
  • Alford, R R (1998): The Craft of Inquiry, Oxford University Press.
  • These are the key points to consider based upon experience over recent years.