Department of European Languages and Cultures

Writing a research proposal for a PhD in European languages and cultures

Our guidelines for writing a draft PhD proposal for research in French, German, Italian, Russian, Scandinavian Studies, Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, Comparative Literature, Intermediality, and European Theatre.

A research proposal is one of the most important elements of your PhD application.

It helps us understand the general and specific areas of your research interests, the originality and importance of your topic, and the feasibility of the proposed project within the given timescale; PhD degrees are awarded on the basis of a thesis of up to 100,000 words (the average is about 80,000 words).

A good research proposal takes time, so it’s advisable to start thinking early about your project by considering the points below, which have been drawn up by the Postgraduate Research Director for European Languages and Cultures for all PhDs in the subject area.

Please read the guidelines in conjunction with the University's general guidance on How to Write a Good Research Proposal.

How to write a good research proposal

It's also worth looking at Section 4.2 (especially ‘Thesis Requirements’ on page 15) of the Code of Practice for Supervisors and Research Students (August 2020).

Take me to the Code of Practice for Supervisors and Research Students (August 2020) 


Your proposal should be about 2,000 words long.

The following seven elements should help you structure your proposal, though depending on your project they may not need to come in the order below (apart from the title of course!). It is a good idea to use subheadings and write short paragraphs to help your reader navigate through your proposal:

  1. Choose a title that sums up the project well: this may seem obvious, but a good title can catch your reader’s attention and trigger their interest in your project, so they are keen to read on.
  2. A thesis statement, including your hypothesis, is a good way of opening the main body of your proposal. In a way this is a justification for your project, so you should bear the following questions in mind: what is this project about; why is it important or innovative, why now (i.e. why is it timely); what does it address that previous research hasn’t addressed so far or what does it do differently; briefly, what are you planning to do; and why would scholars in, but also beyond, your field and, if appropriate, wider society be interested in, or benefit from, your research; why would it be worth being funded?
  3. Outline the primary material (texts, films, or other primary sources) that you will examine in your thesis. Depending on whether you aim for a PhD in a single language area, in Comparative Literature, or in European Theatre, this may be work by one author, or several, or many. For PhDs in Comparative Literature in particular, it is important to justify your choice of authors/texts and explain why these texts are the ones that need to be examined in that combination in order to make your particular argument.
  4. Situate your research in the research context, that is, in the existing field or fields of criticism and scholarship. This section needs to give your reader an idea of works in existing literary/cultural criticism on, for instance, the authors featuring in your thesis, the literary period(s), or genre(s).You will need to gain an ‘adequate knowledge’ of the existing research, and engage critically with it, to be able to develop your own original argument in your thesis. The areas of scholarship on which you draw are also likely to include critical works or works that outline particular theories or approaches that will inform your methodology (see below) and your overall argument.
  5. Include the research questions or problems that the argument of your thesis will address (a short list of questions may be helpful here).
  6. Then outline the (theoretical) approach and methods you will adopt to address those questions or problems and to analyse your material, that is, to achieve your research aims. Explain why this particular methodology is the appropriate means of doing so. Ask yourself what original outcomes will employing those theories and methodologies allow you to reach.
  7. Finally, we would like to know why you wish to study your topic at the University of Edinburgh.

Your proposal should also include a bibliography of the primary and secondary sources you mention in the proposal and any further titles that you have already identified as relevant to your research.

Depending on your project, you may also wish to include ethical considerations. If you are accepted, a research ethics review will have to be conducted during your first year. 

Find out more about research ethics reviews

Please bear in mind that research projects develop and often change over time. This means that you are not committing yourself absolutely to completing exactly the project you outline in your proposal in the event that you are accepted. However, you do need to propose an original project that will make a significant contribution to knowledge or understanding of your field of study.

What to do next

Dr Jessica Gordon-Burroughs is your first point of contact if you are interested in taking a PhD with us. Once she has put you in touch with a potential supervisor, it’s a good idea to share a draft of your proposal with them to receive feedback and advice.

Contact Jessica Gordon-Burroughs