English and Scottish Literature

Writing a research proposal for the PhD in English Literature

You apply for the PhD in English Literature through the University’s online Degree Finder. Here is our guidance on how to write an effective application.

The two elements of an application that are most useful to us when we consider a candidate for the PhD in English Literature are the sample of written work and the research proposal.

You will probably choose your sample of written work from an already-completed undergraduate or masters-level dissertation or term-paper.

Your research proposal will be something new. It will describe the project that you want to complete for your PhD.

Your research proposal

Take your time in composing your research proposal, carefully considering the requirements outlined below. Your proposal should not be more than 2,000 words.

PhD degrees are awarded on the basis of a thesis of up to 100,000 words. The ‘Summary of roles and responsibilities’ in the University’s Code of Practice for Supervisors and Research Students stipulates what a research thesis must do. 

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

It is in the nature of research that, when you begin, you don’t know what you’ll find. This means that your project is bound to change over the time that you spend on it.

In submitting your research proposal, you are not committing yourself absolutely to completing exactly the project it describes in the event that you are accepted. Nevertheless, with the above points in mind, your research proposal should include the following elements, though not necessarily in this order:

1. An account of the body of primary texts that your thesis will examine. This may be work by one author, or several, or many, depending on the nature of the project. It is very unlikely to consist of a single text, however, unless that text is unusually compendious (The Canterbury Tales) or unusually demanding (Finnegans Wake). Unless your range of texts consists in the complete oeuvre of a single writer, you should explain why these texts are the ones that need to be examined in order to make your particular argument.

2. An identification of the existing field or fields of criticism and scholarship of which you will need to gain an ‘adequate knowledge’ in order to complete your thesis. This must include work in existing literary criticism, broadly understood. Usually this will consist of criticism or scholarship on the works or author(s) in question. In the case of very recent writing, or writing marginal to the established literary canon, on which there may be little or no existing critical work, it might include literary criticism written on other works or authors in the same period, or related work in the same mode or genre, or some other exercise of literary criticism that can serve as a reference point for your engagement with this new material.

The areas of scholarship on which you draw are also likely to include work in other disciplines, however. Most usually, these will be arguments in philosophy or critical theory that have informed, or could inform, the critical debate around your primary texts, or may have informed the texts themselves; and/or the historiography of the period in which your texts were written or received. But we are ready to consider the possible relevance of any other body of knowledge to literary criticism, as long as it is one with which you are sufficiently familiar, or could become sufficiently familiar within the period of your degree, for it to serve a meaningful role in your argument.

3. The questions or problems that the argument of your thesis will address; the methods you will adopt to answer those questions or explain those problems; and some explanation of why this particular methodology is the appropriate means of doing so. The problem could take many forms: a simple gap in the existing scholarship that you will fill; a misleading approach to the primary material that you will correct; or a difficulty in the relation of the existing scholarship to theoretical/philosophical, historiographical, or other disciplinary contexts, for example. But in any case, your thesis must engage critically with the scholarship of others by mounting an original argument in relation to the existing work in your field or fields. In this way your project must go beyond the summarising of already-existing knowledge.

4. Finally, your proposal should include a provisional timetable, describing the stages through which you hope your research will move over the course of your degree. It is crucial that, on the one hand, your chosen topic should be substantial enough to require around 80,000 words for its full exploration; and, on the other hand, that it has clear limits which would allow it to be completed in three years.

When drawing up this timetable, keep in mind that these word limits, and these time constraints, will require you to complete 25–30,000 words of your thesis in each of the years of your degree. If you intend to undertake your degree on a part-time basis, the amount of time available simply doubles.

In composing your research proposal you are already beginning the work that could lead, if you are accepted, to the award of a PhD degree. Regard it, then, as a chance to refine and focus your ideas, so that you can set immediately to work in an efficient manner on entry to university. But it bears repeating that that your project is bound to evolve beyond the project described in your proposal in ways that you cannot at this stage predict. No-one can know, when they begin any research work, where exactly it will take them. That provides much of the pleasure of research, for the most distinguished professor as much as for the first-year PhD student. If you are accepted as a candidate in this department, you will be joining a community of scholars still motivated by the thrill of finding and saying something new.

Ready to apply?

If you have read the guidance above and are ready to apply for your PhD in English Literature, you can do so online through the University of Edinburgh's Degree Finder.

Take me to the Degree Finder entry for the PhD in English Literature

If you've got any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Dr Aaron Kelly by email in the first instance.

Email Dr Aaron Kelly