Writing a research proposal

Preparing your research proposal is the important first step to becoming a postgraduate research student at the School of Law.

The focus of your proposal will be slightly different depending on whether you wish to do a PhD or an LLM by research, but the principles of what to include and who to contact for advice are the same.

Speaking to a potential supervisor

Before you write your detailed research proposal, you may wish to contact a member of our research staff with knowledge of the subject area. They who should be able to advise you whether or not your proposed topic is feasible. 

This can be done prior to a formal application. 

If you are not sure who is the best person to contact, an initial enquiry can be made to our Postgraduate Administrator, Susan Holmes.

What to include in your proposal

A proposal for an LLM by research or a PhD should not exceed 15 pages in length and is unlikely to be less than 8 pages in length.

Check the limit specified by the funding body to which you are applying.

It should include the following:

A working title

The research context

This is the background against which your research will be carried out.

It should be a brief introduction outlining the general area of study and identifying the subject area within which your study falls. You should also refer to the current state of knowledge (i.e. what research has been done to date) and any recent debates on the subject.

You need to reference this in the same way as you would do if you were writing an essay e.g. any articles or books you refer to should have a footnote with the full details of author, title, publication date, etc.

The research issue, aims or questions

Outline the contribution that your research will make. It is normally best to do this in the form of specific aims or research questions or issues.

The importance of your proposed research

Demonstrate how your research fills a gap in existing research, by showing that it hasn’t been done before.

Explain why your research is important. It is not enough to say that this has not been studied previously, you need to explain why it is important or interesting enough to be studied.

‎Research methods

Here you need to explain how you will obtain the information necessary to write your thesis.

  • Explain whether you will use secondary and/or primary sources
  • Give some detail on exactly how you will obtain your information

For most law students, you will probably rely on documentary sources – information that already exists in some form e.g. journal articles, case reports, legislation, treaties, historical records.

In this case you need to say a little about how you will access these (bearing in mind that as a student of the University you will be provided with access to legal databases including Westlaw and LexisLibrary).

If yours is a comparative or international study, you will need to explain how you will obtain the relevant international materials and whether or not this will involve travel.

Some studies, however, might involve empirical research – information that is gathered through direct interaction with people and processes such as interviews, questionnaires, court observation or analysis of private records.

If you plan to undertake empirical research, you need to explain why this is an appropriate research method and give details of your planned methodology (e.g. who you hope to interview, how many interviews you will carry out).

In this section, you should also explain any special skills you have that will assist you in obtaining information, for example, if you plan to look at French law and you can read or speak French.


You should provide a very approximate timetable for the research.

For example, the timetable for a research LLM thesis comparing French law and Scots law might be:

  • months 1-3 reading theoretical material and developing theoretical framework
  • months 4-6 reading and analysing French materials
  • months 7-9 reading and analysing Scottish materials
  • months 9-12 writing up the thesis

Research proposals for a PhD

When choosing a subject for your thesis, consider the requirements for a relevant degree and whether you can stick within the time and word limits. A PhD thesis must be from 70,000 to 100,000 words including footnotes.

Consider how your study will demonstrate originality. It is not enough simply to reproduce existing knowledge. There are many ways in which you can do this – it does not necessarily require you to study something that has never been studied before in any way, shape or form. For example, you could:

  • Study something that has never been studied before
  • Bring new insights to an existing area of legal thought
  • Work between disciplines eg. by applying philosophical, psychological or sociological analysis to legal issues
  • Bring together areas of legal thought that have not been brought together before eg. use concepts from property law to analyse sexual offences
  • Analyse new case law/new legislation in a particular area of law
  • Identify new problems with existing case law/legislation in a particular area of law
  • Undertake an empirical study to see if the law is achieving its objectives

You also need to make sure your topic is not too broad.  It is inappropriate to write a thesis that reads like a textbook.  This is not sufficiently advanced work and your treatment will be too superficial.  You need to choose something that will give you the scope both to describe and critically analyse the law.  For example, a thesis on “the law relating to criminal defences inScotland” or “a review of EC law governing the enforcement of European law in national courts of member states” would be too broad.  You would have to narrow down your topic to consideration of one particular aspect of the topic (e.g. one specific defence or one specific aspect of European law).

Recent and current PhD thesis topics have included: 

  • Peacekeepers as enforcers? A legal analysis of the attribution of enforcement powers to UN peacekeeping operations in the new millenium
  • The impact of the World Trade Organisation on the formulation of the anti-monopoly law of the People’s Republic ofChina
  • Access to employment and career progression for women in the European labour market
  • Consent to medical treatment and the competent adult
  • Migratory things on or beneath land: a study of property and rights of use
  • The effect of the constitutional relations betweenScotlandandEnglandon their conflict of laws relations: a Scottish perspective
  • Persuasion: a historical-comparative study of the role of persuasion within the judicial decision-making process
  • Law reform proposals for the protection of the right to seek refugee status in the European Community
  • Historicizing the criminalization of youth

Research proposals for an LLM by research

For an LLM by research, your study should still be critical rather than simply describing the law in a particular area.

The field of study is likely to be significantly narrower than for a PhD, as it has a 30,000 word limit.

Recent and current LLM by research thesis topics have included:

  • Sustainable development and urban governance in planning law
  • Domestic abuse and Scots law
  • Criminal liability for individuals who fail to prevent harm
  • Legal and scientific evidence of torture
  • The responsibility of international organisations: efforts of the international law commission