The importance of a research proposal

An application for a research degree (M Phil or PhD) must be accompanied by a research proposal. The statement is an essential component of the admission process for the following reasons:

1. You may only gain admission if there is a member of staff who is able to offer adequate supervision. Your proposal will be passed on to members of staff with research interests in the area who will indicate whether they are able to offer you supervision.

2. The Law School must consider whether there are adequate resources. For example, whether there are a sufficiently large number of journals and law reports that will allow you to carry out adequate research. We expect PhD students to visit other institutions and libraries but we must ensure that there is a sufficiently comprehensive ‘core’ of materials available here. (Of course, if you are intending to study on a part time basis and be located somewhere outside Leicester, we will want to know whether you have access to a nearby library)

3. The proposal is also a good way of determining whether you have given sufficient thought to the demands of a PhD programme and that you understand the kind of responsibilities that you will have as a PhD student.

4. Finally, as you will realise entry into the Law School is competitive and the better the proposal is the more chance you have of being made an offer.

II. Choosing a subject for a PhD

Under the University of Leicester’s regulations, a PhD thesis has a maximum length of 80,000 words. It must be a work of advanced study and research, containing original work and material deemed worthy of publication (as judged ultimately by the final examiners).

The keywords here are “advanced study” and “original work”.

(a) advanced
For the study to be advanced, it will usually be inappropriate to carry out a thesis that looks like a textbook. For example, if you propose a thesis on the topic “The Law on the Carriage of Goods by Sea” this is far too broad and will not allow you to carry out advanced work – it will be a very superficial treatment of the issue. This topic would have to be narrowed down to a specific issue (for example the Hague-Visby Rules).

(b) original

For the study to be original, it will have to either look at a new area of law on which little has been written (for example, damages under the Human Rights Act 1998), or it can be a study that places old knowledge into new perspectives – for example a historical analysis of the law on carriage of goods by sea might be suitable if there is considerable historical material that can explain why certain rules have been put into place. The key thing is that the work must not simply reproduce existing knowledge, but instead must add to the existing body of knowledge.

Examples of titles that suggest a topic not suitable for PhD work are:

 The rules on frustration of contracts

 Member state liability for breach of EC Law

 Vertical Restraints under Art 81 EC

These topics are too broad and a lot has been written already on them. To write 80,000 words on these is not going to meet the criteria for the PhD set out above. However, they can be viable PhD projects if the proposal is developed appropriately, as suggested by the next section.

III. Types of PhD research

There are a number of ways of writing a PhD. Below we have identified three possible approaches that may underpin a PhD. This is not to say that there are no other ways of undertaking doctoral research and note also that the three approaches may overlap and a proposal may cover more than one of these methods.

(a) New Law

A project could examine a new area of law, on which there has been little written to date. For example, it could cover family friendly employment policies in the EU. The aim of this project could be to examine the newly developing rules and to try to explain them by placing them in a useful theoretical context, or to offer a critique of these rules from a particular perspective – for example a feminist critique or an economic critique. For example, a viable topic would be: “The impact of the Commission’s decentralization drive upon the regulation of vertical agreements under Art 81 EC.” Here there are a lot of new Regulations and drafts regulations that can be looked at in depth and with originality.

This kind of work will mostly involve study of primary sources – legislation and case law as well as secondary literature in the area and in the theoretical/conceptual dimensions of the research project.

(b) Empirical Work

You might be interested in an empirical review of a particular area of law to see how the law works in practice. For example, one could investigate the extent to which police forces prosecute persons who commit driving offences. This kind of project would involve fieldwork as well as library study. At the end of it you will be able to illustrate how the law works in practice and draw out conclusions for law reform. For this kind of work, you will have to ensure that you will be able to carry out the empirical work. For example, for the work above you would need to obtain written permission from police forces to interview persons there. This will involve you in a lot of preparatory work, and your research proposal must evidence the fact that you have given some thought as to how you wish to carry out your empirical work.

(c) New Look on established rules

A proposal could be a review of existing rules from a different perspective. For example, an economic analysis of the law of trusts could be original – whilst the law on trusts has been looked at considerably in the literature you might want to explore the scope for analysing the rules using a new conceptual framework that allows you to present the law from a different perspective. The research proposal in this theme will have to acknowledge the contribution of existing research and then move on to examine how the existing state of knowledge can be advanced by your research. This kind of project could also benefit from comparative analysis. Of course, if you wish to engage in a detailed comparative analysis, you should state in the proposal which countries you think would be suitable for examination, and whether you have the language skills to read the relevant literature.

IV. Preparation for the proposal

Once you have decided on the area, you should read widely – consult existing work to get a feel for the kind of academic work that has been done, if a new area, see recent journals for discussion of the issues, or read through newspapers to see the reactions that the new rules have had. Get a sense of the debates in the area. You must show that you are aware of the existing work and existing concerns when you present your research proposal.

You should also try to have a look at previous PhDs in related areas – if you have access to a University library there will be bound copies of PhDs submitted there – have a look at them to get a feel for the kind of work that is involved. You will also find that many monographs were PhD projects and having a look at these will also give you a sense of the work that is involved.

V. Writing the proposal

Once you have decided how to tackle the topic and have carried out a survey of the existing work in the area, you can start writing a proposal. Below are some general points of guidance.

 Keep the proposal short: 500-1000 words (approx. 2 pages of single spaced type)

 Outline the area you wish to focus on and explain what topics you want to examine;

 Explain what problem or issue you wish to explore and what questions arise;

 Explain the contribution already made by existing scholarship and what further issues are left to be developed by your research;

 Identify the research method(s) you wish to adopt (eg review of case law, empirical surveys, interdisciplinary work, comparative analysis).

Note that the more carefully you construct your research proposal, the more evidence there is that you are familiar with the existing literature and the more you are able to say about your research methods, the more successful your application will be. While you are not required to read all the literature before starting the PhD, it is important that you prepare your proposal well, not only for the success of your application, but also as a test for yourself to help you decide whether this is really the topic you wish to work on for the next three years.

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