The Objective

When writing a proposal to study for a PhD in Philosophy at the Open University, bear in mind that the reader will be looking for a number of things:

  • evidence that you have a clear question in mind;
  • evidence that, over the next few years, you will make an interesting and original contribution to our knowledge of the topic in question;
  • evidence that you can explain your ideas clearly and concisely;
  • evidence that you already know something about the topic that you propose to research (for example, that you are aware of particularly important works in the existing literature and/or that you have and can convey a sense of why your project is worth pursuing).


Proposals are best presented in the form of a short essay (about 1000-1500 words excluding a bibliography), rather than a series of bullet points or a set of notes.


The basics: Your name and the title of your proposed thesis.

The question: You should state clearly and precisely the question that you intend to address. Bear in mind that a research thesis is not a book. A book can address a series of loosely related topics, but a thesis is more tightly focused. Research proposals – including successful ones – are almost always over-ambitious, but the more broad-ranging a proposal is, the harder it is to see how a coherent thesis might develop from it. That said, you should give some sense of the context in which the question you are planning to address arises and from which it acquires its significance.

The approach: You should give some sense of how you intend to go about answering your question. This need not involve saying what your answer is going to be: it may be a matter (for example) of explaining what other questions need to be answered first. If accepted, your project is likely to develop and mutate under the guidance of your supervisor. In many cases, the thesis that emerges after many years of research bears only a partial resemblance to the original proposal. You are not committed to everything that you say in your proposal; only to producing the thesis that develops out of it. Again, do not worry if you do not know exactly how your thesis will develop: you can signal areas you are uncertain about, or try out a particular line that may be modified later on.

The literature: It is helpful to indicate some of the literature that you are going to address. This need not involve giving a full bibliography: it might be appropriate to mention two or three articles or books that you regard as particularly relevant to your project. You should explain how they relate to your proposal: perhaps they contain an argument or position you intend to attack or defend, or an idea that could help you to answer your question.

The importance of your project: Good proposals often include some explanation of why the project is worth pursuing. Perhaps recent advances in the area have made a previously unresolved problem solvable; perhaps a solution to the problem that you have identified would help to answer some larger question; perhaps the issue that you would like to investigate has some urgent practical importance. Whatever the answer may be, it would be good to include some motivation for your project. This can mean giving some sense of the wider intellectual context in which the question you are planning to address arises and from which it acquires its significance.

What not to include: You will need to include information about your background and qualifications in your application; and it would be helpful to include this information with any draft proposal that you might send to us for comment before you apply. But you do not need to include this information in the proposal itself. Similarly, you should not include information about any previous pieces of research you may have done, further personal information, or information about your access to libraries. All this can go elsewhere in your application. The proposal should be more or less self-standing.

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