Choosing your topic
When choosing your topic, it is essential, that you consider the word-length and time limits of the MPhil/PhD. It is easy to over-estimate what can be achieved in the available time and within the available word constraints. You should seek to be realistic, and may wish to take advice as to what might be possible.
The fundamental requirement of the PhD is that you make an original contribution to knowledge in the field. That is, that you advance existing knowledge within the field in a manner that extends the forefront of the discipline. This does not mean that you must study something completely new, which has never been studied before (although you could do this). The requirement of originality can also be satisfied, for example, by studying something from a new perspective, or drawing it together with another area in a manner which has not previously been done.
Whatever subject you choose, you must ensure that your research is not too broad – either in terms of the breadth of the topic or, for comparative legal research, in terms of the number of jurisdictions to be compared - both the PhD and MPhil theses require engagement in critical analysis of the relevant law, as well as a demonstration of comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the field.
The most important personal consideration when selecting a topic for a PhD is that you have a genuine and keen interest in the field. Three years of full-time study, on a relatively narrow subject, will test even the greatest passion: it is essential that you are fully, personally committed to the subject of your research and motivated to see it through.
Purpose of the proposal
To write a successful research proposal it is worth giving some consideration to the purpose of the proposal, which is essentially three-fold:
- The proposal must demonstrate that the research project has the potential to be developed into an MPhil or PhD.
- The proposal allows the School of Law to determine whether we have the appropriate resources and expertise to supervise the research. (For instance, it is worth noting that we are generally unable to consider proposals which are entirely or principally concerned with the internal law of a country outside the United Kingdom). It may be necessary or helpful for students to discuss a proposed topic with potential supervisors in order to refine the precise topic area. Contact details of academic staff can be found on their personal staff web-pages. You are encouraged to be as specific as possible in your enquiries.
- Since the School of Law receives far more applications than it has places available, the proposal allows us to make a qualitative judgment which forms one factor in the decision whether to admit an applicant. The proposal should thus contain sufficient detail to allow a genuine academic evaluation of its merits to be made.
Length of the proposal
In order that the proposal is sufficiently detailed to allow a genuine evaluation of its merits to be made, without being overly lengthy, it should be in the region of 2-3 A4 pages. The proposal should be carefully structured to include the detail indicated below: conciseness is valued.
Content of proposal
- Working Title
This is simply indicative, for the purposes of your proposal/application and will usually be subject to modification during the course of your research.
- Research Context/Background – existing research in the field
This section should provide a brief indication of the general area of your proposed research, identifying the subject matter of your research. You should give an indication of the current state of knowledge in this area/current approaches to its study and any particular contemporary questions/issues/developments
- Aims of your research/ questions to be addressed
This section is very important: you must set out clearly the purpose of your project and the specific research question(s) or hypothesis to be addressed. These should be set against the outline of the research context provided as above. Successfully achieving this will then enable you to identify the significance of your proposed research (the subject of the next section of the research proposal).
- Significance of your proposed research: how will it contribute to knowledge in the field?
In this crucial section you should make clear both:
(i) what it is that your research will do that has not been done before, i.e. the original contribution of your research
(ii) why this research should be done: i.e. why your research will be of interest/the imperative that it be carried out/what its impact or value is
In this section you should indicate how you intend to carry out your research, for example:
- Is it to be principally doctrinal analysis of case law, library based research or will your research require the collection and analysis of empirical data?
- Will you be employing comparative methodologies?
- Relating to library based research, you should indicate the principal sources of literature, availability of and proposed access to necessary resources e.g. through Westlaw, Lexis-Nexis, the library itself.
- Will your research require a period of study in another country? How would you propose to organise such a stay?
- With regard to empirical work you should provide details of the nature and extent of this work, including for example an indication of why thisis appropriate, who you plan to interview, sample size etc.
- You should be clear about whether you already possess all the necessary skills to carry out your research or whether you will need to acquire new skills and if so, how you propose to do so.
- You should also give an indication of any particular skills (e.g. language) which you possess which are relevant to carrying out or completing your research.
This should simply provide an indication of the principal tasks involved in carrying out the research and an approximate timeline for their completion. As a guide to timing, please note that within the first year most research students are expected to complete their literature review, and at some point between year 1 and 2, as part of the process of upgrading to PhD candidature, most research students will have completed one or two substantive draft chapters.
- Indicative bibliography
Note that the proposal, particularly the ‘Research Context’ section, should be fully referenced through the use of footnotes, including publication details of books articles etc.
Importance of a Research Proposal
The research proposal is an essential component of the admission process for the following reasons:
- You may only gain admission if there is a member of staff who is able to offer adequate supervision. Your proposal will be passed to members of staff with research interests in the area who will indicate whether they are able to offer you supervision.
- The School of Law must consider whether it possesses adequate resources to support your proposed research, such as books, journals and law reports. We expect research degree students to visit other institutions and libraries but we must ensure that there is a sufficiently comprehensive ‘core’ of materials available here.
- Your proposal is a means of assessing whether you have given sufficient thought to the demands of a rsearch degree programme and whether you have undertaken sufficient preliminary research into the topic.
Choosing a Subject for a Research Degree
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 key words here are "advanced study" and "original work".
For the study to be advanced, it will be inappropriate to carry out a thesis that looks like a textbook. Advanced research must be more than a purely descriptive account of the law on a given topic. For example, if you propose a thesis on the topic “The Rights of National Minorities”, this is likely to be too broad. This topic would have to be narrowed down to a specific issue (for example the concept of a national minority under the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention on National Minorities).
For the study to be original, either it will have to look at a new area of law on which little has been written or it can be a study that presents a new perspective on a topic where there already exists a body of academic literature. The key thing is that the work must not reproduce existing knowledge. For example, a thesis on the topic ‘Affirmative action and the case-law of the US Supreme Court’ is unlikely to be sufficiently original (given that this has been the subject of a lot of academic literature). Nevertheless, even a topic where a significant volume of literature already exists can, in some circumstances, be original if a fresh perspective on the subject-matter is provided.
Types of PhD Research
There are a number of ways of writing a PhD. Below we have identified four 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 these approaches may overlap and a proposal may cover more than one of these methods.
Analysis of New and Emerging Areas of Law
A project could examine a new area of law, on which there has been little written to date. Such projects typically examine the law and attempt to provide an explanation by placing it in a useful theoretical context or by offering a critique from a particular perspective, e.g. a feminist critique. 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.
You might be interested in an empirical review of a particular area of law to see how the law works in practice. For example, you could investigate the effectiveness of criminal law on preventing racist speech at football matches. This kind of project would involve fieldwork as well as library study. Conducting empirical research demands considerable attention to the appropriate methodology. You will need to explain in your research proposal what research methods you are intending to use and why these are suitable for your research topic. In addition, you need to consider research ethics, such as principles of consent and confidentiality. The University has rules on research ethics and any research involving human subjects will require ethical approval.
Providing New Insights on Established Areas of Law
A proposal could be a review of existing areas of law from a different perspective. This will involve taking a subject which has already been the subject of academic literature, but advancing the state of knowledge by presenting a new way of looking at or analysing the topic. If this is the type of research you wish to engage in, then your research proposal needs to indicate an awareness of the approaches already taken in the existing literature and, in general terms, how your PhD would seek to be different.
Comparative Legal Research
Many of our existing PhD candidates are incorporating comparative approaches into their research. This might involve comparing national law in several countries or comparing the approach of different legal frameworks (such as the European Convention of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights). If you are proposing to engage in comparative legal research, you need to consider why the jurisdictions selected will be suitable for comparison. In addition, you will also need to address access to information.
The University of Leicester’s library holdings are predominantly in English, so if your sources will be in another language you will need to consider how you will obtain sufficient access (eg through using other international libraries). Finally, your proposal should explain the rationale for the comparison. Purely descriptive work will not be suitable for a PhD, so why is it important or useful to make the comparison?
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 it is a completely new area where little academic literature exists, then other contemporary sources need to be reviewed, such as newspapers and periodicals in order to get a flavour of the debates surrounding this particular legal development. If possible, you should look at previous PhDs in related areas – if you have access to a University library there will be bound copies of PhDs submitted there. You will also find that some monographs were originally PhD projects and reading through these will also give you a sense of the work that is involved.
Writing the Proposal: A Checklist
Your research proposal should be short; around 1000-1500 words is sufficient. In it, you should address the following issues:
- Define your research question or hypothesis (i.e., what topic are you investigating or what proposition are you seeking to establish?)
- Explain the rationale for your research proposal - in particular, you need to explain what makes it an original contribution in relation to the existing published works on this subject
- What methodology will you adopt? (i.e., will you be relying purely on library-based research or do you propose to engage in empirical research?)
- Include a bibliography of the sources you have consulted in preparing the research proposal
For further guidance, it is recommended that you consult E Phillips and D Pugh, How to get a PhD – a handbook for students and their supervisors (4th ed, Open University Press, Maidenhead 2005), especially chapters 3 and 6.