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Preparing a History PhD proposal

The carefully thought-out and detailed research proposal to be submitted with the formal application is the product of a prolonged negotiation with your potential supervisor. The supervisor may be enthusiastic about your project or might advise you to consider a different subject or change your angle on it; they may query aspects of your plan such as its breadth, the availability of primary sources or the extent to which you are familiar with the secondary literature. You may be asked to demonstrate the originality of your research question or  advised to consider applying to another institution which may have more appropriate expertise. During this process you may be asked to submit a specimen of written-up historical research, such as your Masters or BA dissertation.

The sooner you start developing the structure that is expected in a research proposal, the more productive your exchanges with your potential supervisor will be. For the final submission you are expected to produce a research proposal of approximately three to four sides of A4 which contains the following:

A title, possibly with a subtitle

The title should not take the form of a question and it may run to a dozen words or more. Like the title of a book, it should convey clearly the topic you propose to work on. A subtitle may explain the chronological or geographical focus of your work, or the methodological approach you will take. Choosing a title is a good way for focusing on the topic you want to investigate and the approach you want to take.
These are examples of poor title and topics to research:

  • Captain Cook’s Third Voyage
  • Women in eighteenth-century England

These would be poor topics to research because they lack a strong question and it is not clear which approach they take to their already well-researched subjects.  They are generic or merely descriptive. 
Examples of good research topics

  • Constructing the Eternal City: visual representations of Rome, 1500-1700
  • Rearing citizens for the state: manuals for parents in France, 1900-1950

These projects combine a sharp chronological and geographical focus with a clear indication of how the sources will be analyzed to respond to a precise question. In the first case, for example, the premise is that visual representations are critical in the making of a city’s eminence. This indicates the type of sources that will be analyzed (paintings, engravings and other visual sources). The chronology is particularly well chosen because in these two centuries Rome turned from being the capital of the Catholic world to becoming the much sought-after destination of the Grand Tour; interesting questions of change and continuity come into focus.

Brief summary of your argument

An acceptable PhD thesis must have a thesis. You need to have something to argue for or against, a point to prove or disprove, a question to answer. What goes into this section of the proposal is a statement of your question and the answer you plan to give, even if, for now, it remains a hypothesis.

Why this subject is important

We expect originality in a thesis  and so under this rubric we expect you to explain why the knowledge you seek on the subject you propose to work on is important for its period and place, or for historians’ views on its period and place. Finding some early-modern English laundry lists would not suffice on its own to justify writing a PhD thesis about them. But those laundry lists could be important evidence for a thesis about the spread of the Great Plague in London.

Framing your research

Your proposal has to show awareness of other scholarly writing on the subject. This section positions your approach to the subject in relation to approaches in some of those works, summarizing how far you think it differs. For instance, you could challenge existing interpretations of the habits of Premonstratensian monks, or you might want to support one historian of the order or another; you could open up a neglected aspect of the debate – say, the role of the Norbertine Sisters – and perhaps kick-start a debate of your own. All this is to show that you have read into your subject and familiarized yourself with its contours. We don’t expect you to have done all your research at the start, but it is essential for you to show familiarity with the key texts and main authors in your chosen field.

What sources might you need to consult in libraries and archives?

Here you should describe or at least list the primary materials you are likely to use in researching your thesis. This demonstrates your confidence that enough relevant sources exist to support a sustained scholarly argument. Many archival catalogues are available online and can be searched remotely, including The National Archives, the National Archives of Scotland, the National Archives (Ireland), the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and Archives Wales. You can search the London-based Historical Manuscripts Commission and the National Register of Archives, both of which provide access to local county record offices. Databases such as ‘Eighteenth Century Collections Online’ and the British Library’s ‘British Newspapers Online 1600-1900’ will help you identify and locate relevant sources.

What skills are required to work on the sources you plan to use?

You need to show that you have the linguistic competence to pursue your research. With few exceptions, original sources must be read in the original languages; if the principal historical literature is not in English, you must be able to read it too. Palaeographic problems aren’t confined to ancient writing. You might have to tackle early modern or other scripts that are hard to decipher. Even with fluent German, an applicant baffled by the Gothic script and typeface would flounder without undertaking ancillary study. Training is available at the Open University, and you should demonstrate awareness of the skills that you need to acquire.

Do you have the technical competence to handle any data-analysis your thesis may require?

Databases, statistical evidence and spreadsheets are used increasingly by historians in certain fields. If your research involves, say, demographic or economic data, you will need to consider whether you have the necessary IT and statistical skills and, if not, how you will acquire them.

How will you arrange access to the libraries and archives where you need to work?

Although primary sources are increasingly available in digitized form, you should consider that important sources may be closed or in private hands. To consult them may require some travelling and so you should be realistic as to what you will be able to do, particularly if you are applying  to study part-time as not all archives are open out of regular office hours.

A bibliography
This should come at the end and include a list of the primary sources you plan to use and the relevant secondary literature on the subject. While you should show that you are on top of recent work (and of classical interpretations) on the topic, there is no point in having a long list of works only marginally related to your subject. As always, specificity is the best policy.

Please follow this link to see an example of a successful research proposal [PDF].

All this may seem daunting, as if the department is asking you to write a thesis before you apply. But that is not our intention; the advice is to help you perform the necessary spadework before entering the formal application process. Working up a proposal under the headings suggested above will, if your application is successful, save you and your supervisor(s) much time when the real work begins.

Problems or unforeseen difficulties may make your research not viable, or at least not within The Open University. But if your potential supervisor is satisfied with the proposal, you will then apply formally to the Research School. You will have to provide references and if your details meet the requirements you will be invited to attend an interview with your potential supervisor and one or two other representatives of the department or of the faculty. The result of the interview is usually communicated to you within a few days.

All PhD students are initially registered for a Master of Philosophy (MPhil), and the PhD registration is confirmed after the successful completion of a probationary assessment (at the end of year 1 for full-time students and year 2 for part-time).

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