Submitting a PhD proposal is a mandatory aspect of how to get into grad school, so reading and reviewing a Cambridge PhD proposal sample is good preparation. You should also review Cambridge personal statement examples, since a personal statement is also a requirement for the 300+ graduate programs at Cambridge, along with submitting a research resume. The university has four separate graduate schools, and they all received up to 30,000 applications last year, so it is crucial to make your grad school application stand out. This article will present a Cambridge PhD proposal sample written according to the requirements of a PhD program at Cambridge and explain the differences between different graduate school texts.

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Cambridge PhD Proposal Sample How to Write in a Cambridge PhD Proposal Cambridge PhD Proposal Structure Conclusion FAQs

Cambridge PhD Proposal Sample 

PhD Program: PhD in Film and Screen Studies

Research Proposal Length: 500–1000 words

To: Professor Kasia Boddy, University Lecturer in American Studies

Name: David Oswald

Title: The Violence You Know: Intimate and Partner Abuse in the Films of Martin McDonagh

Proposed Research Topic: A current of abuse – in romantic and non-romantic relationships – runs throughout the plots of three films by Martin McDonagh. I want to explore this topic as a possible advancement in the way these relationships are portrayed in Hollywood films by comparing them with how the scholarship on domestic violence and intimate partner violence (IPV) describes and classifies abusive relationships.

Abstract: Intimate, partner, and child abuse are present throughout the plays and films of English-Irish playwright and filmmaker, Martin McDonagh. I believe this pervasiveness does not stem from the filmmaker’s desire to shock or attract audiences (although I do not discount it either) or the wish to simply insert an abuse narrative as a plot or subplot device. Rather, I will argue that the depictions of abuse in three of McDonagh’s films, In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and The Banshees of Inisherin, not only complicate society’s understanding of this type of violence but go beyond the typical portrayals of abuse in Hollywood films, which confine and reduce abuse to stereotypes and recycled tropes. With this complication in mind, I also want to argue that McDonagh’s progression as a writer and filmmaker has been in near lockstep with the scholarly analysis of the causes of intimate violence, which has accumulated new definitions, categories, and prisms of understanding to discuss abuse over the years.

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Objective: The goals of this investigation are both to elevate the work of the filmmaker above other fictional depictions of intimate, partner, and child abuse and connect these depictions to the way scholars and other experts have progressed in their understanding of real-world abuse and its many different causes and manifestations.

Background: Sporadic, spontaneous violence is a common theme within McDonagh’s entire canon, and his early plays (McDonagh began as a playwright) led commentators like Sierz to label McDonagh’s work as “In-Yer-Face” theater. This label was not used pejoratively. Sierz, in particular, felt that McDonagh’s “shock tactics” reinvigorated British drama pre-millennium and were used to trouble “the spectator’s habitual gaze,” which then “implies that you are being forced to see something close up [and] that your personal space has been invaded.” Sierz identified this tactic in not only McDonagh’s early work, but in that of many similar contemporary playwrights, as having an effect on viewers that allowed them to “renegotiate the relationships between the audience and performers.”

The most crucial aspect of “In-Yer-Face" theater for my investigation is its main motivating feature, which Sierz posits “takes the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message.” This aspect of contemporary British drama has been both vilified (Weber), and praised (Lachman). Lachman goes so far as to argue that this aspect of McDonagh’s plays is purely a narrative device with little to no “message” behind his shock tactics. Lachman also argues that McDonagh’s “overall project seems to be aesthetic,” and that the playwright’s use of grotesquerie and satire denote an “ironic withdrawal” that prevents “direct transfer of politically or socially determined meanings.” However, what I most want to build on from Lachman’s analysis is his conclusion that ultimately, McDonagh’s true motivation is one of "spectacular provocation." I would argue that it is, but this provocation is in the service of a legitimate, societal grievance, namely how abusers abuse and get away with it.

Research Plan: I want to use the early analysis of McDonagh’s drama as a point of departure to work toward a definition of McDonagh’s films as continuing his artistic project as a provocateur while disputing the categorization of his provocations as empty of any social or political consciousness. I want to pair my analyses of these films with the ever-evolving scholarship on the causes and evolution of domestic and partner abuse that have also grown more complicated as new scholarship emerges. I plan not only to review the most recent sociological, psychological, and political analyses of intimate violence, but also explore McDonagh’s plays and other films through a decidedly neo formalist lens to find how his project is intertwined with the urgency to create new understandings of the many forms of real-world intimate abuse.

Scope: The scholarship on intimate partner violence is far-reaching and goes back several decades. For my investigation, I think it best to focus on the literature that is most recent and contemporary to the release of McDonagh’s first film.

Method: My research will not attempt to identify Martin McDonagh as an advocate for the prevention of intimate abuse. What my research will advance is an understanding of his work as being loaded with subtle but nevertheless impactful insights into the manifestation of violence within all intimate relationships, in contrast to the earlier scholarship regarding his drama that propagated his disinterest in socially relevant themes.

I plan to create a rubric that incorporates insights into how intimate abuse unfolds similar to the Danger Assessment tool created by Jacquelyn Campbell, an expert on domestic homicide, who identified twenty risk factors and a weighted scale to “grade” cases as a way to determine which were more likely to lead to homicide or femicide. I will apply these risk factors to the plots and sub-plots of the three named films and, later, to other McDonagh films and plays to see whether there are any correlations. 

Study Limitations: The obvious limitation is the small sample size of only three films to prove a far-reaching thesis. But this is resolved by expanding into all of McDonagh’s films, plays, and screenplays if the preliminary study of the three films proves this is a worthwhile avenue of study, rather than simply relying on the works mentioned in the abstract. 

Research Significance: The importance of this study lies in the potential for uncovering how McDonagh has, perhaps inadvertently, advanced new perspectives on intimate partner abuse and violence through popular entertainment that are truer to how it unfolds in real life and stresses how all storytellers should approach this subject with the same deftness and complexity.


Sierz, Aleks. (2001). In Yer Face Theatre: British Drama Today. Farber & Farber.

Weber, M. (2002). [Review of In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today, by A. Sierz]. The Georgia Review, 56(3), 863–865.

Patrick Lonergan (2005). "Too Dangerous to Be Done?". Irish Studies Review, 13(1), 6578

Lachman, M. (2004). '“From Both Side of the Irish Sea”: The Grotesque, Parody, and Satire in Martin McDonagh’s “The Leenane Trilogy”'. Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS), 10(1/2), 61–73.

Campbell, J.C., Webster, D. W., & Glass, N. E. (2009). “The Danger Assessment: Validation of a Lethality Risk Assessment Instrument for Intimate Partner Femicide”. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 24, 653674.

Campbell, J. C., Webster, D., Koziol-McLain, J., Block CR, Campbell, D., Curry, MA, Gary, F, Sachs, C. Sharps, PW, Wilt, S., Manganello, J., Xu, X. (2003). “Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results from a Multi-Site Case Control Study”. American Journal of Public Health, 93, 10891097.

How to Write in a Cambridge PhD Proposal

A Cambridge PhD proposal must be written according to the requirements of your specific program, as they all have different requirements. However, those requirements have mainly to do with length, which can range from anywhere between 1000 to 3000 words. The content, structure, tone, and goals of a research proposal are almost uniform across all PhD programs, as they are meant to show your reader:

Your research proposal is you answering the above questions, which are not that different from grad school interview questions that also ask you about your research interests and goals. If you know how to write an effective statement of intent, then writing a good research proposal should not be that difficult, even though they are very different.

In a statement of intent, sometimes referred to as a statement of purpose, you can write about several topics likewhy do you want to do a PhD? as well as your research interests and goals, but in a much broader sense. A research proposal is about specifics, in all aspects, from the literature (articles, books, journals) you propose to read and research to designing a research plan that is wholly original.

So, writing a research proposal requires more than a little work, much more than learning how to write a CV for grad school or graduate school cover letters. Another aspect that differentiates a PhD proposal from other written materials like a grad school career goals statement is that there are no personal details involved in a research proposal. The only thing about yourself that you should include is your name, with the rest of your proposal being a dispassionate examination of what is out there in terms of current thinking on your subject.

If you are worried about how to get into grad school with a low GPA, your research proposal is an excellent way to show how much you know about your field of study, even if your grades are not that great. You can showcase your knowledge of theoretical approaches (how you plan to interpret and critique what has come before and your own findings). You will discuss your past research and present a case for how your study will contribute to future scholarship or have real-world implications, like changing laws and policies at various levels.

The three elements you want to cover in any PhD proposal are:

Cambridge PhD Proposal Structure

1. Title Page

The first thing you should write is your title and title page, where you can include your name, the title of your research or thesis, the program you are applying to, and someone from the faculty who could potentially show you how to prepare for a thesis defense.

2. Abstract

This short summary of your proposal should explain to the reader what your investigation is about. An abstract can include your research questions, aims, and methods, but it is usually a very short paragraph (5–6 sentences), so you want to be as concise as possible. Research proposals in STEM subjects often contain more jargon and technical language, but many PhD admission consultants caution against using overly technical language in other subjects like the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

3. Background

Your background is where you can write in detail about how you came to choose this topic and what about it piqued your interest to begin with. Many thesis writing services advise that you don’t want to get too informal or general by writing things like, “I chose this topic because I like this writer” or “I’ve always been interested in...”. You want to mention specific authors, concepts, and ideas that are germane to your topic; don’t make it specifically about you.

It is not enough to say you want to research this topic because you are interested in it. Your well-educated audience wants to see how familiar you are with all the existing literature and what you will do to contribute to that. You can also mention things about the existing research that are lacking, and then talk about how your investigation will fill in the gaps.

4. Research Plan

Here is where you lay out how exactly you plan to answer your research questions and talk briefly about your methodology. If you will be conducting interviews and gathering responses from a survey, that’s what you talk about here. If you will be setting up an experiment to determine the outcome of your hypothesis, then that’s what you talk about here.

When laying out your research plan, you can also talk about the resources you will use or need and make a connection with the program or school you plan on attending. Connecting your proposed research to the school’s facilities and resources strengthens your overall application if you can present a compelling case that your investigation can only be conducted at this institution.

5. Limitations and Possible Obstacles

Another way to demonstrate how much you know about your topic and scholarly research in general is mentioning what, if any, limitations your research will have or will run into. Sometimes researchers mention limitations after they’ve completed their investigation and realize their study was deficient in one area or another, but this does not invalidate the study entirely and is often expected. Thinking of possible limitations is a positive, since it shows a great deal of foresight and the ability to anticipate problems within your own research.


Writing a PhD research proposal for Cambridge can be intimidating for some, but if you are confident in your knowledge and skills, then it is a great way to show how familiar you are with your field of study and why you are an ideal candidate for this program. There is also a certain amount of creativity on display, as you need to show how your study will be different in several ways, such as the originality of your proposal, the novelty of your research methods, and how it will contribute to larger societal, theoretical, and practical issues.

The outline presented here is only one way to organize your own proposal, but you can consult with a grad school essay tutor or other writing expert to organize it in other ways, provided you keep those core elements of research aims, research questions, and research methods.


1. What is a PhD proposal?

A PhD proposal is a document that outlines a specific topic of investigation that you plan to carry out as the basis for entering and completing a PhD program. Writing a PhD proposal is the first step in how to publish as a graduate student, but it requires that you set out your research goals, aims, and methods to demonstrate how well-acquainted you are with your field of study, research methods, and what limitations you might encounter. 

2. What is different about writing a PhD proposal for Cambridge?

There is not that much difference between writing a PhD proposal for Cambridge or Oxford or Harvard. PhD proposals should be written according to the specifications of the program you want to enter, not the school you plan to study at, although you can mention why this school is ideal for you to conduct this research. But the main elements you should always include are what you plan to study, why it is important to carry out this study, and how it contributes to all the knowledge that has come before it. 

3. What is the difference between a statement of purpose and a PhD proposal?

A statement of purpose, sometimes called a statement of intent, is a multi-faceted document that can include several things like your educational background, achievements, and your research interests. But it is not like a PhD proposal at all. One way to think about the two documents is that a statement of purpose is about you (education, background, goals), but a PhD proposal is not. A research proposal should only reflect your creativity, intellectual vigor, and potential to think outside the box, but never autobiographical information. 

4. Do I have to write a PhD proposal?

Yes, if you are applying to a PhD program, submitting a research proposal is almost always a universal requirement, regardless of the school, program, or country. Should you pursue a master’s or PhD, the underlining motivation behind either is to investigate a unique topic and present and defend a thesis. While this is a feature of both, entering a PhD program extends this research into a multi-year project with you writing and defending a dissertation as its culmination. 

5. What are the Cambridge PhD proposal requirements?

Cambridge is home to four different graduate schools that cover various disciplines, so it does not have universal PhD proposal requirements. Each individual PhD program at Cambridge stipulates its own content and format requirements.

6. How long should my PhD proposal be?

Usually, a PhD proposal is anywhere between 1000 and 3000 words.

7. Do I have to do research to write my PhD proposal?

Yes, you should do a lot of research to write a PhD proposal. You are given ample space in your proposal to talk about many different research threads, ideas, concepts, and pieces of literature, so you must thoroughly research your own topic, read academic papers or relevant theoretical literature, and present a compelling reason for why this investigation should exist based on what you have discovered.  

8. When should I start writing my PhD proposal?

You should start researching your PhD proposal as soon as possible, given how well-researched and well-thought-out your proposal needs to be. The research phase alone could take days or weeks, depending on your proposal. Doing your research first is essential and will ultimately make it easier to write. The writing part can take as long as you need, but you should always make sure you have enough time before your submission deadline. 

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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