Please find below the frequently asked questions for prospective research students at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study.

Frequently asked questions for research students

How do I write a research proposal?

Applications to undertake doctoral research at the School of Advanced Study need to include a research proposal.

There is no strict format, but the following guidelines are designed to help you frame your research proposal:

  • A typical research proposal will be somewhere between 1000 and 2000 words.
  • The proposal should have a working title. It should begin by explaining the subject area in which the research is to be located, and providing an indication of the key theoretical, policy or empirical debates it plans to address.
  • The proposal should present a brief review of the literature to which you plan to contribute in conducting your own research. You need to demonstrate a familiarity with the relevant academic literature and theories relating to your research proposal, an awareness of the major lines of argument that have been developed in your research field, and how your research proposal will contribute to the existing body of knowledge. You then need to discuss the research questions you plan to address. You need to demonstrate why your research questions arise. Although it is not essential, research questions that are topical or have policy relevance are welcome.
  • Your research proposal should be as specific and focused as possible. If your research is being driven by gaps in the existing literature, which of these gaps will you attempt to address? If your research is being driven by theoretical or policy debates, which specific points of these debates are you going to focus on?
  • The research proposal can also provide some explanation of what led you to the topic. For instance, if your topic emerges from a long-standing interest or from interests you developed while studying for a previous qualification, let us know – it will help to convey your motivation for pursuing doctoral studies.
  • You should give some indication of the research methods that will be used to conduct your research, and your prior knowledge of research methods. You should seek to identify the method that is most suited to your area of research: survey data analysis, case-study analysis, analysis of historical records, for example. (Candidates who have not already completed research methods training will be required to do the SAS Research methods course in their first term after registration.)
  • If your proposed research involves empirical work you should explain the sources you intend to consult, and how you will collect that data in the time available. For example, you might like to say something about access to particular sources of information (access to databases, whether you can use relevant archives, etc), the country or geographical region the study will take place in and why you have chosen this area. It might also be worth saying something about the unit of analysis for the research (whether you are looking at individuals or groups, for instance) and provide some justification. You will need to explain how the data you collect will enable you to address your research questions.
  • You should give special attention to the feasibility of data collection. Your proposal may contain interesting, relevant research questions and be well grounded in the literature, but it may not be a practical research enterprise. You must balance the scope of your proposal against the practical problems of data gathering. Does your research proposal call for special access? How many potential variables or factors does it require you to address? Can you examine all of them? Students whose projects involve data gathering outside the UK are advised to pay close attention to the issue of feasibility (including the financial aspect).
  • Try to demonstrate the impact you believe your research will make. This can range from the narrow (contribution to the literature in your particular subject area) to the broad (potential practical or policy implications). This will also mean providing an indication of the extent to which you feel your research will make an original contribution.
  • While your research proposal is judged mainly on content, it must also look professional: typed and written in good English. Attention will be paid to clarity of expression and the structure, coherence and flow of your proposal. Finally, include a bibliography (in a standard format – for example, MHRA or Harvard) listing the books and articles you reference in your proposal.
  • It is natural for ideas to evolve and change, so you will not be obliged to adhere to the specifics of your proposal if you are offered a place. However, the proposal is the foundation of your working relationship with your supervisors and should not be drastically altered without discussion and consultation with them.


Details of our research expertise can be found here.

The application process also involves an interview. If your application is approved, a supervisory team will be appointed. This will usually consist of two supervisors.

Due to the volume of enquiries and applications that we receive, it is not possible for ICWS staff to individually engage with informal proposals prior to submission of applications.

If there is a particular potential supervisor that you have in mind, you should specify that in your proposal. Please note, though, that supervision by a particular person cannot be guaranteed.

What is the role of Supervisors?

Students will have two supervisors – a main supervisor and a co-supervisor. The main supervisor has primary responsibility for supervision and will be the normal point of contact for the student. The co-supervisor will provide particular expertise or offer support in other defined ways.

The proportional responsibilities of each supervisor will vary from case-to-case but these should be made clear to the student at the outset.

At a minimum, the student should maintain contact with the main supervisor every 4 to 6 weeks (in the first year, there should be monthly meetings). Contact can take the form of meetings or other communication (eg substantive discussion by email). Students must, as a minimum, meet with their co- supervisor 6 times per year.

The student is responsible for contacting supervisors to arrange supervision meetings.

Students must submit the record of meeting form to Registry for each contact – it is the responsibility of students to do so, even if the supervisor has not filled in their section of the form. The form is available here.

ICWS faculty will supervise no more than 8 students at any one time. This limit applies to full time faculty and will be adjusted accordingly for part-time faculty.

External supervisors will supervise no more than 5 students at any one time.

When do progress report forms need to be completed?

The RDC will consider progress reports of each student on a bi-annual basis. The progress report form, available here, must be completed by the student and the main supervisor.

What happens when you progress from Year 1 to Year 2?

At the end of year 1, all students are required to meet with the Director of PGR to discuss their progress during the first year of study. This meeting should take place either in month 12 or 13 of registration (month 24 or 25 for part time students).

Ahead of this meeting, students must submit:

  1. a substantial piece of written work, of approximately 8,000 to 10,000 words;

  2. A brief outline of the thesis (eg. draft chapter headings and abstracts);

  3. A preliminary bibliography;

  4. Details of personal development and/ or training undertaken in year 1; and

  5. A completed progression form available here.

This is an important milestone in your studies that enables you to discuss your research and progress with the Director of PGR.

The submitted work must demonstrate commitment to pursuing research leading to a PhD degree; satisfactory participation in personal development and/or research training; ability to engage critically with relevant material; ability to synthesise information and demonstrate that it provides context for the research focus; and ability to organise arguments and ideas in a logical fashion.

What is the process of upgrading/transfering to PhD programme?

Normally, the upgrade will be held during year 2 of study (or equivalent for part time students). In exceptional cases, the upgrade can replace the year 1 to year 2 progress meeting (above). In such instances, the upgrade can be held in month 12 or 13 of study.

At least 2 weeks prior to the upgrade, students must submit 1. the upgrade from MPhil to PhD form (available here); 2. A substantial piece of written work between 10,000 to 15,000 words; 3. An outline of the overall thesis; 4. A brief introduction to the thesis and how the submitted material fits in to the overall thesis; and 5. A timetable for completion of the full thesis.

If a student submits more than 15,000 words for no.2 above, the panel will only read up to 15,000 words at their own discretion.

The panel will consist of 1. An external assessor with knowledge of the subject matter; 2. An ICWS nominee (usually a member of staff or an Associate Fellow), who will also Chair the panel; and 3. One of the supervisors.

While the material submitted for the year 1 to year 2 progress will likely be descriptive and/or background material, the written material submitted for the upgrade must demonstrate evidence of critical analysis of PhD standard. Our advice to students is to submit material that sufficiently demonstrates analytical skills (ie. a descriptive, introductory chapter is not the best piece to submit and will likely result in referral for a second upgrade). It is for the student to decide which sample that they will submit, in discussion with their supervisor.

If the upgrade is not completed during year 2 of study (or equivalent for part-time students), the Director of PGR will advise RDC that de-registration should be considered. In such circumstances, the student must demonstrate to RDC why continued registration is appropriate.

When can I enter ‘writing up’ stage?

The earliest that a student can enter writing up is after 3 years (full time) or 6 years (part time) of registration.

Students who do not move to writing up at this stage will continue to pay full fees.

To enter writing up, the student must have completed all research for the thesis (eg empirical work, literature analysis, etc) and have a draft of each chapter.

The main supervisor must agree, and confirm, that the student is in a position to submit the thesis for examination within 12 months. If so, the student must submit the relevant form and copy of the draft chapters (in one document) to the Director of PGR for further review.

What is the Research Ethics application process like?

Students must comply with the School ethics policies, available here.

What is the duration of study?

The normal minimum period of registration for an MPhil is 2 years and for a PhD 3 years. The minimum period for part time students, for both the MPhil and PhD, is 4 years.

The normal maximum period of study for a PhD, including interruptions, is 6 years (full time) or 8 years (part time). Exceptionally, this period may be extended for a further year, on application to AQSC. In such instances, the maximum study period shall be 7 years (full time) and 9 years (part time).

What are the word limits for MPhil and PhD thesis?

The maximum word limit is 60,000 words for the MPhil degree and 100,000 words for the PhD degree. This word limit includes footnotes but excludes the bibliography and appendices.

Note: appendices should only contain material that examiners are not required to read in order to examine the thesis.

You can view the regulations here

What do I need to do to submit my thesis?

The period between submission and viva voce is, at times, a lengthy one, so it is important to take appropriate steps in advance to ensure that the process runs smoothly.

The student should provide the supervisor(s) with a full draft of the thesis for any final feedback, and allow sufficient time for the supervisor to read this draft.

At least four months prior to submission, the student should submit the Examination of Thesis form to Registry. See the PhD Entry form. Failure to do so inevitably leads to delay in holding the viva.

Potential examiners can (and should) be discussed by supervisor(s) and student. However, examiners should not be approached without informal discussion with the Director of PGR. Examiners are subject to approval by the RDC and AQSC.

Please note that potential examiners have previously been rejected by RDC/AQSC, so to avoid any potential embarrassment,  it is important to discuss with the primary supervisor and Director of PGR before any contact is made.

How is the Viva Voce arranged?

The viva is arranged by the primary supervisor, in discussion with Registry.

The panel should consist of an independent chair, an internal examiner (from the University of London Federation) and an external examiner (external to the University of London Federation). The viva will normally be held in ICWS.

When does graduation take place?

Graduation normally takes place in December each year. Detailed information is sent to students following successful completion of the examination.

What are the fees?

The policy on tuition fees is available here.

If a student is in arrears of fees for six months, the RDC will recommend to AQSC that de-registration be considered.

If you are experiencing financial difficulties, you should contact Registry as soon as possible to discuss the options available, including payment plans.

How do I fund my studies?

There are a variety of funding opportunities available for applicants. 

Please have a look at our funding opportunities here. You may also wish to view other funding sources on the School of Advanced Study website.

Who are the main contacts?

Your main point of contact with Registry is:

The Director of PGR at ICWS is: Dr Sue Onslow (

The Chair of the ICWS/IALS RDC is: Professor Carl Stychin (