Writing a proposal for an LLM/PhD thesis: what do you need to think about?

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Several students are currently busy choosing or will shortly choose topics to develop in the context of their own university theses and dissertations, including at the LLM/master level and in the context of PhD proposals/early stages of their PhDs.

Often, students have to submit a ‘Proposal’, which tackles how they intend to develop their work.

The allowed word count for a thesis/dissertation varies: it is approximately somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 words for an LLM dissertation and 75,000-100,000 words for a PhD.

The funny thing about LLM/PhD proposals is that one is expected to know what they are going to write about before they have done all the required research and actually know what needs to be written about.

Several books and articles have been written on how to develop a good piece of academic research, whether as a student or as a professional researcher.

However, not much is available online (a notable and valuable exception is this) in a quick and accessible format that explains what to consider in the absolutely early days of one’s own brainstorming activities, when one might not have many ideas or, if they do, these are likely to be embryonic at best.

On top of all this, hearing words like ‘research questions’, ‘methodology’ does not really help, as the likely thing to happen is that a big question mark is stamped all over them.

So what can be the absolutely initial steps that a student needs to consider when approaching the preparation of a proposal for an LLM/PhD dissertation, so that even the drafting of the proposal may feel a bit less of a daunting task than what it is?

In my view, a student should ask themselves these 5 key questions: 

  1. What do you want to spend your time on for the next X months if not even years? 
  2. What is the key question that you wish to answer with your work? 
  3. What issues or sub-questions do you need to tackle/answer in order to answer your key question? 
  4. What should/will you leave out of the scope of your inquiry
  5. How do you go about answering your questions? 

What are these questions relevant for?

Answering Question 1

… allows you to choose a topic that is worth committing to: if you do not care about/are not remotely interested in that area at the outset, drop it.

There is probably little that is more ill-conceived than choosing a topic one is not interested in, thinking that it would be good career-wise, that your professor would like it and you would receive a better mark …

At this stage of your career, you can afford something that might become a rare luxury in the future or something that in certain other professions is not even conceivable, that is to focus on what interests you.

Your job is to make it interesting for others, too. Let your passion be infectious, and enjoy undertaking your research.

In other words, there is no topic that is off-limits, insofar as you have something original to say on it.

Answering Question 2

… allows you to think about something that in the formal context of your thesis proposal is the ‘Aim’ of your research.

It also allows you to narrow the focus of your inquiry down to something more specific, which can be achieved during both the limited (hopefully) time that you have at your disposal as an LLM/PhD student and in the allowed word count.

Answering Question 3

... allows you to refine the scope of your inquiry even further and think rationally about the key question that you have identified in the previous step, in a way that somewhat resembles the procedure that one needs to follow to demonstrate a mathematical theorem.

What do I mean here?

When I was in high school in Arezzo (Tuscany, Italy) we had a mathematics professor, Prof Martelli, who was both well-respected and well-feared by students. He taught us coding (back in the late 1990s, when something like this was not yet cool or the ‘must-do’ thing) and every week he called us to the blackboard to demonstrate mathematical theorems, as explained in the textbook he had written. Most students found this exercise extremely daunting, and thought that learning the demonstration ‘by heart’ was the way to go.


You did not need to memorize anything, if you actually understood the relevant steps in the demonstration. It was an exercise of understanding, not a memorization exercise.

This is an approach that is helpful, I think, in any other field, including legal research: your work should flow somewhat akin to a demonstration, in that all descriptive parts must serve to build your critical arguments. If there is a part that does not serve this overall goal, that part is probably useless or should be re-considered.

So, you need to ask yourself: what questions do I need to answer in order to answer my key question and fulfil the aim of your research? 

If you are able to identify 4-5 sub-questions which are logically linked to each other, not only will you have a sound structure for your research, but you will also have found your ... Table of Contents. Your dissertation can be structured on the basis of the sub-questions that you have identified this way.

This will also allow your entire analysis to develop in a sound and logical fashion.

Answering Question 4

… serves for you to set the ‘Limitations’ (or ‘Delimitations’) of your thesis: of course, you have to account for limited time and limited available word count. This means that you have think about an appropriate scope for your work, and explain why you are leaving out what might have been potentially relevant.

This part will also serve you to identify future work that needs to be done in this area – whether by you or others.

This way, you will actually be a voice in the broader community of researchers active in the area you have chosen.

Answering Question 5

… serves you think about your method. It is nothing mysterious: like in every other problem-solving scenario, you need to think not just about what you need to do, but how you are going to do it.

If one of your sub-questions requires you to consider the approach in another jurisdiction, then you will likely need to employ a comparative method; if, instead, one of your sub-questions requires you to appreciate a certain aspect in light of the rationale for protection of right XY, then you would likely need to engage with theoretical methods, etc.


Thinking about the 5 questions outlined above would allow you to draft a proposal that contains: 

  • The aim of your research 
  • Your research framework/questions 
  • Your table of contents 
  • The limitations to your research (and indications for future work) 
  • Your methodology 

… and write something that you enjoy doing: you have a lot of freedom, so use it wisely.

Other IP student materials that I have developed are available here.

Any feedback/comments from IPKat readers on their experience as researchers or students will be also gratefully received.



  • Matthew says: "Additionally my experience when putting up a proposal- one must also ensure that there are relevant judgments and literature on which to one can work on, otherwise choosing an esoteric topic will land you in trouble with insufficient literature to work on. It will be a 'no go' from then on."
Writing a proposal for an LLM/PhD thesis: what do you need to think about? Writing a proposal for an LLM/PhD thesis: what do you need to think about? Reviewed by Eleonora Rosati on Sunday, February 03, 2019 Rating: 5


Unknown said...

This is very important and hepful because writing a research proposal is quite daunting and cumbersome a task. You need to know exactly what you want to do.LLM /LLD need thorough preparations

Sanele Josephs said...

Thanks I'm in the process of applying for a PHD but I'm having difficulties finding a topic. I would like some advice

Eleonora Rosati said...

@Sanele: I would recommend you identify an area you're interested in and think about how you can advance knowledge: what kind of contribution could you make? how original would that be?

George Musendekwa said...

I think the most important thing to consider before you choose a topic for reseach is to know your area of study or your area of interest. For example in LLM are doing reseach in private or public law and if it's private is it law of contract,law of succession and if it's public is it constitutional or international or administrative law

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