Here, we show you how to write a PhD proposal that will stand out from the hundreds of others that are submitted each day.
Before we do though, know one thing:
The research you describe when you write your PhD proposal won’t look anything like the research you finally write up in your PhD thesis.
That’s not a typo. Everyone’s research changes over time. If you knew everything when you were writing up your proposal there wouldn’t be any point doing the PhD at all.
So, what’s the point of the proposal?
Your proposal is a guide, not a contract. It is a plan for your research that is necessarily flexible. That’s why it changes over time.
This means that the proposal is less about the robustness of your proposed research design and more about showing that you have
1. Critical thinking skills
2. An adequate grasp of the existing literature and know how your research will contribute to it
3. Clear direction and objectives. You get this by formulating clear research questions
4. Appropriate methods. This shows that you can link your understanding of the literature, research design and theory
5. An understanding of what’s required in a PhD
6. Designed a project that is feasible
Your PhD thesis.
All on one page.
Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.
What is a PhD proposal?
Your PhD proposal is submitted as part of your application to a PhD program. It is a standard means of assessing your potential as a doctoral researcher.
When stripped down to its basic components, it does two things:
Explains the ‘what’- these are the questions you will address and the outcomes you expect
Explains the ‘why’- this is the case for your research, with a focus on why the research is significant and what the contributions will be.
It is used by potential supervisors and department admission tutors to assess the quality and originality of your research ideas, how good you are at critical thinking and how feasible your proposed study is.
This means that it needs to showcase your expertise and your knowledge of the existing field and how your research contributes to it. You use it to make a persuasive case that your research is interesting and significant enough to warrant the university’s investment.
Above all though, it is about showcasing your passion for your discipline. A PhD is a hard, long journey. The admissions tutor want to know that you have both the skills and the resilience required.
What needs to be included in a PhD proposal?
Exactly what needs to be included when you write your PhD proposal will vary from university to university. How long your proposal needs to be may also be specified by your university, but if it isn’t, aim for three thousand words.
Check the requirements for each university you are applying for carefully.
Having said that, almost all proposals will need to have four distinct sections.
2. The research context
3. The approach you take
In the first few paragraphs of your proposal, you need to clearly and concisely state your research questions, the gap in the literature your study will address, the significance of your research and the contribution that the study makes.
Be as clear and concise as you can be. Make the reader’s job as easy as possible by clearly stating what the proposed research will investigate, what the contribution is and why the study is worthwhile.
This isn’t the place for lots of explanatory detail. You don’t need to justify particular design decisions in the introduction, just state what they are. The justification comes later.
2. The research context
In this section, you discuss the existing literature and the gaps that exist within it.
The goal here is to show that you understand the existing literature in your field, what the gaps are and how your proposed study will address them. We’ve written a guide that will help you to conduct and write a literature review.
Chances are, you won’t have conducted a complete literature review, so the emphasis here should be on the more important and well-known research in your field. Don’t worry that you haven’t read everything. Your admissions officer won’t have expected you to. Instead, they want to see that you know the following:
1. What are the most important authors, findings, concepts, schools, debates and hypotheses?
2. What gaps exist in the literature?
3. How does your thesis fill these gaps?
Once you have laid out the context, you will be in a position to make your thesis statement. A thesis statement is a sentence that summarises your argument to the reader. It is the ‘point’ you will want to make with your proposed research.
Remember, the emphasis in the PhD proposal is on what you intend to do, not on results. You won’t have results until you finish your study. That means that your thesis statement will be speculative, rather than a statement of fact.
For more on how to construct thesis statements, read this excellent guide from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who, incidentally, run a great academic writing blog you should definitely visit.
3. The approach you will take
This is the section in which you discuss the overall research design and is the most important component of the proposal. The emphasis here is on five things.
1. The overall approach taken (is it purely theoretical, or does it involve primary or empirical research? Maybe it’s both theoretical and empirical?)
2. The theoretical perspective you will use when you design and conduct your research
3. Why you have chosen this approach over others and what implications this choice has for your methods and the robustness of the study
4. Your specific aims and objectives
5. Your research methodology
In the previous section you outlined the context. In this section you explain the specific detail of what your research will look like.
You take the brief research design statements you made in the introduction and go into much more detail. You need to be relating your design decisions back to the literature and context discussion in the previous section.
The emphasis here is on showing that there is a logical flow. There’s no point highlighting a gap in the literature and then designing a study that doesn’t fill it.
Some of the detail here will only become clear once you have started the actual research. That’s fine. The emphasis in your proposal should be on showing that you understand what goes into a PhD.
So, keep it general.
For example, when talking about your methodology, keep things deliberately broad and focus on the overarching strategy. For example, if you are using interviews, you don’t need to list every single proposed interview question. Instead, you can talk about the rough themes you will discuss (which will relate to your literature review and thesis/project statement). Similarly, unless your research is specifically focusing on particular individuals, you don’t need to list exactly who you will interview. Instead, just state the types of people you will interview (for example: local politicians, or athletes, or academics in the UK, and so on).
4. Concluding paragraphs
There are a number of key elements to a proposal that you will need to put in the final paragraphs.
1. A discussion on the limitations of the study
2. A reiteration of your contribution
3. A proposed chapter structure (this can be an appendix)
4. Proposed month-by-month timetable (this can also be an appendix). The purpose of this timetable is to show that you understand every stage required and how long each stage takes relative to others.
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Each week we send a short, thought-provoking email that will make you think differently about what it means to be a PhD student. Each is designed to be read in thirty seconds and thought about all day.
Tips to turn an average proposal into one that will be accepted
1. Be critical
When you are making your design decisions in section three, you need to do so critically. Critical thinking is a key requirement of entry onto a PhD programme. In brief, it means not taking things at face value and questioning what you read or do. You can read our guide to being critical for help (it focuses on the literature review, but the take home points are the same).
2. Don’t go into too much detail too soon in your proposal
This is something that many people get wrong. You need to ease the reader in gradually. Present a brief, clear statement in the introduction and then gradually introduce more information as the pages roll on.
You will see that the outline we have suggested above follows an inverted pyramid shape.
1. In section one, you present the headlines in the introductory paragraphs. These are the research questions, aims, objectives, contribution and problem statement. State these without context or explanation.
2. When discussing the research context in section two, you provide a little more background. The goal here is to introduce the reader to the literature and highlight the gaps.
3. When describing the approach you will take, you present more detailed information. The goal here is to talk in very precise terms about how your research will address these gaps, the implications of these choices and your expected findings.
3. Be realistic
Don’t pretend you know more than you do and don’t try to reinvent your discipline.
A good proposal is one that is very focused and that describes research that is very feasible. If you try to design a study to revolutionise your field, you will not be accepted because doing so shows that you don’t understand what is feasible in the context of a PhD and you haven’t understood the literature.
4. Use clear, concise sentences
Describe your research as clearly as possible in the opening couple of paragraphs. Then write in short, clear sentences. Avoid using complex sentences where possible. If you need to introduce technical terminology, clearly define things.
In other words, make the reader’s job as easy as possible.
5. Get it proofread by someone else
We’ve written a post on why you need a proofreader.
Simple: you are the worst person to proofread your own work.
6. Work with your proposed supervisor, if you’re allowed
A lot of students fail to do this. Your supervisor isn’t your enemy. You can work with them to refine your proposal. Don’t be afraid to reach out for comments and suggestions. Be careful though. Don’t expect them to come up with topics or questions for you. Their input should be focused on refining your ideas, not helping you come up with them.
7. Tailor your proposal to each department and institution you are applying to
Admissions tutors can spot when you have submitted a one-size-fits-all proposal. Try and tailor it to the individual department. You can do this by talking about how you will contribute to the department and why you have chosen to apply there.
Follow this guide and you’ll be on a PhD programme in no time at all.
If you’re struggling for inspiration on topics or research design, try writing a rough draft of your proposal. Often the act of writing is enough for us to brainstorm new ideas and relate existing ideas to one another.
If you’re still struggling, send your idea to us in an email to us and we’ll give you our feedback.
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