Career advice: how to write a PhD proposal

Pragya Agarwal considers what aspiring doctoral students can do to make their application stand out from the rest

October 5, 2017
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Consider your skills and experience
When drafting a research proposal, carefully consider your background and experience, as well as the skills that you already possess to undertake that investigation. Demonstrate your suitability to carry out that particular piece of research, and how your own background and skills make you an ideal candidate for this topic.

Research proposals are used to assess the passion for a subject so choose a topic that you are genuinely interested in and one you can see yourself enjoying for the next few years.

Write clearly
The PhD proposal should also convince your potential supervisor of the viability and need for the project. Make sure your research questions are formulated as precisely as possible; outline your aims and objectives clearly.

State your aims – the broader goals of your overall research question – but also your immediate objectives: the smaller, more specific tasks that you will need to accomplish to achieve all your aims.

A clear methodology should be presented with specific research techniques and the questions that they would answer. Present a timeline and an estimate of how much time each stage of the research will take.

Consider the scope
The PhD is a time-limited research project, so it is very important to consider the scope of the project. The supervisors will be assessing whether the research can be completed, written up and submitted in the next three to four years so explain clearly how you will handle the constraints in time and resources. Refrain from attempting too broad a topic, or trying to answer too many questions. Be focused.

Establish your relevance
Emphasise why your research topic is worth investigating and provide a summary of what it might reveal and achieve in the end. And include measurable indicators of your goals, ways in which you can show that you have successfully delivered on your initial proposal.

Don't forget to highlight the originality and the contribution of the proposal research by providing a summary of the relevant literature, and demonstrating how the proposed research contributes to or challenges the existing paradigm. A list of relevant books, research papers should be included as a bibliography.

By doing all this, you should be able to find a niche, a question that is yet to be answered or a gap in the existing body of literature. The PhD proposal should make an original contribution to the discipline, so it is important to establish the context very clearly. If it is an interdisciplinary research project, then it is even more essential to establish the disciplinary parameters and boundaries that it would operate within, and what kind of theoretical and empirical framework it would be set in.

Consider whether your supervisor is right for you
This is a document for setting out your intentions and showing your own suitability for undertaking a PhD, but it is also an opportunity to consider if a potential supervisor is right for your research topic; do their interests and skills complement your own? You may also want to look at the individual schools and departments to examine the wider pool of advice and expertise you could call upon. Research the staff at any schools that you are applying to and make sure that there is someone who is compatible with your own research interests, has an active interest and experience in the area, and would be a good supervisor.

In summary
The best doctoral research proposals are the ones that tell a story, one that the reader can really engage with and that is structured into clear headings. Crucially, the most interesting proposals are the ones that highlight the overarching research question prominently at the very start, then clarify why this question is important, and yet unexplored, in the context of the existing literature. The research aims and objectives lead on to a clear methodology, outlining what case study areas will be used, and what resources are available. The writing is jargon-free, and in a formal tone, but one that is easy to understand and follow. It is always good to see an understanding of the potential outcomes, the stakeholders that these outcomes would be significant for, and how. Similarly, a thoughtful proposal has considered the pitfalls and challenges that might be encountered, and how these would impact the outcomes. Research funding organisations these days increasingly focus on dissemination and impact of any research proposal so, while writing a PhD proposal, research the suitable conferences and publications, and build a publication schedule into the project timeline.

A good PhD will evolve and change direction as new avenues are investigated, but the proposal is your first chance to show a potential supervisor your writing skills and the ability to succinctly form an argument – an essential skill for undertaking a successful PhD.

Pragya Agarwal is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Liverpool’s department of geography and planning.

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