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Preparing and writing your PhD Research Proposal

When you apply for a PhD, it is likely that you will need to include a research proposal with your application. Although you are not expected to have the full and final details of your research worked out at this stage, there are a few elements that every good research plan should include. 

This article highlights our top tips for putting together a research proposal and offers you some key points to consider as you prepare your plan. 

What is a PhD? 

Before you start thinking about how to compose your research proposal, it is useful to consider what a PhD actually comprises. All doctoral research should include and demonstrate the following three elements: 

  • An original contribution to knowledge: This means that you are investigating an issue in a way that has not previously been explored. You could be asking new questions about an established subject, researching an area that has not been studied before, employing new methods to study an issue or working with an innovative data set. 
  • An understanding of the context and importance of your chosen subject: You need to be able to situate your individual study within the context of work that has already been done on your subject. In this part of your PhD, you will demonstrate that you understand the main debates and theories in your field, and can show that your research is important for extending those debates or offering alternative perspectives. 
  • A sound and robust methodology: This is about how you will do your research – what methods and what approaches you will use to find out what you are setting out to investigate.  

The finer details of all these three elements will be developed throughout the course of your PhD, so you don’t need to have all the answers right now. It is helpful, for now, just to have an understanding of what you hope to do and how your research will fit into the existing body of work. 

Preparing to write your proposal

  • Read: One of the best things you can do as you’re thinking about your research plan is to read as much as you can around your subject. Of course, you are not expected to know everything there is to know in your field, so don’t panic about trying to cover it all. Mainly, you want to show that you have an awareness of the most prominent work in your proposed area of study, and that you are able to explain why your project is relevant and needed. If you do not have ready access to libraries or academic texts, you can still find a lot of helpful material online. Doing keyword searches on Google Scholar can sometimes bring up journals that are free and available on an open-access basis. Some journals also maintain blogs that are available to the public and can introduce you to further sources and reading material. Also, do not underestimate popular mainstream channels such as magazines, websites and non-academic books – a lot of information can be gleaned from these sources and can be helpful for thinking around your subject. 
  • Situate yourself: If there is already substantial work done on your intended topic, spend some time thinking about the gaps you could address. Are there any specific aspects to this subject that have not yet been covered? Can you identify any problems, contradictions or missing elements in any of the work you are reading that you could address in your research? Alternatively, you could think about how to address the topic with an approach that has not been used before – for example, you could engage with different theories that are not commonly referenced, use a method that has not been employed before (or create your own methodology), or study a data set that has not been examined (e.g. analysing different archival material or engaging with an understudied community of people).  

Drafting your proposal

When you have given some thought to the points above, you are ready to start shaping your proposal. Broadly, unless your institution is requesting a specific format, most research proposals are structured around these following five elements: 

  1. Working title
  2. Research objectives/aims – What do you aim to achieve through this research? What will this research contribute to knowledge and/or society?
  3. Research question(s) or working hypothesis/es – What do you want to find out? What gaps in the existing literature are you trying to answer? 
  4. Context and significance of research – What other work has already been done on this subject? What are the main existing debates and theories? Why will your research and contribution be important? What will it add to the field, and why is that significant?
  5. Methodology and proposed methods – These are the methods you will use to answer your research questions or test your hypothesis.

Offer as much detail as you can when you write your proposal, but rest assured, again, that you are not expected to have all the details ironed out now. Most supervisors are more interested to know if there is potential in your research project – is there a substantial basis for doctoral research? Is this a project that can be developed further through the course of your PhD? Are your proposed methods realistic and sensible? Is there potential for you to be creating and contributing original knowledge to the field?

Communicating with the supervisor

If you already have a supervisor in mind and are able to establish some communication before or as you are preparing your application, it can be helpful to discuss your ideas and research aims in more detail with them. They may be able to provide you with additional reading material, prompt your thinking and offer you guidance for the directions you might take with your research. These can provide useful additions to your proposal. 

Importantly, ensure you convey your enthusiasm and passion for your proposed research project. As well as considering your academic qualifications and skills, potential supervisors are also looking for students who will have the drive to see a project to completion, and demonstrate a willingness to engage with a subject thoroughly, creatively and thoughtfully.


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