Your research proposal is the most important part of your PhD application. If you get it right, you can convince a university that your research project ‘will work’ and is worth considering. Before writing your PhD research proposal, make sure to consider these 9 tips.
1. The Aim of Your PhD
When you apply for a PhD programme, you’re saying: I am interested in this specific ‘research question’ or ‘research problem’, and I think it to be very important and worth further research.
Your PhD programme is a project during which you will investigate your research question. Usually, you spend three years carrying out your research, and then another year writing up your PhD thesis.
The aim of a PhD thesis is to make an original contribution to what is already known about a subject area. Either by contributing new knowledge, or by further developing or improving what we currently know.
2. The Aim of the Research Proposal
If you look at your PhD programme as your research project, then you can see that your research proposal is your ’plan’ for that project.
When writing your PhD research proposal, you have to make sure it provides answers to the following questions:
3. What Do Universities Look For
When a university receives your research application, they will need to decide whether or not you’re a suitable candidate for their PhD programme.
To make their decision, they will look for the following in your research proposal:
Research Interest Match
One of the first things the academic department will look for is a ‘match’ between your research topic and their own research interest. The university has to make sure it can offer you the expert supervision you need, as well as access to the right resources for carrying out your research.
‘Significance’ of Research
For any research project to be successful, the research question or problem needs to be ‘significant’. This means it has to be important enough to deserve further research.
Imagine the academic member of staff asking “so what?” when reading your research plan. Why does the research problem matter? Why is it important to carry out this research?
Make sure that your research proposal gives a strong and convincing answer.
‘Contribution’ of Research
Related to this, is the question of what your research will ‘contribute’. Remember, the aim of a PhD thesis is to make an ‘original’ contribution to a subject area.
In what way do you anticipate your research to do this? Will it add new knowledge? Or, might it develop existing theories further?
Will It Work?
Having a good research question is only valuable if you also have a good research plan to investigate it.
To assess whether your research plan ‘will work’, the university will look at the hypotheses you’re forming, the questions you’re asking, and the research methods you’re proposing to arrive at the answers.
Just as important, the university will want to see that your project has the appropriate size and ‘scope’ to be achievable in the time available to you.
Are You the Right Candidate?
In a previous post, we covered the formal entry requirements for PhD programmes, and talked about things such as your academic and English language qualifications. In addition to these, the university will assess if you have the right experience and abilities.
Do you have good research skills? Do you communicate well? Are you good at analysing information, and dealing with it in a critical manner. Do you have the motivation, commitment and maturity to work independently on a research project for an extended period of time?
4. Don’t Underestimate It
How long it will take you to write your PhD research proposal will depend on your experience and background.
If your Masters dissertation was on a subject closely related to your research proposal, or if you have professional experience in the subject field, it may only take you a few days.
We expect, however, that most PhD applicants spend several weeks working on their research proposal on and off. Here’s why:
Research & Reading
To write a good PhD research proposal, you need to know all the important publications that exist about your subject.
This is not only essential for defining and refining your research question. But it’s also central to the literature review section in your PhD research proposal.
Preparing Your Project Plan
You have to draw a logical and workable plan for carrying out your research. Your research plan should include the key questions you will ask and how you plan to arrive at the answers.
Writing & Rewriting
Writing a PhD research proposal that reads well, is clearly structured and contains the right amount of detail is easier said than done. Be prepared to draft and redraft your PhD research proposal several times before you have a final version that you can submit with confidence.
Before submitting your research proposal, you should ask someone to proofread it for you, even if English is your first language. This will not only help you correct obvious spelling and grammar mistakes. But it can also be important for clarifying any concepts or ideas that may be clear to you, however may not be entirely clear to the reader.
5. Keep to the Word Limit
Departments have different requirements for how long your PhD research proposal should be. Always check and follow your department’s guidelines.
Usually, the limit is between 1500-2500 words, which is approximately 3-5 pages (A4). Just to give you an idea, this post is about 1500 words.
The word limit may seem like a restriction, but universities set it to make sure you focus on the main points and provide the right level of detail. If your proposal is too long, you’re either giving too much information,or aren’t summarising your ideas effectively. If your proposal is too short, it may not be well-developed enough.
6. Use Positive Words and Expressions
Universities want confident and mature PhD students who know what they want, and know how to achieve it. Throughout your proposal, remember to use words and expressions that will help you make the right impression.
I will evaluate… I will explore… This will measure… The research will demonstrate…
In contrast, avoid vague and weak expressions that sound like you’re ‘wishing’ or ‘hoping’ for something but aren’t sure or determined enough.
I hope to… I will try… I would like to… The research might…
7. Show You’re Ready
It’s worth repeating that in applying for a PhD programme, you’re applying to start a research project that will last three to four years. Most of this time, you will be working alone. You will have many large and small achievements to celebrate, but there will no doubt be challenges along the way.
Do show in your research proposal that you’re ready to embrace the PhD experience, and everything that it will bring.
If you are aware of any specific challenges you personally may face, don’t simply pretend they won’t happen. Mention them briefly, but do say how you plan to overcome them. This can help you turn them to your advantage.
8. Contact the Department
Don’t hesitate to contact the university before applying. Most universities encourage this, although we know that some don’t.
Getting in touch with a potential supervisor in the academic department can help your application. This gives you the opportunity to introduce yourself to the department and you can give them a brief overview of your research plan. They can then tell you whether they would be interested and once the department receives your PhD application, they will already know about you.
9. Send Your Draft Proposal
If you do contact the department, find out if they would be willing to look at your draft research proposal. Again, some universities encourage this, others do not.
Getting departmental feedback when writing your PhD research proposal can help you clarify or improve some of your ideas. It may also bring to your attention additional things that you may not have thought about before.
No one will tell you that writing your PhD research proposal is going to be easy. It does require time, effort and a good amount of work.
However, your research proposal is not simply ‘one of your PhD application documents’. It’s your first plan for the research that you are interested in carrying out. And it’s your chance to share the importance of this research with a university and to get their support for your project.