Find out in this post how to write a research proposal for your PhD application.  These are general tips and examples – always make sure to follow your department’s guidelines.

1.  Topic & Project Title

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Start your PhD research proposal by stating the subject area and giving the title of your research project.

Choose a title for your PhD research project that sounds interesting and that describes in one or two sentences – what the research project is about.

Here are some examples:

Example

Let’s say you’re applying for a PhD in business, and your broad subject focus in ‘female business leaders’. Specifically, you’re interested in how technology has helped female entrepreneurship in a particular country or region, and how this is changing female employment because of its impact on government policy

“Female entrepreneurship in (country/region): How the rise of technology-driven female entrepreneurship is impacting government policy on female labour market participation.”

2.  Abstract

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The abstract is a very short summary of your entire PhD research proposal.  It’s usually about 150–300 words in length.

You include the abstract at the beginning of your proposal, following on from the page with your topic and title.  However, as it is a summary, you write it last, once you have written the rest of your research proposal.

The aim of the abstract is to give your reader an idea of the main points that they will find in your PhD research proposal.  If you’re familiar with ‘executive summaries’ in business or official reports – it’s similar to those.

In your abstract, you might find it helpful to include the headings that you’ve used in your PhD research proposal.  Under each heading, put the key points or outcomes (not more than 2 – 3).

3.  Introduction

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Start the main body of your PhD research proposal with an introduction to your subject.  Use the introduction to tell the reader about the main issues surrounding your research subject, and to get them interested in your proposal.

By providing the context and some background information, you help the reader better understand your ‘problem statement’.  Your aim should be to clearly show why your planned research ‘matters’, and what difference it will make.

4.  Problem Statement

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The ‘problem statement’ is sometimes misunderstood by applicants as something like:

There is no or little research  in this area.


I’m very interested in this area.

A lack of research in an area is not a problem in itself.  It is only a problem, if the research is needed to solve another problem.

Similarly, whereas your own interest in the topic is very important, it’s not enough to convince a university to support your research.

In your problem statement you need to show that the problem is ’real’ and that your research will provide a solution to this problem.

When examining your subject area, ask yourself: Is there a gap in what we know about it and is this gap preventing us from understanding important issues?  Maybe there is a theory that needs to be developed and pushed further?  Or, research is needed to develop a model for carrying out a specific things or task?

You need to state your hypotheses and say what your research contribution will be to this problem.  You may find it easier to do this, if you split your problem statement into several parts.

Here are some examples:

Part 1 – Problem

“Female education and labour market participation remains chronically low in (country). This is having severe social and economic consequences.  In its economic and social development, (country) lags behind its neighbours and similar-sized countries. In order to achieve positive economic and social growth over the next two decades, (country) will need to increase its output and increase the household income of its population.”

Part 2 – Problem

“While male employment is invariably high, female employment remains low at 17% – far below the world average and too low to allow (country) to reach its full potential.  Much of the national labour shortage is covered by foreign labourers. This is leading to social problems and the government has responded by restricting immigration, which in turn impacts on economic growth.”

Part 3 – Problem

“Female unemployment impoverishes families, even more so if the male income producer becomes unemployed. Moreover, the symbiotic relationship between female unemployment, female educational attainment, fertility rates and perpetual poverty is well-established.”

Part 4 – Research Contribution

“By investigating whether technology-driven female entrepreneurship is leading to changes in female employment more widely, we can shed light on why this change is occurring. Whether it is a simple question of female business leaders employing female counterparts, or whether female business leadership is leading to social and governmental policy changes, it is crucial that we understand the impact.

By researching current formal and informal links between female business leaders and the government, we can determine the impact on female employment policies. This will help us develop a model for cooperation between business leaders and government ministries and institutions to help resolve the problem of high female unemployment in the longer term.”

5.  Literature Review

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In the literature review, you show that you are familiar with the most important theories and arguments that currently exist on your subject. One of the aims is to demonstrate that new research is needed because the existing publications don’t provide answers to the questions you’re asking.

A mistake some applicants make is, simply summarising what they’ve read, instead of evaluating it.  You should aim to say what the strengths and weaknesses of a work are, which aspects you agree with and what limitations or gaps  you perceive.

In your literature review, remember to be critical and analytical.  Don’t simply repeat the arguments and theories you’ve read – say what you think of them.

Another aim of the literature review is to make clear to the reader where your research will fit in.  For example, if there are different schools of thought, do you belong to a particular one?  Or, is your research going to fill a gap that exists within current publications?

6.  Aims & Objectives

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When working on your research proposal, you have to decide the ‘scope’ of your plan.  Your research, like all projects, has to start somewhere, and finish somewhere.  You won’t be able to research everything, and you have to make clear decisions about what you’re going to include – and what you are going to leave out.

In other words, you need to set yourself research aims and objectives that are realistic for the time and resources available to you.

Follow the ‘SMART’ model to set yourself aims and objectives that are clear and achievable.

An ‘aim’ is something specific that you want to achieve. An ‘objective’ is a specific action that you take to achieve that aim.  SMART stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-scaled.

Start by defining the overall aims of the research.  Then, set a maximum of five objectives for each of your aims.  Decide the specific issues to focus on, and then set out a plan for achieving each of them.

Here are some examples:

Example

We’ve expressed the time-scales here in weeks, but your objectives would probably have to cover years 1 – 3 of your project

Aim 1. Investigate the extent to which female entrepreneurs are organised into lobby groups

Objectives:

  • Ascertain the role of female entrepreneurs in business consortia, forums and similar business organisations
  • Identify 20 of the leading female entrepreneurs for telephone interview to survey lobbying activities

When: By week …

Aim 2. Map changes in government policies on employment

Objectives:

  • Review government employment policy papers for the past 50 years
  • Review data sets from official employment figures for past 50 years

When: By week …

Aim 3. Map out the trends in female labour market participation

Objectives:

  • Extract data from employment figures for age groups, sectors, education levels
  • Over time, carry out a comparative analysis
  • Outline the key factors facilitating and impeding female employment
  • Ascertain relationships between lobbying activities and specific government policies

When: By week …

Aim 4. Assess changes in social attitudes towards female education and employment

Objectives:

  • Carry out online surveys using the three main social media outlets. If necessary rerun surveys until at least 500 respondents have been reached.
  • Administer a pre-interview questionnaire with 20 business leaders across the 5 main business sectors to investigate their attitudes to employing female workers
  • Carry out in-depth one-on-one interviews with at least 10 of above leaders
  • Carry out a survey with 200 female workers to evaluate the challenges they face

When: By week …

Aim 5. Establish a model by which business leaders and government ministries and institutions can work together

Objectives:

  • Identify at least 5 case studies of social impact policies involving business leaders
  •  Demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between social change and change to social attitudes

When: By week …

7. Research Methods

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In this section, you state what methodologies you will use – in other words, how you’re going to do your research.

Will you spend most of your time in the library? Or, will you collect empirical data from surveys and interviews, like in the ‘aims and objectives’ example above?  Will you be using existing methods and theories, or will you develop your own methods?

Your research methodology has to be appropriate for your topic and possible for you to use.

For most subjects, you’ll probably need a mix of methodologies to successfully investigate your research question.

If you foresee any challenges, don’t simply pretend they won’t happen. Say what they are, to prove you’re going into your PhD studies ‘with your eyes open’.  However, it’s as important that you also say how you plan to overcome any difficulties you may encounter.

Here are some examples:

Example of challenges you might face using some methodologies:

Challenge 1:  You might want to travel to (country) but won’t be able to without financial support.

Challenge 2:  You are planning to use online surveys, but there could be problems with access to the internet by your target survey group.

Challenge 3: You may face social challenges, like your target group not being willing to share their views and opinions for fear of personal, professional, political or economic consequences.

8.  Citations

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In the British higher education system, citations are a very important part of academic writing.

A citation is a note in which you give the name of an author, the title of their work, the publisher of the work, and the date of publication.  You do this every time you use an author’s words, work or ideas in your work – including in your PhD research proposal.

Use citations not only when quoting an author directly.  But also when rephrasing or summarising his or her words, or when using their ideas.

There are different styles of citations, such as the Harvard, Vancouver, Chicago and APA styles.  Academic departments tend to have a preference for a particular style, because it’s more suitable for their subject area. Find out from your department – from their website, or elsewhere – which style you should use.

The citations you provide in your research proposal do not count towards your overall word limit.

9. Reference List

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A ‘reference list’ is a list of all the books, articles, reports and any other publications that you’ve ‘cited’ in your PhD research proposal.   You include it at the end of your proposal, to give full details of the works you have used.

Provide your reference list following the guidelines of the citation style that you’ve used.

As with citations, the reference list doesn’t count towards the word limit.

10.  Bibliography

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The bibliography is very similar to the reference list, but this time you list publications that you’ve read, but haven’t directly used or cited.

You should also include important publications that you may not have read, but that are relevant to your project.  If you don’t mention them, the academic reading your proposal might think that you’re not aware they exist.

Your bibliography also doesn’t count towards the word limit.

Final Thoughts

Your PhD research proposal is a comprehensive plan for the research that you’re interested in doing.

In this post, we have provided an overview of what universities generally expect.  But, if you look at different departments – even within the same university – you will find that almost every one of them has slightly different guidelines for writing the research proposal.   Make sure to find out about your department’s requirements.

It’s worth knowing that your PhD research proposal is likely not to be your final research plan.  In many cases, PhD applicants finalise their plan after they have applied and received feedback from their future PhD supervisor.

Having said that, when you send your proposal, the university will want to see that you have thought about your project carefully – and that your ideas could work.

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