Magoosh GRE

How to write a PhD Research Proposal

| May 30, 2013

The research proposal is used by the university to assess the quality and originality of your ideas. It is used to evaluate whether you are able to think critically and whether you have a grasp of the relevant literature. It also tells evaluators about your perspectives regarding your research area and helps them to assess whether they have a suitable supervisor for your project.[1]

One of the most important aspects of a PhD research proposal is that the work needs to be original and should be able to contribute to the existing body of knowledge about the topic being investigated. Moreover, the PhD research proposal should be able to identify gaps in the current research and be able to address those gaps through the research being proposed. Without addressing these gaps in research or the lack of a strong research base, some students may fail to be admitted into a PhD programme.

 How to write a PhD Research ProposalResearch is the most important task that will help you to write a PhD research proposal. After completing the necessary research for the topic that you have decided on, the next step is to write the research proposal. Below are some tips on how to write a PhD research proposal:

  • The PhD proposal is a statement of intent and a project outline. Ideally, it should be no more than five pages but it should be able to clearly communicate your research project. It should be written in an active voice.[2]
  • A typical research proposal will be between 1,000 to 3,000 words. The final word count depends on the guidelines set by the university where you are applying.[3]
  • Ask the department where you are applying for a PhD regarding the research proposal requirements or format. This will be essential in writing your proposal. Make sure to follow the research proposal format provided by the institution where you are applying.
  • The proposal should begin by explaining the subject area of the research topic. You should provide an indication of the key theoretical, policy, or empirical issues that your research topic plans to address.[4]
  • The research question/s must be framed appropriately. You must demonstrate that you are capable of developing a well-formulated question/s. You will need to provide evidence of:[5]
    • Articulation of the motivation and significance of the question
    • Situation in existing literature – coverage and limitations of existing and competing research, awareness of where your work fits in relation to the discipline and what it contributes to the discipline
    • Identification and critique of alternative approaches
  • Your research proposal should be as specific and focused as possible.[6]
    • If your research is being driven by gaps in the existing literature, which of these gaps will you attempt to address?
    • If your research is being driven by theoretical or policy debates, which specific points of these debates are you going to focus on?
  • You must be able to demonstrate good knowledge of literature that is relevant to your research topic. This includes:[7]
    • Identification of key texts on which your own PhD is based, showing how these contribute to your thesis and how your thesis is different from them
    • Relevant texts and concepts from other disciplines cited
    • Organisation of all of the cited literature into a coherent, critical structure, showing that you can make sense of literature – identifying conceptual relationships and themes, recognizing gaps – and that you understand what is important
  • In writing your PhD proposal, you must be able to demonstrate competency in academic writing. This includes:[8]
    • Correct use of technical terms
    • Attention to detail in punctuation, grammar, etc.
    • Attention to use of typographic design (white space, layout, heading styles) to make the text accessible
    • Ability to structure and convey a clear and coherent argument, including attention to the use headings to make the structure accessible
    • Writing in a suitable academic voice

 

How to Structure a PhD Research Proposal

Universities tend to have specific structure or format for their PhD research proposals. However, in general, PhD research proposals follow a structure similar to the one below:[9]

  • Title Page
    • The title page should contain the name of the proposed research, name of the PhD candidate, supervisor’s name (if known), and the department or school to which it will be submitted.
    • The proposed research title should be clear, precise, and should provide a good indication of the intent of your project. It should direct attention explicitly to the central issue that you will address.[10]
  • Introduction
    • A proposal begins with the introduction of the research problem.
    • This should include brief background information, which supports or validates why this problem was chosen and the need for the proposed research.
  • Research Questions
    • This section states the questions that will be addressed by the proposed research.
    • This can also include the hypothesis, which the student will prove or reject through his/her research.
  • Aims and Objectives
    • This states the goals of the study and will highlight the outcome of the proposed research.
    • Rationale
      • The proposal should emphasize what makes your work an original contribution. You should include a list of contributions that you anticipate making as part of the dissertation research, and indicate why they are important.[11]
  • Literature Review (Preliminary)
    • The literature review summarises the studies that have been done related to the field of the proposed research.
    • It should bring out the gaps and arguments existing in the research – which will support the need for the proposed research and how the proposed research will fill those gaps.
    • A preliminary literature review should be able to reflect some major debates and issues to show your familiarity with some of the main works that can be used to address the research that you are proposing. You should reference the most important texts related to the research and demonstrate your understanding of the research issues.[12]
    • The literature review should show depth of study and critical analysis.  Focus on the publications that are most relevant to your research. Papers that provide broad background information are not of interest.[13]
  • Methodology
    • The methodology section gives the details of how you will carry out the proposed research.
    • You need to provide information on data required, data collection process, data sources, data analysis, methodology and analysis techniques to be applied.
    • This should describe whether the research is primarily empirical or theoretical.[14]
    • You may also include some potential problems that you may face during the course of the research.[15]
    • Ethical Considerations
      • If the research involves the use of questionnaires or interviews, universities usually require an ethical approval prior to the beginning of the research.
      • This is done to secure the personal freedom, privacy and safety of the participants.
    • Timeline
      • This section contains a realistic, detailed time table for completing your research project. It should include information regarding time spent on major activities such as literature review, primary and secondary data collection, data analysis, writing and presentation, etc.
      • This is usually presented in the form of a Gantt chart.
  •  Conclusion
    • Some research proposals also contain a conclusion, which restates the significance of the proposed research in the theoretical and practical world.

 

 



[1] University of Southampton. (2013). How to write an MPhil/PhD research degree proposal. Available: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/sociology/postgraduate/research_degrees/apply/how_to_write_an_MPhil_PhD_research_degree_proposal.page. Last accessed 30th Mar 2013.

[2] Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds. (2012). Proposing a PhD Research Project. Available: http://www.polis.leeds.ac.uk/assets/files/students/guidelines-phd-proposal.pdf. Last accessed 13th Mar 2013.

[3] The University of Nottingham. (2012). Writing a Research Proposal. Available:  http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/business/phd/Proposal.html. Last accessed 30th Mar 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Marian Petre & Gordon Rugg, The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research Open Up Study Skills. (Berkshire: Open University Press, 2010), p.6

[6] The University of Nottingham. (2012). Writing a Research Proposal. Available:  http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/business/phd/Proposal.html. Last accessed 30th Mar 2013.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Espire Education. (2012). Guidelines for a PhD Research Proposal.  Last accessed 13th Mar 2013.

[10] University of Southampton. (2013). How to write an MPhil/PhD research degree proposal. Available: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/sociology/postgraduate/research_degrees/apply/how_to_write_an_MPhil_PhD_research_degree_proposal.page. Last accessed 13th Mar 2013.

[11] Iowa State University. (2012). Preparing a PhD Proposal. Available: http://www.intrans.iastate.edu/education/documents/StudentGuideToPreparingForPhDProposal.pdf. Last accessed 30th Mar 2013.

[12] University of Southampton. (2013). How to write an MPhil/PhD research degree proposal. Available: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/sociology/postgraduate/research_degrees/apply/how_to_write_an_MPhil_PhD_research_degree_proposal.page. Last accessed 13th Mar 2013.

[13] Iowa State University. (2012). Preparing a PhD Proposal. Available: http://www.intrans.iastate.edu/education/documents/StudentGuideToPreparingForPhDProposal.pdf. Last accessed 30th Mar 2013.

[14] University of Leeds. (2013). Proposing a PhD Research Project. Available: http://www.polis.leeds.ac.uk/assets/files/students/guidelines-phd-proposal.pdf. Last accessed 30th Mar 2013.

[15] University of Southampton. (2013). How to write an MPhil/PhD research degree proposal. Available: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/sociology/postgraduate/research_degrees/apply/how_to_write_an_MPhil_PhD_research_degree_proposal.page. Last accessed 13th Mar 2013.

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Category: Phd Writing