About a PhD research proposal

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A PhD research proposal is the draft of your proposed research that is intended to do the following:

  • Emphasize the significance and/or originality of your project
  • Identify an exact question and how you are planning to answer it
  • Convince future supervisors of how important your work is and prove that you’re the person to conduct it
  • Explain how the project adds to and/or develops present-day literature in the field

Proposals can be various in length and thus it is crucial to check with your department about the limit on the word count and other guidelines. Generally, a proposal is approximately 3,000 words and is written as part of your application process.

What are the proposals for?

Proposals are applied by potential supervisors and/or funders to assess the originality and uniqueness of your ideas, skills in critical thinking, and practicability of your project.

Proposals are useful in evaluating your knowledge in a particular field, in which you want to implement research, and your expertise of the existing literature and how your project will add to it. They are also useful in assessing and assigning appropriate supervisors. If you have interest in the work of a particular potential supervisor and you have already discussed your project with this person, ascertain to mention this in your work. It’s strongly recommended to define a potential supervisor and contact him or her to discuss your PhD research proposal prior to making a formal application to ensure you are both interested in the project and get input on the design, size, and realizability of your research.

PhD proposals also give you an opportunity to talk about your passion in the particular field of study and offer a potent argument about what your work can accomplish. Even though you should have an outline in the research, it’s also recommended to approach it as a persuasive essay. This is your chance to attract the interest of readers and convince them of the significance of your work.

Arranging a proposal

Prior to writing a proposal, ascertain to check with your department whether a certain template is required for you to follow. Usually a good research proposal has the following elements:

  • Title
  • Overview of the research
  • Arrangement of the research
  • Methodology and research design
  • References


The title can change in the process but you need to make sure that you insert the important words that will correlate with your research to relevant potential supervisors. Create a title that goes beyond describing the subject matter. A good title should give an indication of your key questions or approach.

Overview of the research

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This is a part where you should insert a short overview of your work and how it goes within the existing academic literature, debates, or discourses. Attempt to be as concrete as possible in describing the impact or debates you want to research but do not get carried away. Provide the context into which your research fits.

In this part, you should also provide links between your work and the existing advantages of the department you’re applying to. Find out about research that takes place in the department and how your work can complement this.

If you’re applying to a few departments, ensure to tailor your proposal to each of them.

You need to set a convincing and strong structure for your work in this part. This has to include:

  • One or three research questions and why you’re asking them
  • The key approaches you will take (theoretical, conceptual, normative, empirical) and the explanation
  • Importance of the work

Arrangement of the research

This part is used to talk about the texts, which are most crucial to your research. Show your understanding of the issues of your research and indicate present gaps both theoretical and practical that your work will address. In this part, you need to connect your ideas and your research questions instead of providing a detailed analysis of existing problems.

Methodology and design of the research

Here, you need to present the way in which you will build your research and the certain methods you will apply. The design of your research has to have the following:

  • A short discussion on the timeline for achieving the goals of your project
  • Specific objectives and aims (like complete 15 interviews with the members of the group)
  • A discussion of the overall approach and the explanation for it
  • Characteristics of the research

It is crucial to develop a good methodology section particularly if you want to implement important and empirical research. Ascertain to include particular techniques instead of just general approach. Include the following:

  • Short rationale for applying the methods
  • Particular techniques (participant observation, statistical analysis, or semi-structured interviewing)
  • Methods for analyzing and gathering data
  • Types of resources consulted


The references have to demonstrate your readers that you have a good grasp of the literature and your research can contribute to it. Ensure to offer references to the resources and texts that you think play an important role in your analysis. Keep in mind that you are not writing a bibliography listing all the books and materials published on the subject. Your references should show critical reflection in the choice of appropriate texts.

Possible traps

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Very often students who meet the entrance criteria fail to be accepted as PhD candidates due to the weakness of their proposal. To avoid this, keep these in mind:

Make sure that your proposal shows your passion in the subject matter through the arguments and the structure within your proposal. The admission officers may not be the experts in your field and thus it is your job to make them engaged in your project.

  • Make sure you create a well-structured proposal. Proposals with the poor structure show that the project you are offering may follow the same fate.
  • Ensure that your work is of a reasonable scope. Don’t forget that there are limits to the complexity and the size of a work that can be done and written in three years. The projects are often assessed not only for their significance and intellectual ambition but also for the possibility that the candidate will be able to do the project.
  • Research the departments you want to apply to ascertain that the staff is interested in your area and can provide you with a supervisor.
  • Clearly state your research question, idea or problem. Ensure it is persuasive and shows the gap in the literature that currently exists.

Another important point is the format of your proposal. Ensure that the formatting is consistent throughout the document and the structure of your proposal is clear. Before submitting a proposal, it is advisable to give it to your colleague or academic tutor for revision.

Remember that proposals are provisional rather than definitive documents. Your proposal will most likely change greatly during the first several months of your PhD program. However, during the application process it is an important document that assists potential supervisors to make a decision in relation to your application. Therefore, it is crucial to invest your effort and time in it.

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