It’s not that hard to explain what makes a good PhD research proposal. It should be a clear, concise and convincing outline of your project that explains what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it and why it’s worth doing in the first place.
Sounds simple enough, right?
Of course, it’s a bit harder to do in practice, but, at its core, a PhD proposal does have some fairly basic aims. And, as challenging as proposal writing is, it’s important not to confuse the things a PhD proposal is with the things it isn’t.
So, instead of providing another list of all the things your proposal should be, we’ve turned that approach on its head.
Here are five things a PhD research proposal doesn’t need to be.
If you find yourself trying to achieve any of the following, you’re probably making things harder than necessary. What’s more, you might even be weakening your proposal in the process.
This one’s fairly obvious, but surprisingly easy to lose sight of.
Right now you’re getting ready for three or more years of serious academic research.
You might be enthusiastic, inspired and raring to go: filling your head, your notebook and any nearby scrap paper with great research ideas. Or you might be feeling a little more cautious: surveying a wide range of options and approaches, but not yet sure which you’ll pick.
Both situations can give rise to an overcomplicated research proposal that tries to include too much of the PhD it’s meant to outline.
You might be eager to include all of your great ideas. Or you might be determined to explore and evaluate every alternative option for your research. It doesn’t matter. For now, it’s necessary to be selective.
Effectively summarising the potential significance of your research question will lead to a strong research proposal. Trying to answer it won’t.
Similarly, recognising that your project presents practical challenges will show that you understand the process of academic research. Trying to solve those challenges on paper could suggest that you don’t.
A PhD normally begins with a literature review. This is a survey of academic work related to your topic – a ‘review’ of the current scholarly ‘literature’ in your field.
Your PhD proposal should also demonstrate an awareness of current work, but this doesn’t need to be anything like as exhaustive.
No one expects you to have conducted a thorough survey of your field before beginning your PhD. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that you have the experience, time or facilities to attempt that. So don’t.
By all means do some reading around your subject and reference this, as relevant, in your proposal. This will demonstrate that you’ve thought about the context for your work and have some idea of that all-important original contribution to knowledge it’s going to make.
It’s also fine to signpost some of the reading you plan to do in your actual literature review, particularly if this is likely to help shape your methodology.
But don’t try to be exhaustive and comprehensive. That’s what your literature review is for. And your PhD proposal isn’t your literature review.
It’s important to be clear here.
The research proposal you submit should be a clear and accurate statement of what the central research question for your project is and how you plan to go about answering it.
But once you begin your PhD, your project is going to evolve. You’ll uncover new avenues of research during your literature review, develop new insights from your own findings and (hopefully) have a productive ongoing dialogue with your supervisor.
All of this will inform the overall direction of your PhD. Some of it could even lead you to include material you didn’t expect to – or leave out some that you did. And that’s fine.
So don’t get caught up agonising over the details of specific approaches or the best methodology to commit yourself to. Your proposal isn’t going to trap you and you won’t be penalised for adapting it once you get stuck into researching the PhD.
So far we’ve pointed out that your PhD research proposal isn’t your PhD, isn’t your PhD literature review and won’t necessarily predict the final shape of your project.
You could be forgiven, then, for thinking that a research proposal doesn’t have much to do with your actual PhD at all. That it’s just an abstract test of your suitability for postgraduate research, to be more or less forgotten once you actually get started.
Needless to say, that’s not what we mean to imply. And it’s certainly not the case.
Regardless of its role in getting you admitted to a project, persuading a supervisor to take you on, or winning funding, the research proposal is an important part of your own preparation for doctoral work.
Planning and writing it will help you begin thinking about what it’s actually going to be like to do your project – the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’. And the structure and word limit set for your proposal, whilst challenging, will teach you important lessons about organising your ideas.
So don’t approach your PhD proposal as if it’s an arbitrary task or incidental feature of the application process. Recognise the value of the work you’re doing now and let that build your enthusiasm for the task at hand.
Your research proposal isn’t your PhD. But it should be a worthwhile preparation for it.
OK. But there’s a serious point to be made here.
Your PhD proposal is important. There might be a lot riding on it – particularly if you’re being considered for funding. You need to give yourself time to do a good job, follow the guidelines set by your university, look at other advice and take the task seriously.
But writing a good PhD research proposal is far from impossible. For one thing, it’s an awful lot easier than completing a PhD. And you’re going to do that, aren’t you?
This post has been designed to help you keep the limits of a PhD proposal in mind. Once you’ve done that you can hopefully relax a bit more and enjoy the process for what it should be: the first step in a fascinating PhD research journey.
Editor's note: This blog was first published on 20/05/2016. We've checked and updated it for current readers.
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