Writing the proposal
Now that I had a good sense of the current work being done in my area of interest, it was time to put together a proposal for a PhD topic that could contribute to that research.
#1 Finding a gap in research
A PhD is meant to be novel research. You are making new findings or developing new techniques to aid in the future of the field. Therefore, you need to find a gap in the current research - a problem that hasn’t been solved. Within Chemistry I chose something I knew was novel from searching research databases and talking to my personal tutor.
Remember that the problem you identify doesn’t have to be something world-breaking. It just needs to be something worth solving – and something you are interested in. The next part is the harder part, coming up with a method to tackle this problem.
#2 Addressing that gap
The supervisor I was in contact with was working on metals within medicine, specifically looking at their activity upon cancer cells. This was exactly where my interests lay, so I brainstormed a number of different ideas closely related to their group’s research.
From this I picked a couple of key ideas that I would take forward when writing my proposal. As I had built up a communication with the supervisor (very good idea!) I checked that these were all feasible. I didn’t want to propose something that wouldn’t lead anywhere.
In my field, and probably in most, the research proposal you come up with needs to demonstrate the impact of your project. I pointed my proposal towards potentially tackling a major medical problem. This may be a far-fetched aspiration, but it showed I had thought clearly about a problem my research could contribute to.
#3 Finding a fit
I then looked at the ideas I had come up with so far and tried to see how these could link with other work being conducted in the department. I wanted to make my proposal stand out; I knew collaborations in a PhD were very popular, and in my field definitely essential. I identified another member of staff who had done some work with that supervisor and learned that there were techniques in that group my research could utilise.
I think looking at other research links also helped me to understand the work I was trying to propose. It helped to develop my ideas and I would recommend trying this technique when writing your own proposal.
#4 Getting ready to write
There’s plenty of proposal writing advice out there, including some tips on this blog. Here are the most important things I learned (through research and through experience!).
First, your proposal isn’t supposed to outline in detail 3-4 years of PhD research. This was something I initially tried to do. I ended up with pages and pages in MS Word, of experiment ideas that didn’t really link. Chances are there will be a word limit on the proposal application (especially If its online) and mine certainly didn’t fit within this. Quickly I realised I’d wasted a lot of time waffling on trying to write a 4-year month-by-month research plan.
You won’t be expected to write exactly what your full PhD will entail. I couldn’t do this anyway, as I had no idea whether the compounds/techniques I was proposing would even make it to cellular trials let alone on the pharmaceutical market (my dream).
Therefore, I tried to concisely summarise my ideas.
#5 Drafting (and re-drafting)
Once I had a few key research tasks I wanted to tackle, and a concise summary of how I would do so, I began to draft proposals. Draft being the key word here; your first attempt may not be perfect and mine certainly wasn’t. I would suggest working on the drafts with regular breaks. I was surprised at how many new ideas I had coming back to the draft proposal after a week off.
In my draft I gave a brief background on existing research in the field. Followed by a hypothesis on my research idea, and my aims in tackling the problem. I then proposed a simplified, concise research plan. This basically summarised how I could complete the research task within the 4 years. However, with Chemistry there is always more work to be done, as I’m sure is the case with other disciplines. So, this doesn’t need to be finalised and exact.
I added a short proposal on a collaboration with another research group, and another department. Finally, I had a small section on the training and techniques I would learn. The proposal ended with a brief conclusion, including what I hoped to gain from the research.