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Posted on 17 Jan '19

How I Wrote My Research Proposal


There's plenty of advice out there for writing a PhD proposal, including advice on mistakes to avoid and reminders of what a good proposal *doesn't* need to be. But what's it actually like to write one? Here Kirsty Smitten talks about her experiences.


Writing a research proposal can be a difficult process. I found things particularly hard as I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to ‘put pen to paper’. I was also very worried the ideas I proposed would be ‘wrong’.

However, a research proposal isn’t really about being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Instead, the challenge is to show you can adopt the thought processes necessary to identify a problem and come up with a solution.

In this post I’m going to explain how I managed to do that.

Prior research

The first thing I had to do when preparing for my research proposal was. . . do some research. I needed to know more about the current opportunities in my subject area.

Researching the field

Before writing my proposal, I looked at what field I wanted to research. This is necessary as you might not be able to come up with a research idea without knowing exactly what area you want to be working on. I have always wanted to work within the pharmaceutical industry. Therefore, I looked at the different sectors of Chemistry I could work in, that would link to pharmaceutical research.

Researching the supervisor

I contacted a number of supervisors whose work I was interested in at universities across the country. I wanted to work within Inorganic Pharmaceuticals specifically related to cancer. There are a few researchers in the country that do this kind of work. To come up with a research proposal in science the idea needs to link into the research that supervisor works on. Therefore, I communicated with each supervisor, found out about their current work and read their past publications.

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.

In the end I accepted a PhD that was already developed as a funded project. However, going through the PhD application and proposal-writing process was still very beneficial. Since then I have been able to use the skills I developed to write placement student grant proposals. In addition, I have incorporated the ideas from my proposal into my own project. I hope you can use my experiences to help when you come to writing your own PhD research proposal. Good luck!




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Interested in hearing more about how Kirsty chose her research topic? Read more about her journey here.