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Seven Steps to a Successful Research Proposal

Just where *do* you start with a research proposal? We'll be answering exactly this question (and all the others that follow it) at a free webinar as part of our PhD LIVE virtual study fairs. Here's some advice to get you thinking in the meantime.

So, you’ve decided to join our ranks as a PhD cadet – excellent. Prepare for the eye-opening experience of learning everything there is to know about the cosmos, your favourite bacteria, a socio-political issue that might just bring about world peace, or something else of massive importance to your subject

But wait, what is this looming darkness on your horizon?! The silhouette with huge, crooked teeth, blocking the sun?

Oh, it’s just your research proposal.

If you’ve never written anything like a research proposal before, then you’re probably quite intimidated by the prospect. What is it, how much detail are you expected to include, where do you even begin?!

The good news is that while the process of writing a research proposal may not be the most enjoyable one, it can be extremely beneficial in helping you hone your project title, evaluate your research scope and / or give you a more in-depth understanding of your field of interest.

Having been through this process myself, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned from my own experience.

Before we begin…

If you are a prospective PhD student, you probably identify with one of the following:

  1. ‘I have a pretty good idea what I want to research, but no clue who to approach about it.’
  2. ‘There are a few people I have in mind that I would like to work with, but I can’t come up with a specific research question’.
  3. ‘I just know I want to do a PhD in the field, and roughly on this (broad) subject area.’

Note: I was 3.

As you get into researching and writing your proposal, you might find that your membership to the above teams changes very quickly, especially after you chat with some potential supervisors. Start getting an idea of what being a PhD student in the field will be like by talking to as many people as possible. This includes (but is not limited to) your personal tutor at uni, lecturers and / or current / former postgraduate students. And Twitter.

Have a Google field day. List all the questions you have about being a PhD student and try to get as close as possible to answering them.

Step 1: Talk about your ideas

Before you start working on your proposal, you should probably discuss the project (or type of project) you’d like to research, ideally with someone who might like to supervise it.

It isn’t hard to find potential supervisors. In fact, if you’re currently at university, you’re probably surrounded by them. Even if you choose to pursue a PhD somewhere else later, it’s always good to start at the place where you are well-known, with people you trust and who have seen your work.

Before you speak to your first ‘target’ make sure you know why you’re approaching them. Read a few of their papers and get some idea what their interests are. If you are contacting them by email, try to arrange for a face to face or Skype meeting. Try to identify any questions that their work has raised and engage into a productive discussion with them to see how you might interact if you were working together.

Remember that while you are certainly trying to make a good impression, you are also the one hunting for supervisors, so don’t miss out on a chance to test the waters. Communicate your expectations and ask a lot of questions about their mentorship style and research focus.

Step 2: Assemble your shortlist

The time will come when you’re going to apply for a PhD and hopefully be selected for an interview. But, right now, it’s your turn to do the shortlisting.

So, you’ve spoken to a few people, made notes and are probably well on your way to realising how unique each research journey is. Depending on the field you’re in, you may have a list of potential projects you’re applying for – or a list of ideas for projects of your own, fine-tuned (or not so much), inspired and perhaps a little confused after the conversations you’ve had so far.

It’s OK to be confused.

Grab a cup of tea. Lemonade is also allowed. Just stay clear of the bottle of panic nestled in the back of your kitchen cupboard.

Step 3: Choose your reading

You want to start your proposal with an introduction and a brief literature review to highlight your understanding of the subject matter (and the fact that you’ve actually looked around). This is also your chance to demonstrate that you have the skillset to investigate a topic, critically evaluate the research already conducted and then summarise and comment on what you found.

If you think you are a good match for some of the supervisors you’ve already spoken to, and you believe they’d be happy to assist you, you can ask them for proposal advice, including any relevant reading.

Alternatively, browse their recent publications, specifically the introduction, discussion and references. This should give you some idea where to focus. I also found it useful to read review articles for summaries of important findings.

Step 4: Be as specific as possible about your ideas

So, you’ve demonstrated you know about your field of research, it’s time to explain how you can contribute to it.

Ideally, you want to know (and state) what question you are aiming to answer during your PhD: this can be achieved by talking to the potential supervisor (yep, ‘talk to potential supervisors’ is a recurring theme here), picking apart an advertised project or just by being, kind of, enlightened. However, not every field is likely to make it easy for you to be specific about your research goals (this can be particularly tricky in sciences, like maths or engineering). If you can identify a gap in the literature – great! Talk about what it is, why it’s crucial to fill that gap and how you are planning to do it.

Personally, my PhD proposals focused mostly on discussing the general area of research I was interested in. This isn’t unusual for maths – but it would be for social sciences, where precision is your friend. In certain structured PhDs, part of the programme actually includes a year of ‘orientation’ wherein you are only expected to name your particular research focus after undergoing some training and completing smaller projects.

Step 5: Select a research method

You’ve now reviewed the literature, you’ve said what you (more or less) want to investigate – now the question is how. It’s important to be able to describe a plan – even if this plan changes (which it probably will) as you get a better understanding of the project and how feasible it is.

It might be tempting to jump into defending a research method you’re very well familiar with, but before you do, check that this method is actually appropriate. There are many books that discuss various research methods – we’ve even reviewed a few – so before you’ve become adamant as to which technique you’re going with, shop around. It’s also alright to have several ideas to outline, with their specific strengths and weaknesses. Explain what motivates your choice and what you expect your results would demonstrate.

Step 6: Be clear on what impact you think your work will have

So, why is your research worth it? You might think the importance of your project is obvious or that it’s enough to simply have a cool-sounding topic, but you need to clearly argue the benefits of your proposal and how it contributes to the field.

Will it introduce a new research methodology? Will it answer a question? Will it extend someone else’s research, and if so, why is that necessary? A little tip: plugging a few references to strengthen your point is always good.

Step 7: Review

It might sound trivial, but when you’ve finally written down your proposal, go back and check if it actually relates to the PhD you’ve chosen. It’s surprisingly easy to get lost in the literature and end up rambling about everything even remotely related to your title.

Try and create links between what you are suggesting and the work / interests of the research lab, supervisor or project you are going for. Anticipate what your institution or future mentor may be expecting in an applicant and try to demonstrate those qualities. When you’re done (this is an illusion; you are never done), send out cries for help to trap a few proof-reading buddies and get their opinion. In some cases, the supervisor you are applying to might even do this for you.

Bottom line

Chances are, you probably won’t be a huge fan of your (first, or second, or third. . .) proposal. The important thing to remember is that few supervisors will expect you to be an expert. At this stage, the most important thing is to demonstrate structured thinking, diligence, motivation and awareness of the topic .

And if you need some more assurance – or want to get an idea of what doing a PhD is like – check out some of our student experience stories and advice.

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Last Updated: 20 January 2022