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Posted on 4 Nov '21

9 Obvious (and Not so Obvious) PhD Proposal Mistakes

If you're getting ready to apply for a PhD, you've probably started thinking about your research proposal (particularly if you're 'pitching' your own topic, for an Arts, Humanities or Social Science project).

There's lots of advice out there for writing a good proposal. But, for the sake of this blog post, I'm going to summarise things very simply:

A good research proposal needs to demonstrate that your research is worth doing, that it can be done within the scope of a PhD at a specific institution and that you're the right person to do it.

That's pretty much it. Sound simple enough?

Of course, it's not quite so simple in practice. And it's perfectly possible to make mistakes. In fact, I'd even go as far as to say it's OK to do so, provided you can spot them - and fix them. That's what this post is all about.

Here are 9 mistakes you could be making - or about to make - with your PhD proposal:

#1 Confusing your proposal with your PhD

We've actually covered this problem before, when talking about the things a PhD proposal doesn't need to be. That said, it's still worth acknowledging before going any further.

If you're ready to write a PhD proposal, it stands to reason you have a lot of ideas about PhD study (if you don't, start here). This is probably the first time you'll write about those ideas, in detail. It's easy to get carried away, but vital not to.

For one thing, you simply won't have space or time. Even if you could fit everything in and somehow manage to do so in a clear and coherent manner, you'll struggle to do so before those application (or funding) deadlines come around.

You'd also miss part of what your proposal is designed to test.

A PhD requires the ability to be selective and self-critical: to follow the most effective lines of inquiry and develop the results (and conclusions) with the most potential.

A disciplined and well-constructed proposal doesn't just state that you have those skills. It demonstrates them.

#2 Mistaking the proposal for an entry test

It's easy to view the research proposal as a hurdle - something to 'get past' before you continue on to the PhD itself.

That's not entirely wrong. After all, you're setting out to show that you can complete a PhD and that is a condition for being able to start one. But you're also starting to set out some of the parameters for what that PhD is going to be and what it's going to do.

The score you get in a graduate entry test won't matter once you get started with your doctorate. The content of your research proposal will. Even if your project gradually evolves beyond it (and a successful PhD almost certainly will) you're still establishing the starting point for that process.

So don't just view the proposal as a chance to showcase (and show off) your academic potential. Make it useful - to you, to your project and to the future supervisor who's going to help you put your plans into action.

The research proposal isn't your PhD. But it is still part of your overall PhD process.

#3 Using exactly the same proposal for multiple applications

There's nothing wrong - as a rule - with applying for a PhD place at more than one university. Nor is there anything wrong with proposing broadly the same project to each potential institution.

If you are writing proposals for multiple PhD applications, parts of those proposals are going to be the same (or, at least, very similar). But they shouldn't be identical.

The reason for this may not be as obvious as it seems.

It's not actually the duplication of material that's the problem. The potential issue actually has more to do with missed opportunities.

As I said in the introduction, one of the things a good proposal needs to do is explain why your project is a good fit for the university you're applying to:

  • You might want to explain why your potential supervisor's expertise (and interests) are a good fit for your ideas.
  • You might want to acknowledge how suitable the facilities at this institution are for your work (universities want postgraduate students to make the most of the resources they provide)
  • You might also want to make a point about how your project matches the broader research culture and direction of your university.

A proposal that doesn't do any of these is going to be weaker as a result. That's something to bear in mind even if you're only applying to one university. But, if you are approaching other institutions, present your ideas as a good fit for them too.

#4 Being too ambitious

In order to qualify you for a doctorate, your project needs to present a significant 'original contribution to knowledge' (we'll come back to this later).

This means that the work you do should help advance your academic field - and be useful to other scholars working within it.

But that doesn't mean you have to completely redefine that field - or replace all of the existing scholarship within it. Nor do you have to make headlines or win a Nobel Prize (that can come later). You just need to complete a worthwhile, original research project.

By all means, be ambitious: show drive and enthusiasm. But don't forget to be realistic, particularly in your proposal.

That proposal isn't a test of your ambition. It is a test of your ability to outline an achievable project.

#5 Ignoring impact

OK, so your PhD doesn't have to re-invent the wheel (unless you're in Transport Engineering, in which case, go for it) but it does have to matter.

And, these days, that might not just mean mattering to your fellow researchers. A worthwhile PhD project should also have a wider 'impact', beyond the academy.

You might look for opportunities to share your findings with schools, heritage organisations and other interested groups within the general public. You might identify opportunities to apply your research to commercial - or social - enterprises. You still don't have to win a Nobel Prize.

The type of impact you expect your PhD to have will vary depending on your project, but you should expect to have some - particularly if you're applying for public funding (such as a UK Research Council studentship).

If you don't have anything to say about impact, your proposal could be in trouble. Thankfully, making a case for PhD impact isn't necessarily difficult.

#6 Taking on too much of a starring role

It can be all too easy to mistake the PhD proposal for a personal statement. Actually, that's another of the things it isn't.

Resist the temptation to focus too much on your qualifications and experience at the expense of clear and coherent detail about the project you're actually proposing.

And when you do refer to your achievements, make them relevant.

The fact that you have existing degrees doesn't automatically qualify you for a PhD place (there'd be no point to the proposal process, otherwise). But the fact that you did well with your Masters dissertation project could help demonstrate that you're ready to step up to PhD-level work. Ditto if you have experience with some of the techniques and methodologies you plan to use, or the scholarly literature you'll need to review.

A proposal that focusses on your credentials without explaining their relevance to your project could appear incoherent and unbalanced. Worse, it might give the impression that your haven't put enough thought into your project - or aren't actually that enthusiastic about it.

#7 Overlooking your reader/s

The audience for your PhD proposal is obviously important. But have you thought about who they actually are?

It's safe to assume that at least one of the people judging your project will be an academic expert in your field: perhaps your potential supervisor, or even a supervisor you've applied to study with.

Other readers might not have the same level of expertise - and might be judging slightly different things about your proposal.

One might be an academic responsible for postgraduate admissions, but not working directly within your subject-area: a historian, perhaps, but not an eighteenth-century specialist; a biological scientist, but not a biochemist. They may be more interested in seeing how your project fits within their department's research agenda.

Another might represent a funding body. They probably won't be an academic expert, but they will be very interested in how you plan to use the resources their organisation provides and how your work will advance its agenda or support its values.

Satisfying different readers' needs is important. If you don't know who they'll be, do some research.

#8 Dishonesty

It might be tempting to try and 'wing it' with parts of your PhD proposal. Don't.

  • If you claim to have read a piece of scholarship, make sure you actually have. If you haven't, identify it as a priority for your literature review.
  • If you say you're familiar with a particular methodology, make sure you are. If you aren't, identify this as a training need.
  • If you claim to be interested in a particular topic, be interested in it. If you aren't, mention something you are actually interested in.

The fact is, anything you put in your PhD proposal is fair game for your PhD interview.

#9 Failing to state your original contribution to knowledge

Last, but absolutely not least: your PhD needs to offer an 'original contribution to knowledge' in your field. Your PhD proposal needs to show how you're going to do so.

But it also needs be absolutely clear about what that contribution is. It's easy to lose track of that.

On its own, a piece of research won't necessarily be sufficiently original or significant. Other people have studied this author, this management theory or this protein. What's different about your approach and what's going to be different about the results you expect to produce?

Don't rely on implication, either. State things clearly (and preferably early). If that means you need to include a line like 'the original contribution to knowledge offered by this PhD project will be...' do it.

Like the other mistakes discussed above, this one isn't so hard to fix - if you spot it. Hopefully this post has helped with that.

Editor's note: This blog was first published on 14/06/2017. We've checked and updated it for current readers.

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Last Updated: 04 November 2021