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How Do I Write a PhD Research Proposal?

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  • Last Modified Date: 18 August 2014
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Prior to writing a PhD research proposal, it is crucial to develop a solid understanding of the question or issue at hand by reviewing all relevant academic literature including existing dissertations. The PhD research proposal should consist of a linear, clear and refined argument that shows the reader that the dissertation’s approach will be unique and that the project will contribute new ideas to the relevant academic area. Doctoral candidates also generally define academic terms, establish a conceptual framework and describe the project’s methodology in a successful proposal.

A PhD research proposal typically summarizes all existing work on an academic topic before drawing attention to a novel approach and demonstrating how that will contribute to the relevant field. The introduction is generally a concise and direct summary of existing academic literature followed by a presentation of the principal research question or problem statement. The presentation of the project’s principal question aims to illustrate the need for additional research and the novelty of the researcher’s approach.

Once the main problem statement of the PhD research proposal has been presented and contextualized, the project’s theoretical framework can be established. The researcher may have to define any relevant academic terms and key constructs that he or she will use. In addition, this section of the proposal can include a model or illustrative example of the problem and how the researcher’s theoretical framework will be applied.

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The description and definition of the theoretical or conceptual framework may then be linked to a presentation of the researcher’s methodology. This section should illustrate what the researcher plans to do and why the chosen method will be effective. This can include a description of how each dissertation chapter will contribute to the project’s overall conclusion.

The majority of proposals include a working bibliography that will grow and change throughout the research process as new information is added. If a work is cited in a project’s bibliography, the members of the dissertation committee can expect the researcher to be familiar with its contents. In addition to a bibliography in progress, PhD research proposals may also include any relevant appendices, pilot data or a project timeline with provisional submission date.

Unless a length is specified in department or university policy, there is no minimum or maximum length of a PhD research proposal although many average approximately 20 pages. Numerous drafts over several months will likely be required before the proposal is accepted. In some cases, the PhD research proposal can later be expanded into the introductory chapter of the dissertation itself.

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Discuss this Article

stl156
Post 6

@Izzy78 - It is hard to say what the proposal will be like without knowing a specific field. Even then, like someone else mentioned, your adviser and committee may have very specific requirements that they like to see in a proposal.

In my experience, the proposal can serve a couple of different purposes depending on how you ended up arriving at the PhD level. If you are working on a predesigned project that may have been originally set up by another student several years ago, then it will be important to show your committee that you understand the prior results and can build off of that. If you're setting up your own project, it will be important to show that you are making an original contribution to the department.

One of the things a lot of people don't spend too much time on in a proposal is the feasibility section. This part is extremely important, though, because the people involved with the project will want to know what problems could arise and if you can deal with them.

Izzy78
Post 5

@jmc88 - Very good advice. Do you or anyone else know how much the PhD research proposal format follows that of a proposal you might have to make for a Master's thesis?

Currently, I am a Master's student and am getting ready to start a PhD program next semester. When I was making my last proposal, my adviser basically had a proposal template that he liked people to use. It was fairly short and just involved sections for a literature review, research methods, data analysis, and project significance. I was looking online, though, and found a sample PhD research proposal for a similar field as mine, and it was much more detailed.

I would expect the PhD project to be a lot more involved, but not this much different as far a proposal. Does anyone have any advice?

jmc88
Post 4

@Ivan83 - I believe there are quite a few good online resources with proposal samples. I would just do a couple of searches with different keywords. There are also a lot of books about the subject, since it is something that every graduate student has to go through. When I was doing my Master's research, we had a copy of a book floating around that all of the grad students used to help write their proposals.

Depending on what kind of department you are in, there may also be a class that you can take that will help you through the process. You can usually approach your adviser for help, as well. Part of their job is to help you through the PhD process. If they advise several students, though, they may have less free time than other people.

The other thing you can do is check around your campus for writing workshops. I know at all of the universities I have attended they have different programs that are meant to help out people like you who are stuck at a certain point or need a little guidance getting started. The programs are usually free and are very helpful in my experience.

jcraig
Post 3

@chivebasil - You are very right. I used to have an adviser who would not even look at a proposal or any kind of work like that if he found any obvious mistakes. He would just stop reading the paper and give it back to you without marking anything until you found the mistake and gave it back. It is kind of a harsh method in my opinion, but it makes you start checking your work very closely.

He is a very nice guy in general, but says that he does it because he has been on more than one committee that has rejected proposals because they had major errors. In one of them, a student kept misspelling a type of chemical to be used in an experiment, although the misspelling was the name of a related chemical. If that chemical were to be used, though, it would likely create a dangerous gas instead of the helpful compound that the student wanted instead. It just goes to show that a couple of swapped letters can make a world of difference.

Ivan83
Post 2

Is there a place online where I can find some examples of good PhD research proposals? I am just starting to write one and I have come up with total writer's block. I know what my research is about but I have no idea how to present it to grab the attention of the funding board. If I could look at some examples of past successes that would help a lot.

chivebasil
Post 1

This both goes without saying and completely bears repeating. Any PhD research proposal needs to be thoroughly checked for typos and other errors before it is submitted. Spelling, grammar, and flow all need to be considered.

If you are doing PhD level research you probably know that this level of care is standard in academia. And yet, PhD proposals get turned in all the time that have appalling mistakes. Do yourself a favor and double check.

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