What is a PhD Proposal?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2019
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A PhD proposal is a document which outlines a proposed PhD dissertation. The proposal describes the objectives of the research being performed by the doctoral candidate, the methods which will be used to conduct the research, and the projected impact of the research. PhD proposals are used by doctoral candidates to outline their plans for their dissertations, and they provide an opportunity for candidates to get feedback from the members of the academic community who will be reviewing and ultimately accepting or rejecting their dissertations.

The format for presentation of a PhD proposal varies. As a general rule, the student needs to prepare a detailed document which provides complete information, including a discussion of prior work in the field, a rough schedule for the dissertation, and a discussion of any ethical concerns which may surround the dissertation. This document is read by the members of the student's PhD committee, and the student may be called upon to make a formal presentation and defense.


During the presentation, the candidate talks about what he or she plans to do and how it will be accomplished. Members of the committee can interrupt to challenge or ask questions. Some schools allow other students in the department to sit in on the defense, which offers students a chance to see how a PhD proposal should be presented and defended, and gives students a chance to learn about the kind of work their peers are doing. The defense also offers the PhD candidate an opportunity to get feedback and suggestions from faculty members.

In addition to describing the type of research which will be conducted and the methods used, the PhD proposal also needs to show that the research will be relevant and valuable. The PhD proposal demonstrates that the work will be original and unique, and shows the way in which it will contribute to the field of academia as a whole. The proposal may be rejected if committee members feel that it is not realistic, not original, or not particularly relevant or useful. If approved, the PhD proposal acts as the map for the candidate's PhD dissertation.

PhD candidates are typically assigned to an advisor who will assist them through the process of undertaking their graduate research. Advisors are usually happy to meet with candidates to discuss planned research and to talk about how to format the PhD proposal, and to explore the potential ramifications of the research and the ways in which the student can demonstrate that the dissertation will be academically valuable.


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