Having to write a PhD proposal is just one of the many daunting prospects you encounter in pursuit of a doctorate. The PhD proposal is scary because it’s one of those things that can blur the lines between your grades, your profession, and your passion. Whatever your chosen area of study may be, it’s your path in life — literally your curriculum vitae — and you definitely want to write a PhD proposal that speaks to your authority in the field. You may also need grant funding, which adds a decidedly business-like twist to the proposal.
Let’s take a look at what you need to do to write a PhD proposal that will satisfy your academic advisor, as well as help you secure funding for your project.
Why write a PhD proposal?
A PhD proposal states your intention – the reason for your research, the justification for your project. Along with your qualifying exams and defending your thesis, the PhD proposal is one of the three essential milestones for most doctoral students. The PhD proposal is actually in support of your doctoral-level thesis and it’s designed to show your level of knowledge of the existing research and dialogues going on in your chosen field.
Though it sometimes varies from one institution (and procrastinator) to the next, the PhD thesis usually starts about halfway through your program of study and can take the remaining time to complete. You actually submit the initial draft of the proposal before your research officially commences, so a PhD proposal will normally go through many revisions as you tailor your efforts around new discoveries.
Your PhD proposal will also help the institution you attend choose the best way to help you become a successful PhD candidate. By justifying the nature of and reason for your proposed research project, your school will assign supervisors within the right sub-field of study to be able to accurately advise you.
As you know, you may also use your PhD proposal to secure funding for your research. That means you’ll want to comply with specific proposal requirements unique to each funding agency that you submit your proposal to.
What to say in your PhD proposal
Are you starting to get the sense that there’s a lot to consider when you write a PhD proposal? Yep.
Your PhD proposal, above all, is an outline of the research project, which might involve:
- Posing a narrow question and recommending an approach to answering it
- Explaining shortcomings in current literature in your field and offering a way you could solve
- Selling yourself as the right person to solve a problem in your field
- Proving that your research will be novel and/or significant (ground-breaking, when possible)
Structure, grammar, and logical flow have to be relentlessly formal in your PhD proposal. That’s the reason for the long lead time involved in the process. Fortunately, by the time you’re ready to write a PhD proposal, you’ve probably written some academic articles already, so you already know the need for third-person objectivity and formal style in the construction of scholarly writing. Deviating from a scholarly writing style will undermine your PhD proposal. That means no cute quotes, personal narratives, or anecdotes can go into your PhD proposal (except in the Introduction, as we’ll discuss in a minute).
What you’re ultimately after is completing a project that is relevant to a narrow topic within the context of the existing material on the subject. Academic research – and the resulting academic literature – is meant to be an ongoing conversation with experts in your field. You write a PhD proposal to prove that you are informed and thorough enough in your methodologies to add to that ongoing discussion. So it’s important that you write a PhD proposal that demonstrates your professionalism throughout.
Now, let’s consider the basic structure of a typical PhD proposal.
What are the parts of a PhD proposal?
You can start yourself off with this free Research Proposal Template. Every academic subject is different, though, so you will want to modify that PhD proposal template to suit your needs (and the expectations of your advisor). However, if you’d like to do your own thing from scratch, we’ve got you covered, too.
A PhD proposal should answer the What, When, How, and Why of your proposed research. The basic parts are as follows:
The first thing your PhD proposal needs is a clear and simple title page that states: the name of your proposed research project, your name, your field of study, your advisor’s names, and the date.
The next section you need to include in your PhD proposal is an abstract of 100 to 200 words. The abstract should briefly explain your proposed research. It should be a particularly concise piece of writing that summarizes what you are proposing without delving into the nuts-and-bolts details. Save that for the other sections of the PhD proposal.
- Table of Contents
Since your PhD proposal will be broken into sub-sections, you will want to give your readers a Table of Contents.
The introduction is the one area of your PhD proposal where you can spice things up. Think of an attention-grabbing first line for the introduction, and try to quickly gain the reader’s interest. You can even shift to the first-person narrative perspective here and talk about what has led you to want to conduct this research. This is your moment to be personable. Just try to keep it under 400 words.
If you know your audience or subject is a little more creative, you can absolutely take advantage of proposal software to include a video in there to sell your elevator pitch and sparky personality.
- Literature Review
This is the one of the most important parts of a PhD proposal. In most cases, your advisor will expect you to discuss at least ten pieces of literature relevant to your subfield in the Literature Review section. Your advisors will be looking for thoroughness in your understanding of the current state of your subject, so you’ll have to crack open the books, read the journals, and online database articles and let it show that you’ve got a firm grasp on your area of expertise through your writing.
The literature review should be upwards of 1500 words or more, depending on the type of research you plan to do and the complexity of the subject. One of the main reasons for the inclusion of this section of a PhD proposal is so that you can conclude that you are the first one to perform the same research. You need to prove that you have a finger on the pulse of your subfield so that your advisor will sign off on your research project. I can’t emphasize enough just how important the literature review is to the success of your PhD proposal.
- Notion of Original Research
Once you have explained what you’ve learned about your topic in the Literature Review section, it’s time to sell your proposed research. The Notion of Original Research section is meant to explain how your project will add to the ongoing discourse in your field. This section is incredibly important and each unique project will demand a different approach to this section of a PhD proposal. This is the Why part of the proposal, and that’s what you’ve got to clarify for your readers: why you are the right scholar to perform this research?
If you want to see some great examples of PhD proposals to learn how scholars have approached the Notion of Original Research section, the University of Texas at Austin has a collection of example proposals that is worth checking out.
- Key Assertions/Objectives
Within a sentence (or two) of your Notion of Original Research, you should include a thesis statement for your proposed research. This is the core question, or hypothesis, that shapes your research. It’s a question which can be backed up with a handful of assertions, and proved through your research.
Example (from the research proposal template):
My central research question is as follows:
<Insert research question here, in bold>
In light of this, I will make the following observations, assertions:
<Insert observations/assertions here, in a bulleted list>
There are other ways to skin this cat, and the chances are likely that your advisor will ask you to arrive at a thesis statement in a way that is not quite so overt and bland as our example, but the fundamental, testable question should be a part of any PhD proposal.
- Research Methods
The section of your PhD proposal that you dedicate to your research methodology is another important section. Your advisors will be critical of how you plan to approach your research project. They will objectively examine your proposed research methodologies looking for loopholes or logistical problems in your research methods.
In this section, you should explain how you will conduct the research. Will you need to conduct field research? Will you need to use a specialized lab? Will you need to relate complex data sets to your research?
You will need to be very clear in this area because, if you lack a skill or resource necessary to complete your project, your advisor should be able to help your secure everything you need to get the project done.
The analysis section of your PhD proposal is meant to explain what you will do with the findings from your research. You should use this section to explain how you will connect your findings to the existing literature in your field of study.
- Research Limitations
This can be a short section that explains what you don’t expect to come from your research. This is meant to tell your reader that you understand that your research fits into the ongoing discussion of your subject, and it is not conclusive. Don’t leave this one out – your advisor will definitely be looking for it.
- Proposed Project Timeline
Adding a Proposed Project Timeline is optional but it is helpful to let your advisor and potential supervisors know that you have an expectation of how long it will take to complete the project and what the key milestones of the research project will be. This is particularly important if you are seeking grant monies, as it will let your reader know that your project has a finite schedule and a cap on the length of time you will need to be funded.
Lastly, another very important section in a PhD proposal is the Bibliography. The way you approach annotating your sources will vary from one area of the study to the next. You should consult with the appropriate style guide for your subject (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.) to get a firm idea of how the Bibliography should look. You should include a listing for all sources referenced in your proposal, including secondary sources. The Bibliography directly supports the crucial Literature Review we talked about earlier, so this one is another must-have part of your PhD proposal.
Writing style in a PhD proposal
A PhD proposal needs to be scholarly. Your writing should be necessarily formal in style and you should avoid certain writing conventions that would diminish the credibility of the proposal. Because a PhD proposal needs to be written formally, this leads some people to writing in an overwrought sort of way, cramming all the “college” words and complex sentences they can into their writing. That’s a bad idea.
Though you need to write your PhD proposal in a scholarly way, rather than wrapping your readers over the head with your erudite writing skills and sesquipedalian vocabulary, you should keep it simple. (See what I did there?) Some of your institutional advisors will not have the same level of understanding of the minute details of your sub-field as you do, so the idea is to write in a way that explains your project to anyone involved in your major, if not any layperson.
If, for example, your research is focused on the subfield of plasma physics with the study of astrophysics, your proposal should be mindful of the fact that some faculty members within the astrophysics department of your school might not be experienced with all of the terms and concepts you need to discuss. To help your readers understand, you can include short tutorials or a glossary of terms that you feel the need to define. This can be included in your Appendix.
Aside from recognizing times when you need to provide supplemental materials within your PhD proposal, you should keep a few best practices in mind as you write.
- Write objectively, from the third-person perspective (except perhaps in your Intro)
- Use active language (This research will…)
- Proofread thoroughly, again and again (read it twice aloud, preferably to other people!)
- Double-space, with well-organized, well-defined chunks
Oddly enough, PhD proposals and business proposals most closely resemble one another with regard to what “not” to do.
- Passive voice (“My thesis will be proved by the research”)
- Hyperbole (“Scholars have waited for ages for research like this”)
- Inflammatory words (“Gross,” “egregious,” etc.)
- Platitudes (“Everything happens for a reason”)
- Qualifiers (“The project will be novel in its study…”)
Don’t worry, just write!
I don’t have to tell you that your PhD proposal is deeply important to your life in academics. That being said, there’s no reason to be nervous about getting started. It’s all part of the process. You are expected to revise and re-evaluate your PhD proposal along the way and your advisor will help you. Keep in mind, your advisors have all been there before, so they know just what you are going through. Also, keep in mind that the subject of PhD proposals is super dense, and there are plenty of academic resources out there that can help you. Definitely read beyond this article and refine your PhD proposal to fit your needs.
I’d also urge you to read plenty of examples of successful PhD proposals as your start to draft your own. You can learn a bunch from those brave souls who have gone before. Don’t be afraid to ask folks a year or two ahead of you in their research if you can see what worked for them.
Are you a PhD holder? What advice do you have for our readers (like me) who are preparing to write their PhD proposal in the near future?