Writing Ph.D. Proposals

Problem-Based-Learning1aThe second season of The New Academic returns us, after several requests, right to the beginning of every Ph.D. student’s journey – the Ph.D. proposal. This post is dedicated to tips and thoughts on what makes a good Ph.D. proposal that is likely to win over your potential supervisor and perhaps funders, though (not) securing a grant or sponsorship for your doctoral project usually does not equal (a lack of) quality. So with this post we return to the formal start line of the Ph.D. journey, and over the next few weeks we’ll follow the Ph.D. path all the way to finish line, and beyond.

The following are, as always, only some general, practical suggestions regarding your Ph.D. proposal, and perhaps the most important thing to note is that, of course, the format and purpose of a Ph.D. proposal differ widely between disciplines. This post presumes that you are applying to a position for which you, the applicant, have to come up with a feasible topic for your doctoral research, rather than a topic being prescribed for you.

So, when choosing your topic and beginning to write your proposal you may want to think about some of the following aspects and points.



In your head, your doctoral thesis may well look like a paradigm-shifting work of genius, revered by specialists in your field and recognised internationally, beyond the limits of your discipline, for its originality and insight. Unfortunately, and usually, this will not be the case, no matter how good your thesis turns out to be. Most importantly, however, rest assured that, other than you, no one is expecting you to produce anything that matches this mental image of your project. Not your prospective supervisor, not your future examiners. This is your Ph.D., not an attempt to win a Nobel Prize. So, aim high and be passionate, but don’t put yourself under pressure which is completely irrational and out of proportion.



When it comes to outlining your topic in your proposal, your prospective supervisor is likely to look for the following:

– A clear indication that you know the field to which you propose to contribute;
– A clear sense that you are aware of and understand current research in this area;
– A clear explanation of which gap your proposed project aims to fill;
– An indication of what original knowledge you hope to contribute;
– A clear awareness of the limits of your project.  Ask yourself what is realistic!
– Evidence that you have the writing skills required to communicate your research.

little people,big penNote that I do not use the word “clear” repeatedly due to laziness here. Although no one expects you to be able to predict exactly what your thesis will eventually look like and what your findings will be, it is important that your proposal is explicit and clear; that is, it is important you do not get lost in lengthy, unnecessarily complex sentences which will eventually fail not only to demonstrate your writing skills but will also fall short of communicating your project as best as possible. It is worth keeping in mind that your writing will often become awkward and unclear if your thoughts and arguments are, as yet, unclear in your head. If this is the case, go back to the drawing board and ask yourself: “What is it I am actually trying to do or say?” Depending on how you work best, if can be helpful to try and express the aim of your proposed research in one sentence (not one that is long and incomprehensible to others, mind you); this is something you’ll be asked to do again at the end of your doctoral studies, too.



When conducting your preliminary research and writing your proposal, remember for whom you are writing it, especially if you have perhaps begun research on the topic at a different institution and with a different supervisor for a Masters degree. Ask yourself the following, and be aware of these factors when writing your proposal:

– Who will read this proposal and decide on whether or not to accept it?
– What is their disciplinary background? Are they specialists?
– Who is my prospective supervisor? What is their take on the topic?
– How does my topic fit with my prospective supervisor’s research?
– What is the profile of your prospective department?
– How does your proposed topic fit with the department’s specialisms?
– If you are applying for funding, what your prospective funder’s priorities?

The fact that I am asking you to take these questions into account does not mean you should write a proposal which only aims to please others. This is still your project, your topic, your idea, but it is essential that you choose the right supervisor and the right department, and that whoever reads your proposal can see that you have selected the right place to carry out your research.


Education_Choices-jscreationzs_freedigitalphotosTHE TIME AFTER: EMBRACING CHANGE

Finally, when writing your proposal, do not feel that you are signing your life away to the topic you are proposing. While, really, your thesis should stay within the remit you suggested when applying for your place, it is perfectly acceptable – and indeed normal – for your focus to shift as your research progresses. Of course there is a limit to how much of a shift is acceptable, and this will likely be up to your supervisor and funder, but, as a rule, don’t be afraid of changing direction slightly during your Ph.D. – it can show you’re responsive to unexpected findings (providing you do not become fickle).


Next week, a guest post by Nathan Ryder will look into some of the ways in which you can ensure that, once you have been accepted onto your Ph.D. course, you stay focused and motivated throughout your doctoral journey as well as beyond. Until then, and as always, thanks for reading, and please feel free to comment your thoughts!


Nadine Muller

Nadine Muller

Nadine is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research covers the literary and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. She is currently completing a monograph on the Victorian widow (Liverpool University Press, 2018), and is leading War Widows' Stories, a participatory research and oral history project on war widows in Britain.

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10 Responses

  1. Mohamed says:

    Hi , Nadine I would like to get your support as I have just started writing PhD proposal on Future relation beween South Sudan and Sudan . I need your support in field of refferences I am in remote area could you help


  2. Rachel says:

    Thank you Leanne and Aesc for the helpful comments. I have to agree with you. Nothing ventured nothing gained as you say Leanne, there will be insecurity in whatever you chose so you may as well strive for something fulfilling- true failure comes with not trying at all! I wondering is there any advice you could give to people who are yet to enter the field and are still studying; is there anything you would do differently in hindsight?


  3. aesc says:

    Hi Rachel! I can only tell you my own experience–I started postgrad work after having a ‘real job’ that wasn’t going anywhere. It was a prestigious title, a great working environment, and very enjoyable, but it didn’t pay enough to cover the rent every month, and eventually I just got too hungry and frustrated to keep doing it! At that point I looked hard at my life and asked myself, ‘if you could do anything in the world, what would it be?’ And that’s what I did. It isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s frustrating and stressful and panic-inducing. (Mostly because I don’t have a job yet, and my UK visa depends on me getting one, and the idea of leaving all this behind is beyond terrifying.) But my life is still a thousand times better than it was, because I’m doing the thing I love and surrounded by people who understand the drive to learn and contribute and get why I’m doing this, why it’s important! That’s a hard thing to compete with, and I’m not at all sorry to be doing this. Even if it all goes horribly wrong later, it’s been amazing.

    But it has to be the thing YOU want most, and you have to understand what you’re giving up. (Me, I was never interested in getting married or having kids and the like, so it’s not a choice I have to stress on, but a lot of other people do. I’m not saying you can’t do those things and academia, but it’s not easy.) If you do go in, do it with your eyes open, and prepare as much as you can from the beginning. Don’t just float. But it can be worth it.

    best of luck!

  4. Leanne Bibby says:

    Hi Rachel,
    I completely agree with both Nadine and Jon – Jon took the words out of my mouth, actually. When I was contemplating leaving a full-time job (in which I was very bored and was stuck at a dead end after only 2 years), my prospective supervisor asked me, could I imagine NOT doing the PhD? The answer was no – then I was made redundant anyway and thought, there will be insecurity no matter what I do! I still pose that question to students wondering whether to do postgraduate work.
    I’ve yet to find my first full-time job but my attitude is, as long as I’m paying my bills, I’m fine. My part-time teaching and other job in university disability support are hugely rewarding and I found that since my thesis passed and I earned those ‘stripes’, writing articles etc feel very do-able! Doing the PhD and getting this experience gave me an identity and confidence I never would have had otherwise. Good luck with everything you do in the future.

  5. Rachel says:

    Thank you Nadine, Jon and Alison for your considered and thoughtful responses. I am encouraged! 🙂 I guess looking from my position upwards to where you all are, academia seems like an almost impenetrable and combative environment. Yet the possibility of being able to pursue and teach a subject amongst other like minded people is enticing. I currently study English and the idea of students striving for academia is either discouraged or laughed at, especially in this economic climate. It is reassuring to hear another side of the story, for once 🙂

  6. Alison Phipps says:

    Great post Nadine! In reply to Rachel, I agree with Nadine and Jon – academic life IS competitive, and certainly more so than when I started out. But it’s also incredibly rewarding, and Jon is right that there’s still a lot more freedom than in other comparable professional jobs (think about the NHS, for example). I agree that it’s getting your first job that’s the real hurdle – so getting teaching experience, a couple of publications and some useful contacts during your PhD years is really important. It’s also important WHERE you work – I’m lucky to be in a department where we meet the requirements but don’t internalise the market – e.g. we support each other rather than competing, and try to maintain a sense of humour about the worst excesses of neoliberalising Higher Education. I don’t think I’d want to do anything else – being a lecturer allows me to develop my intellectual interests, have an impact on policy and (most importantly) interact with and hopefully affect fantastic young people. So if you have a topic you love, self-discipline and determination, and a sense of perspective, I’d say go for it!

  7. Rachel says:

    Excellent informative post thank you. I am currently at uni and am considering moving on to do a Ph.D and have a go at academia. Perhaps a naive question; is the academic life rewarding would you say? Is there too much, in the way of bureaucracy and competition?


    • Nadine Muller Nadine Muller says:

      Hi Rachel,

      Thanks for the kind words! The academic job market is very competitive, especially at the moment. To get a job can be hard, and it takes a lot determination and hard work during your Ph.D., as the thesis itself won’t make you an employable academic. The posts that are collected here all cover activities people should consider getting involved in during their Ph.D. (rather than after); not all, of course, but what’s possible. It also all depends on your field of course. In the sciences, people don’t usually move into a lectureship after the Ph.D.; rather they do one or two post-docs (which are also competitive) before they’re considered for a permanent post.

      From my own perspective, once you have a job, I find it very rewarding. Yes, there is bureaucracy (the severity of which depends on your institution and country) and there a competing demands on your time (admin, teaching, research, etc.). Personally, while I love my research, it’s partly because of this mix of activities that I love academia – I can be doing three to four completely different things in a day rather than getting bugged down by the same task every day.

      Perhaps one of the main reasons, besides my research, that I love my job is because I love teaching in higher education. There’s something very rewarding about communicating the subject you love to a new cohort of students. In my field, I think one of the things I enjoy the most about teaching is to try and equip my students with new modes of critical thinking. I come from a background where university education was the exception, not the rule, and I hope my students find their studies as empowering as I did (and still do). So I suppose there’s the hope that, as an academic, you can make a change (and in many cases not just in the classroom, but also in society).

      Not least, though, you also get to mix with people who share your passion and you get to make things happen. 🙂

      Those are just some thoughts, and there are certainly negative aspects, too. Because the work is often so close to our hearts, it can be difficult to switch off from work and to handle the heavy workload (publication deadlines, teaching prep, admin, etc.). That does not mean it’s impossible though, and I’ve found having mentors who have mastered this task has really helped. There is also the path to your first job, which can be long and difficult, both in terms of finances and in terms stress levels and confidence. Academia is full of rejection (see Caroline Magennis’ post “Fail Better”, http://www.nadinemuller.org.uk/the-new-academic-guides/fail-better/), and part of the key to mastering it to be able to deal with that.

      But I’ll leave it there because I know other people will have lots of other things to say! 🙂


    • Jon says:

      Hi Rachel,

      There are many intangibles and uncertainties about going into academia but there is no doubt in my mind that I have the best job in the world. I have a number of friends who graduated with me and who have gone on to achieve a great deal and some have succeeded in notoriously cut-throat fields. The workload of an academic is not actually comparable to other jobs, it works in a completely different way, comes in intense waves but also leaves troughs where you have more freedom and time to pursue your own interests than any person working for a bank or a newspaper could ever dream of.

      The difficulty is, as Nadine said, in getting your first job. This website is a great resource for those thinking about whether they want to proceed, you have to ask yourself not just “can I finish the PhD” but “can I get two journal articles and a book proposal in within 12 months of finishing”, “am I prepared to earn £5-10k a year part-time teaching for an indefinite period”, “can I stomach the occasional bitterness, depression and feelings of not being valued”. These are all things to consider but most of all I’d suggest asking yourself if you can say, hand on heart, whether you truly ‘love’ your subject. If you can do this unambiguously and say that your choice isn’t motivated by fear of leaving the uni-matrix, desire for an easier life in the short term, need for praise and the structure of student life (though all of these may also play a part!) then you should go for it – depending on the project and proposal of course.

      There is an enormous amount of negativity surrounding academia right now, the tales of woe are everywhere and rather lurid. I’d pay more attention to the statistics about PhD employment, work with the facts and make your choice accordingly. Having come through that process successfully with my sanity and sense of self (just about) in tact I can say 100% that it’s worth it.

  1. 25/08/2014

    […] Writing Ph.D proposals […]

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