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!