Writing a PhD proposal will be one of the first things you do as a hopeful PhD candidate.
Depending on the university you are aiming to attend, this may occur in one of two ways.
Your research proposal could be due before securing your spot as a PhD student. To make sure you’re the right person for the job, universities can ask for a proposal showing your ‘proposed’ PhD research (and what you plan to do with your time as a student) before they even allow you to take on the role.
At other universities (and in my personal experience), the PhD proposal is the first to-do item when you begin your life as a post-graduate student. The university lets you take on the title of PhD student and then you need to prove that you have a solid plan of action!
For me, I had the first six months of my PhD to finalise a proposal, have it reviewed by external reviewers, and then present it at my proposal meeting. See my tips on acing your proposal meeting here.
Regardless of when your university wants your proposal, this guide will help you make sure you include everything that is required to secure your spot in a doctor of philosophy program.
How to write a PhD Proposal
A typical research proposal includes the following sections…
Here, you introduce the reader to your topic focus. The introduction is an overview of the current state of literature in the area – so it is important that you’ve done lots of research before you even get to this point! See how to read a journal article here.
Typically, the introduction should start very general and open, and slowly become more focused in on your exact research. But what does this mean exactly?
Say that your research aims to look at differences in resting electrical brain activity in healthy people vs. those with chronic pain.
It would be good to first explain what chronic pain is (to give your reader a general idea) along with how many people it affects and how much of a burden to the health care system is it. Basically, you need to highlight how important it is to study it, while being very broad.
Next, it might be good to explain some typical differences that you might see in thinking styles, cognition and sensation that you might find in those with chronic pain vs. those without. This is before even mentioning electrical brain activity.
From here, you want to start getting more specific. It’s time to introduce electrical brain activity (and EEG) and what resting state measurements might tell us about the brain.
Then, discuss the similar research in this area (what other populations show differences in resting brain activity?). It would be good to highlight some strengths and limitations of this literature, to start shedding light on some gaps that your research might help to fill.
After that, be really specific (time to introduce your study). If this is all the information that’s been found before, what are you going to do about it? What things are you planning to research, and how will it give us more (important) understanding about the topic?
It is super important throughout the whole of your introduction to ensure there is a smooth ‘flow’ to your story. Be sure to have opening sentences in your paragraphs (to let the reader know whats coming) and concluding sentences that highlight why that information is important, and what’s coming up next.
I usually like to make a flowchart of the paragraph’s topics to make sure I have a clear outline of where I’m going and which information is needed in each paragraph.
While the next bits of information can also be within the concluding paragraphs of your introduction, my proposal requirements stated that the significance of the research (why its important and its practical benefits) and general research aims should come under their own headings. This is individualised for every discipline though, so make sure that you are including the right subheadings and correct information!
Key points: Think big picture -> my tiny study using one paragraph at a time. Use linking sentences and always highlight how each bit of new information is vital to the current research.
Significance of the research
While you’ve likely introduced briefly in the first paragraph why your research is important from a broad standpoint, it is crucial to highlight its direct benefits and future directions.
For example, you should explain how your research will further understanding in the research world (and help to guide future research in the area) but also illuminate how your results might directly benefit people in other contexts. This might be in clinical practices, environmental standpoints, government aid or even just how the knowledge could improve everyday situations.
Key points: Who/where will your research benefit? (i.e. What’s the point?)
The research aims is a clear, concise paragraph that sums up the information from the introduction into the foundation for your PhD. So, you’ve explained everything you need to, it’s time to tell the reader what you’re actually going to do with it.
In a paragraph (or sometimes a few dot points) demonstrate the aims of your research. With your research, what questions do you aim to have answered?
There is a really careful balance of broad and specific to your study here. You want to list questions/aims that are relevant to the idea introduced in the introduction, while leaving room for exploration at every step of the way!
Key points: What questions am I trying to answer in my PhD?
It’s time to tell the reader what you’re actually planning to do. You’ve figured out your questions, now it’s time to show how you’ll answer them.
For psychology, the typical structure for a research design section includes subheadings of: participants/recruitment, materials/measures, protocol.
Depending on the style of your project, it might be good to break this section up into the number of experiments that you’ll be running. If you’ll be using just one larger experiment (that collects loads of data to analyse in one chunk!) then you can just follow the structure once. Otherwise, it might be good to have multiple participants -> materials -> protocol for each individual experiment.
Each section here is pretty self explanatory. For participants, who are you planning to research and why (include references for why certain inclusion/exclusion criteria exists).
Materials include anything that will be used for the experiment. For psychology, this is typically some psychological assessment batteries (how they work, how they are scored, and their reliability/validity). For cognitive sciences, certain programs, stimuli and tests should be explained.
The protocol is exactly what is sounds like. This is the step-by-step of everything you plan to happen during your experiment, from recruitment of participants to their final honorarium.
Key points: participants, materials and procedure (i.e. who, what, and when).
Within your research design, you should also be letting the reader know how you intend to analyse your data. Once the experiments are complete, and the data is collected, what are you planning to do with it?
This is a chance for you to show off your data skills. Let the reader know what programs you intend to use, the variables you intend to measure, and the statistical models you will implement to analyse what you’ve found.
This is normally the shortest section of the report (although sometimes EEG analysis pipelines can use lots of your word count!).
However, it is important to showcase the methods your are using, reference other literature that has used them before, and highlight why these are the correct analysis tools for your dataset.
Always be explaining why why why throughout your proposal. Every idea, every test, every plan should have a reason why it’s there.
If you introduce an analysis technique, mention why its better than others or reasons why other people have used it before.
Key points: explain you’re working out (and why its the best idea to do it that way).
Research Timeline & Thesis Outline
Toward the end of your proposal document, you need to give the readers an idea of how you plan to separate your time as a PhD student. It should include when you plan to be preparing experiments (ethics approval, method design, piloting), collecting data, analysing, and writing up your findings (either into chapters or publications). It should also include any conferences you plan to attend or overseas travel.You can be ambitious here (its likely that every plan you make will change anyway, so don’t stress about it being final).
After this, it’s also important to give an outline of the chapters you expect to include within your thesis. It’s ages away – so again, doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s just something to base your ideas off of as you go along.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learnt in the first six months of my PhD, its that your research/thesis will not end up looking like your PhD proposal one bit.
Key points: Make a (very) loose plan.
Review your PhD Proposal
Before you submit anything, give it a thorough review and read over. Make sure that you use a critical eye.
It is likely that your discipline will have specific requirements that are necessary in your proposal. Ensure that you are aware of these (even before you start writing!) Some disciplines may have alternate heading structures or some certain pieces of information that must be added. Some disciplines also have specialised formatting rules (for example, APA for psychology) so its important you are adhering to the requirements of this format. This can included being mindful of font, size, title pages, contents page and reference style. See how to make referencing quick and easy here!
Also, think ahead! Think about your supervisors/reviewers and try to anticipate questions/comments your readers may have. Read through your proposal as if you are an outsider and see what questions pop up.
Sometimes, its nice (but sneaky) to leave some tiny loopholes that encourage a specific question (and then you can prepare your answer to it!). This doesn’t mean leaving out huge chunks of information just for the sake of it, but sometimes you can aim to guide your reader to a specific question.
And that’s it! Good luck with your proposal writing!
For some more information on how to write your PhD proposal: see this article.