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How to write a Research Proposal

‘To apply for a PhD’ says the University website ‘send us a completed application form…’ – relatively straight forward – ‘…and a copy of your research proposal’ ….a what?

I spent ages turning in circles asking ‘what is a research proposal’? What should it contain? In how much detail? How long should be? Nowhere does anyone ever explain what a research proposal actually is. This post should answer some of your research proposal questions.

If you apply for a PhD in the sciences, the likelihood is that a professor somewhere has identified a problem, and is looking for a research student to follow it up. When you apply for a PhD in the arts and humanities, and quite often in social science, you need to identify the problems yourself and invent your own research question. You need to find your own gap in existing research, and explain how you plan to fill it. A research proposal is a shortish document explaining what your interests and motivations are, the problem you have identified, how you think you will answer your question, and how this will fill the gap in the existing research. However, there is no standard format.

If you still need to identify a research questions, you might be interested in reading this post before reading further here. But once you have an idea of what you want to study, you can begin to look for potential supervisors and institutions. The best thing to do is to check the website of the universality and department you are applying for. Often, they will specify a format for research proposals. Look at several potential department’s requirements as they are unlikely to be the same. If a department you are interested in doesn’t specify a format, at least you will have an idea of what is expected in the field. I considered several university when I applied for a PhD. One specified a research proposal of 5,000 words, another gave a specific structure of headings (General Topic, Key Words, Research Questions, Main Hypothesis, Development, Methods and and Materials, Limitation, Motivation) and a word limit of 3,000 words, and another asked for a one page document. I had to write three different versions of my research proposal, but I found that this was really helpful in identifying the key points of what I wanted to do, and helped to make my question clearer in my own mind, so it wasn’t a waste of time.

Of course, no one expects that at the stage of applying for a PhD you should have all these details and stages carefully worked out, and an answer lined up to write down once you are registered on the programme. The document is helpful to the department you apply to and your future supervisor because it gives them a clue about what you want to do. And it is helpful to you because the act of writing down your ideas can help make them clearer to you. And no one expects you to know for certain whether the idea you describe is too detailed, too broad,… etc to lead to a PhD thesis. Further, there might be a gap in the research for a good reason – perhaps it’s just not interesting, or way too expensive to pursue – or your idea might be great, but just not feasible for one apprentice researcher to carry out by themselves with few resources in three years. But you can get help to make your research proposal better. If you are a taught student, you can ask your current supervisor for help. You could also ask another academic to read over what you write to give you feedback on how to improve it. If you are not currently a taught student, you have noting to lose by contacting your previous supervisor, explaining your position and asking politely for their advice. Always remember to thank someone who has gone out of their way to be helpful to you.

One of the most important things to do however, is to identify for yourself a potential supervisor at the institution you want to apply to. In most cases in the UK system, it is expected that students will approach a supervisor before making a formal application to the PhD programme. Write a short, polite email explaining your interest in reading for a PhD with that supervisor and describe your area of interest. Explain that you have attached your research proposal and, if the supervisor is interested in supervising your project, ask them for feedback on how you can improve your proposal. You might also want to consider asking to meet them face-to-face to discuss your proposal, if they are interested in it. Even if this means making a day trip to another city, it might be worthwhile. The supervisor-student relationship is crucial is a key part of the PhD process in the UK system, and you will need to be able to work with your supervisor for at least three years. Although complete clashes of personality, working style or research methods is uncommon, it can happen, and meeting in person can help you to understand whether the supervisor is right for you.

So, to write a research proposal:

    1) don’t panic
    2) find a research questions (see How to formulate a research question for help)
    3) check the requirements of the institutions you want to apply to
    4) draft a document to these requirements, explaining your interests and motivation, the problem or gap you have identified, and how you plan to solve or fill it
    5) ask you existing supervisor for help to improve your document
    6) send a short, polite email to your potential supervisor and ask for their help in refining your proposal.
    7) When you ask for help, always remember to say thank you

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