When you begin the long journey toward a PhD, you must decide on the pat that your research is going to take. After all, a doctorate is a long and expensive journey to undertake, and starting out without a clear goal is problematic at best and catastrophic at worst. But in laying out your research proposal, it can be helpful to understand some of the basic steps involved in developing the kind of research proposal that will make your target school stand up and take notice. Our basic guide to writing a research proposal will help you to get the process started so you can begin your journey toward your doctoral degree.
Of course, before we begin it’s important to remember that every university has its own PhD proposal guidelines, so be sure to check with the institution you are applying to in order to ensure that you are meeting their specific requirements.
Generally speaking, a PhD research proposal is a document of around 3,000 words that you complete as part of the application process. The proposal lays out the topic you wish to research, explains its originality, and talks about the contribution it will make to the existing research in the field. The university will use the proposal to evaluate your potential as a researcher, so it is important to put your best foot forward in developing your research proposal.
If it isn’t obvious, your first step is to develop an idea of the specific subject of research that you want to explore. Your subject should be one that you are deeply interested in but that is narrow enough to complete the research over the length of your PhD program. Throughout your proposal, be sure that you are expressing your passion for your subject to show your readers that you are the right person to explore and research this topic at the doctoral level.
Remember: Your proposal isn’t a contract, and as you move through your PhD program, you will likely reevaluate, develop, and change your topic in response to what you have researched and learned. Because of this, it’s often better to propose a more expansive and ambitious project that you can later pare down than one that is too conservative and which might put you at a disadvantage compared to your more ambitious peers.
Once you have selected a topic, you should develop a proposal that contains many of the standard parts expected for this type of document:
- Descriptive Title. The title should provide an indication of your topic and your research approach. Be sure to use keywords that allow readers to connect your subject to key concepts and principles to show them how you will approach your subject.
- Research Overview. The meat of the proposal is an overview of the research process, in which you describe the problem, propose key research questions, and explain the methodology you plan to use to investigate those questions. You will also explore and explain the significance of the research for the future of the field.
- Literature Review. Demonstrate to your readers that you have already begun to research the topic and understand what research has been done before and where gaps in the literature lie. The literature review, however, is not as extensive as it will be in your dissertation but instead is meant to provide context for your research questions.
- Methodology. Your methodology section will lay out how you plan to investigate your subject, with a definition of the parameters of research, a rationale for the general approach you will take to research—you will formulate the specific methodology during the dissertation process—and the specific goals of your research. It is helpful to propose a timeline for completion.
- A Reference List. It should go without saying, but documenting your sources is essential at the doctoral level.
By following a standard format and proposing an ambitious project that remains reasonable enough in scope to accomplish during the length of a PhD program, you will stand a good chance of making a big impression with your proposal. Above all, show your readers that you care deeply about your subject and will stop at nothing to bring your research to fruition!