How to write a good PhD proposal
Want to make sure your research degree starts smoothly? We spoke with 2 current PhD candidates about overcoming this initial hurdle. Here’s their advice for how to write a good PhD proposal.
Writing your research proposal is an integral part of commencing a PhD with many schools and institutes, so it can feel rather intimidating. After all, how you come up with your PhD proposal could be the difference between your supervisor getting on board or giving your project a miss.
Let’s explore how to make a PhD research proposal with current UQ candidates Chelsea Janke and Sarah Kendall.
Look at PhD proposal examples
Nobody’s asking you to reinvent the wheel when it comes to writing your PhD proposal – leave that for your actual thesis. For now, while you’re just working out how to write a PhD proposal, examples are a great starting point.
Chelsea knows this step is easier if you’ve got a friend who is already doing a PhD, but there are other ways to find a good example or template.
“Look at other PhD proposals that have been successful,” she says.
“Ask current students if you can look at theirs.”
“If you don’t know anyone doing their PhD, look online to get an idea of how they should be structured.”
What makes this tricky is that proposals can vary greatly by field and disciplinary norms, so you should check with your proposed supervisor to see if they have a specific format or list of criteria to follow. Part of writing a good PhD proposal is submitting it in a style that's familiar to the people who will read and (hopefully) become excited by it and want to bring you into their research area.
Here are some of the key factors to consider when structuring your proposal:
- meeting the expected word count (this can range from a 1-page maximum to a 3000-word minimum depending on your supervisor and research area)
- making your bibliography as detailed as necessary
- outlining the research questions you’ll be trying to solve/answer
- discussing the impact your research could have on your field
- conducting preliminary analysis of existing research on the topic
- documenting details of the methods and data sources you’ll use in your research
- introducing your supervisor(s) and how their experience relates to your project.
Please note this isn't a universal list of things you need in your PhD research proposal. Depending on your supervisor's requirements, some of these items may be unnecessary or there may be other inclusions not listed here.
Ask your planned supervisor for advice
Alright, here’s the thing. If sending your research proposal is your first point of contact with your prospective supervisor, you’ve jumped the gun a little.
You should have at least one researcher partially on board with your project before delving too deep into your proposal. This ensures you’re not potentially spending time and effort on an idea that no one has any appetite for. Plus, it unlocks a helpful guide who can assist with your proposal.
PhD research isn’t like Shark Tank – you’re allowed to confer with academics and secure their support before you pitch your thesis to them. Discover how to choose the right PhD supervisor for you.
For a time-efficient strategy, Chelsea recommends you approach your potential supervisor(s) and find out if:
- they have time to supervise you
- they have any funds to help pay for your research (even with a stipend scholarship, your research activities may require extra money)
- their research interests align with yours (you’ll ideally discover a mutual ground where you both benefit from the project).
“The best way to approach would be to send an email briefly outlining who you are, your background, and what your research interests are,” says Chelsea.
“Once you’ve spoken to a potential supervisor, then you can start drafting a proposal and you can even ask for their input.”
Chelsea's approach here works well with some academics, but keep in mind that other supervisors will want to see a research proposal straight away. If you're not sure of your proposed supervisor's preferences, you may like to cover both bases with an introductory email that has a draft of your research proposal attached.
Sarah agrees that your prospective supervisor is your most valuable resource for understanding how to write a research proposal for a PhD application.
“My biggest tip for writing a research proposal is to ask your proposed supervisor for help,” says Sarah.
“Or if this isn’t possible, ask another academic who has had experience writing research proposals.”
“They’ll be able to tell you what to include or what you need to improve on.”
Find the “why” and focus on it
Your PhD proposal should include your major question, your planned methods, the sources you’ll cite, and plenty of other nitty gritty details. But perhaps the most important element of your proposal is its purpose – the reason you want to do this research and why the results will be meaningful.
In Sarah’s opinion, highlighting the “why” of your project is vital for your research proposal.
“From my perspective, one of the key aspects of your research proposal is emphasising why your project is important and should be funded,” she says.
“Not only does this impact whether your application is likely to be successful, but it could also impact your likelihood of getting a scholarship.”
Imagine you only had 60 seconds to explain your planned research to someone. Would you prefer they remember how your project could change the world, or the statistical models you’ll be using to do it? (Of course, you’ve got 2000 words rather than 60 seconds, so do make sure to include those little details as well – just put the why stuff first.)
Proofread your proposal, then proof it again
As a PhD candidate, your attention to detail is going to be integral to your success. Start practising it now by making sure your research proposal is perfect.
Chelsea and Sarah both acknowledge that clarity and writing quality should never be overlooked in a PhD proposal. This starts with double-checking that the questions of your thesis are obvious and unambiguous, followed by revising the rest of your proposal.
“Make sure your research questions are really clear,” says Sarah.
“Ensure all the writing is clear and grammatically correct,” adds Chelsea.
“A supervisor is not going to be overly keen on a prospective student if their writing is poor.”
It might sound harsh, but it’s fair. So, proofread your proposal multiple times – including after you get it back from your supervisor with any feedback and notes. When you think you’ve got the final, FINAL draft saved, sleep on it and read it one more time the next morning.
Still feeling a little overwhelmed by your research proposal? Stay motivated with these reasons why a PhD is worth the effort.
Want to learn more from Chelsea and Sarah? Easy:
- Read about Chelsea’s award-winning PhD thesis on keeping crops healthy.
- Read Sarah’s series on becoming a law academic.