If you are someone who is willing to go for a PhD programme at any university across the UK or any other part of the world, you will most likely be requested to produce a well-thought research proposal or plan as part of your PhD application. This article will help you excel at writing an awesome PhD research proposal by sharing great tips related to its core components.
A PhD research proposal is nothing but an outline of the research study that you propose to undertake during your tenure as a doctoral student and is often used by the potential PhD supervisor at your chosen university to assess the quality and originality of your research idea, your critical thinking skill, your knowledge of the existing literature relevant to your proposed field of study and overall feasibility of the proposed research.
Based on the assessment of the PhD application as well as the research proposal, the university will make a decision as to whether to accept you on to the PhD programme of your interest or not. Hence, it is vital that you establish contact with the potential supervisor beforehand and discuss the content of your PhD proposal in an informal way, so as to get potential supervisor’s constructive feedback on the design, scope and feasibility of the proposed research study with a view to increasing your likelihood of getting admission on to the chosen PhD programme to a great degree.
As you now understand the significance of a PhD research proposal, let us discuss the appropriate way of drafting it in detail.
It is to be noted here that the requirements in relation to the word-count, content and structure of a PhD proposal would normally vary from one university to the other. So, you should ideally consult the chosen university to seek a set of its specific guidelines related to drafting a research proposal. However, you should go with generic guidelines if you fail to obtain any specific ones from the chosen university.
Broadly speaking, a normal PhD proposal’s length would be anywhere between 2500 and 3500 words (or 5 to 6 pages) and its content would follow the below-given structure:
You need to write a title for your PhD research proposal that is easy to understand and can summarise your research work adequately. In order to do so, you could make use of relevant keywords (that best describe your research) in the title.
After you have settled on a research topic, you need to contextualise the research problem that you wish to address during your PhD tenure, using the existing theoretical and/or empirical literature relevant to your field of study.
This section usually starts with an overview of your research area in general. It, then, narrows down its focus and enlarges upon specific part(s) of the general research area discussed previously.
Thereafter, it goes on to mention the research gap that emerges from the critical discussion of relevant literature surrounding the specific part(s) of the general research area. A research gap is nothing but a research problem that has been either ignored completely or addressed inappropriately by the researchers in the past, and forms the basis for a good research question. Please note that one of the important criteria to assess a PhD proposal is its ‘originality’, meaning you should focus on either a research issue that has never been investigated before or a previously-investigated issue by introducing a completely new perspective into it. Hence, you must focus on finding a research gap that reflects originality.
In the end, you should use the research gap to explain why the proposed PhD research is significant to the research community, and highlight the contribution your study is going to make to the existing body of knowledge.
Please ensure that the written content, in this section, establishes the rationale for the proposed PhD research study in a crystal and clear manner, and allows you to move on to draft a good ‘research question’ in the next section smoothly.
3. RESEARCH QUESTION
After you have discussed the background to the research problem in the previous section using important and relevant pieces of literature, you should go about writing down a clear, focused and complex research question.
If written properly, a research question will assist you with the research process, construction of a logical argument, literature review and methodology to a great extent.
In PhD, you should ideally work with one research question and two or three sub-questions.
Let us now take a look at few examples to understand what counts as a clear, focused and complex research question:
Unclear vs Clear Research Question Example
Unclear: Why are social media sites not safe to use?
Clear: How are internet users dealing with privacy issues on popular social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook?
If you look at the unclear research question, you will notice that it does not mention anywhere as to which social media websites are not safe to use and what threats these pose to the users.
However, in case of clear research question, you will see specific websites being named (i.e. Twitter and Facebook), type of threat these sites pose (i.e. privacy issues) and who is being impacted by the threat (i.e. internet users).
So, ensure that your research question is clear and leaves no room for vagueness.
Unfocused vs Focused Research Question Example
Unfocused: What impact does Global Warming have on the environment?
Focused: How are penguins being affected by glacial melting in the Antarctica?
Looking at the unfocused research question, it appears that it is too broad to be addressed by a PhD Thesis. Even a book might not be able to answer the question adequately.
But, the latter research question focuses on specific aspect of Global Warming (i.e. glacial melting), specific group that is getting impacted (i.e. penguins) and a specific place (i.e. Antarctica).
So, make sure that your research question is focused and researchable in the given timeframe.
Very Simple vs Fairly Complex Research Question Example
Very simple: How is diabetes being treated by doctors in the United Kingdom?
Fairly Complex: What are common characteristics of those experiencing diabetes in the United Kingdom, and how can these common features be used to help the medical community prevent the disease?
Apparently, the research question titled ‘very simple’ is something that can be answered in few sentences using information available on the internet. There is hardly any need to carry out detailed investigation in this case.
However, the latter research question is fairly complex and thus calls for thorough investigation to be answered adequately.
Therefore, please ensure that your research question is not so simple that it could be answered with few clicks on the internet. It should rather be a complex question which is, apparently, thought-provoking and requires detailed investigation.
Hopefully, the above-given examples will help you draft a research question that is worth investigating into.
As soon as you have a good research question to proceed with, you should back it up with a thesis statement (i.e. a tentative answer to the research question) that demonstrates the path, you think, your PhD Thesis will most likely follow going forward.
4. RESEARCH METHODOLOGY
Once you have written down your research question, you should move on to describe and justify the research methods (i.e. quantitative or qualitative or both) you plan to make use of, so as to address the question appropriately with a view to filling the gap in literature.
At this stage, you do not need to provide full details, but you should adequately demonstrate that you have given enough thought to how you, as a doctoral student, are going to address the research question in the given timeframe (i.e. 3 years for full-time PhD).
It is to be noted here that one of the reasons as to why many PhD applicants are refused admission is that they fail to give enough information in relation to their chosen research methods, or are unable to justify their choices, or refer to relevant literature inadequately. Hence, it is vital for you to write this section of the proposal meticulously to increase your chance of admission to the chosen PhD programme.
While drafting the ‘research methodology’ section, you should consider answering the following questions adequately:
- What are the steps you intend to take and what are the research methods (i.e. quantitative or qualitative or both) you propose to use so as to address the research question sufficiently?
- What is the rationale for resorting to the proposed research methods, meaning how these methods are going to yield reliable answer to your research question?
- What sources of data (i.e. primary or secondary or both) do you plan to use to gather sufficient volume of information to answer the research question appropriately and is the data easily accessible to you?
- In case you plan to take an experimental approach, what specific hypothesis/hypotheses are you going to use?
- What are the data collection instruments you plan to use in order to gather data to test the hypothesis/hypotheses and/or address the research question (such as surveys or interview questions or case study or focused group or modelling or simulation or text analysis etc.)?
- What are the equipments or software or other materials you need in order to accomplish your PhD research smoothly?
- Have you gained any skill or experience related to the proposed research methods previously?
- Are you required to work with other researchers or organisations to proceed with your PhD research uninterruptedly?
- Are you going to encounter any ethical issue while conducting your PhD research in the foreseeable future? If yes, how are you going to tackle it? Consider issues, including but not limited to confidentiality, privacy and health (mental and physical risks that either you or the target respondents are vulnerable to).
- Is there any major practical/empirical/conceptual/theoretical issue or barrier (e.g. problem with accessing target respondents or funds) that, you reckon, will trouble you during PhD?
- Are you expecting to travel for fieldwork during PhD? If yes, please mention the details as to where you plan to visit and how long you will stay there for.
You must answer the above-given questions appropriately to be able to write this section of the proposal properly.
5. RESEARCH PLAN AND TIMELINE
After you are done with drafting the ‘research methodology’ section, you will need to outline how the entire PhD research work is going to be split and completed over a period of 3 years. In this section, you may include a Gantt Chart to put across your research plan to the potential PhD supervisor in a tabular format, describing all the activities (including any mandatory research training) which you will be involved in from the beginning till the end of your doctoral journey.
This section is used by the potential PhD supervisor to make sure that the proposed research project is not too broad, and is feasible enough to be finished in 3 years’ time.
At the end of the document, you will list all the sources of information you have referred to or cited anywhere in the content of the proposal. Please make sure that you have used enough number of authentic and relevant (both subject-specific and methodological) references while drafting the proposal and that these are listed in line with the referencing style (e.g. Harvard or APA or Chicago style) suggested by the university.
After you have successfully drafted your research proposal, you must proof-read it for errors related to spelling, consistency of style, tone, grammar and referencing style. Last but not the least, run the entire proposal through WriteCheck (except the reference list) to avoid any possibility of plagiarism before you formally submit it to the university along with your PhD application.
Hopefully, the above-given information and tips would help you write an awesome PhD research proposal which, combined with a duly filled-out PhD application form, will speak highly of you as a PhD candidate and result in confirmation of your admission to the chosen university as a doctoral student eventually.