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How to write a PhD proposal: a step-by-step guide with examples

How to write a PhD proposal: a step-by-step guide with examples

Getting a PhD place is not easy – which is why your PhD proposal needs to be passionate and convincing. A good research proposal will make a difference between acceptance and rejection, between making your project a reality and going back to the drawing board.

Nearly 200.000 people earn a PhD every year in the U.S. alone, making the field incredibly competitive.

That’s why a PhD research proposal is important: it formally outlines the intended research, including your methodology, timeline, feasibility, and many other factors that need to be taken into consideration.

So, here is what your PhD proposal should contain and how it should look.

How to write a PhD proposal: a step-by-step guide with examples

  1. The first words: your project title
  2. Introduce your research supervisor
  3. Outline the proposed mode of research
  4. List your aims and objectives
  5. Give a brief synopsis (give an example)
  6. Get into details with your background
  7. Expected research contribution: what are you bringing to the table?
  8. Explain your proposed methodology
  9. Provide a detailed work plan
  10. List all your required resources
  11. List all your sources in the bibliography section
  12. The pros and cons of templates for PhD proposals
  13. Conclusion: writing a PhD proposal

Step 1. The first words: your project title

This section is pretty self-explanatory: it’s the first page of your proposal that outlines your project’s name and basic information.

Being the first thing potential supervisors will be looking at, your title page should be engaging and invite them to read on. In other words, your project should have an engaging title that demonstrates the potential of the whole idea in a few words.

However, the title page should go a little further than simply conveying the name of your project – it should some indication of how you’ll approach the problem and what kinds of key questions you’ll be answering.

This page should also contain your information: name, academic title, date of birth, contact, etc.

Step 2. Introduce your research supervisor

Right after your project title, you have to state the name, department, and faculty of your supervisor. Your research supervisor will also cooperate with you to review and improve the proposal before submission to ensure it meets all the criteria of your subject area.

These details are sometimes included right on the first page, with your project title and description.

Step 3. Outline the proposed mode of research

Your mode of research is essentially the type of research you’ll be doing.

Think of it as a format or style of research – field research, written work, data studies – all of these are modes of research. Different sciences, disciplines, and problems require different types of research, so this will usually be closely linked to your field. 

This is usually not needed for research in the sciences field but you should consult with your supervisor to learn how to formulate this section.

It’s also important not to go too deep into describing your research at this point – then you’re going into the methodology. Here, you just need to briefly describe what’s the nature of your proposed project.

Step 4. List your aims and objectives

Now we’re getting into the specifics.

In this sectionof your PhD or thesis proposal, you need to tell the reader exactly what you’re looking to achieve with your research. It should also reference what’s the reason for your application to get a research degree.

Are you testing a theory, addressing some deficiencies in the current research, or something else?

So, start with the big questions your research is trying to answer – those will usually be your aims. Your objectives, on the other hand, are your aims broken down, the specific steps that need to be taken to achieve your intended outcome.

Here is an example:

Aim of the research: Establish whether the occurrence of adolescent violence can be caused by the portrayal of violence in the media.

Objectives:

  • Assess the current relevant literature and establish a potential correlation with incidence and portrayal of violence;
  • Analyze the available quantitative and qualitative data on the origin of violence among adolescents;
  • Compare the effects of media on individuals from a behavioral standpoint to the effects of other factors like family environments and upbringing;
  • Conduct a field study with 112 adolescents […]

As you can see, the aim is a broad statement while objectives are more specific.

Step 5. Give a brief synopsis (give an example)

A synopsis is a brief summary of what your research is about. Think of it as a shortened version of the proposal that needs to explain to the reader what your research project is looking to achieve without getting into too many specifics.

A good test is to simply give someone your synopsis to read without looking at the rest of the proposal. Then simply ask them if they understand what you’re trying to do and what the project is all about.

Here is an example of a brief summary.

My PhD project will be situated within the field that takes a look at all the social impacts of environmental degeneration. The research will focus on how climate change affects inequality, violence, and other social issues that take place in many Eurasian countries. I will specifically address my primary research question towards the case of the Phillippines as a country rich with natural resources that are being exploited by Western countries and which has been experiencing high levels of violence and inequity. It’s an understudied case that has been affecting the entire region […]

Step 6. Get into details with your background

This is where you give the reader the “why” of your research.

What has been happening in your field and what is the current research client on the topic? Provide some context through an existing literature review and introduce the reader to the specific issues you’ll later be addressing.

This does two things:

  • It tells the reader you’re well-versed with the problems in your field;
  • It builds a foundation for the rest of the proposal and draws the reader in.

Make sure you rely on the existing research of notable scholars in your area of research and explain how they have affected the field so far.

Step 7. Expected research contribution: what are you bringing to the table?

In this section, you want to tell the reader not only why there’s a need for your proposed research but how it will affect the entire field of study.

Start by answering the following questions:

  • What is lacking in the current research?
  • How is your research idea innovative and different from what’s already been done?
  • How will it impact the entire discipline?
  • What will be the final outcome of your research?
  • Why are the faculty and supervisor you’ve chosen the perfect options to tackle this question?

The last question is particularly important and it plays a vital part in creating a connection with the reader. It shows that you’re applying at the right place, for the right reasons.

Step 8. Explain your proposed methodology

In the research methodology section, you need to explain the how – what techniques you’ll be using to conduct your research.

Don’t be afraid to go into great detail here: describe what equipment, personnel, and subject you’ll need. Tell the reader how you will collect your data and which theoretical frameworks you’ll be drawing on.

Make sure to explain why these particular research methods are suitable for your project but also cover why some others might not be. This will demonstrate that you took the time to find the perfect solution to carrying out your research.

When writing the methodology section, you should also anticipate any potential issues like time constraints, ethical considerations, personnel challenges, and anything else you might think of. Address these issues and offer potential solutions.

Ultimately, this section should leave the reader with no questions about your research design and data collection. They should have a clear picture of how you’ve thought out the practical aspect of the project and how you plan to tackle everything that goes with it.

Step 9. Provide a detailed work plan

Your work plan is essentially a detailed timeline that shows how you plan to execute your research through the course of your postgraduate studies.

Remember, PhD students can take up to four years to complete their studies so you have to show that you understand the time involved with the project. You need to demonstrate your planning capabilities and give a plan that covers everything with realistic, thought-out deadlines.

It’s a good idea to separate your Goals from your Activities so that the reader can see both what you’re planning to do and the specific activities you’ll be participating in to make everything happen.

You can also provide a detailed plan for year one with more general overviews for later years.

Here is an example of a work plan for the first year.

YearMonthGoalsActivities
11-3Writing the introduction and overall outline Reading relevant literature: Writing the first chapter [approx.7,000 words]
3-8Literature review, analyzing the current field of study- Planning the interviews and questionnairesBeginning the second section (literature review): Writing the first interview questions
8-10Completing Methodology section and confirming all interview questionsFinishing the second section [approx.12,000 words]: Writing all the interview questions and confirming them with the Supervisor
10-12Preparing for fieldwork in NigeriaPlan fieldwork: Apply for research visas for all staff

Step 10. List all your required resources

This is another section where you need to demonstrate just how much thought and planning you’ve put into your PhD application.

In the resources section, your goal should be to list everything you’ll need to make your project a reality: materials, equipment, travel expenses, staff – everything that could be considered a cost or resource.

It should all be boiled down to a single proposed budget.

Resources are often presented in the form of a table to make things easier to track and identify.

ItemQty.CostSubtotalTotal
Project Allowance
Translator3 months$500$1,500
Transportation within state3 months$400$1,200
Interview software1 month$30$30
Recording equipment1$2,400$2,400
Rent (Nigeria)3 months$400$1,200
Groceries (Nigeria)3 months$500$1,500
$8,100
Jet Travel
San Diego – Nigeria (roundtrip) 6$600$3,600$3,600
Total Project Allowance$11,700
Administrative fee$240
Total Resources$11,940

Step 11. List all your sources in the bibliography section

Finally, there is the obligatory Bibliography section where you need to mention all the references you used throughout the proposal.

Where possible, provide links to the publications.

A bibliography section will usually look something like this.

Bibliography

Federici, S. (2012). The Reproduction of Labor Power in the Global Economy and the Unfinished Feminist Revolution (2008). In S. Federici (Ed.). Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle. Oakland: PM Press, pp.91-111.

Virdee, S. (2019). Racialized capitalism: An account of its contested origins and consolidation. The Sociological Review, 67(01), pp.3-27. [Online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026118820293. 

Bhattacharyya, G. (2018). Social Reproduction: Gender, Racism, Nature. In G. Bhattacharyya (ed.). Rethinking Racial Capitalism: Questions of Reproduction for Survival. London: Rowman and Littlefield, pp.39-69. 

The pros and cons of templates for PhD proposals

There are no particularly strict rules when it comes to the format of PhD proposals – your supervisor will be more than capable of guiding you through the process.

Still, since everything is so structured and formal, you might want to use a template to help you get started. Templates can help you stay on track and make sure your proposal follows a certain logic. A lot of proposal software solutions offer templates for different types of proposals, including PhD proposals.

But, should you use a template? Here are some pros and cons to help you make a decision.

The pros:

  • Makes the process quicker
  • Gives you a structure that helps you get started instantly
  • Each section comes with pre-filled examples for inspiration
  • Looks and feels better than your average Word document

The cons:

  • May be limiting if you stick to it too much
  • Might not be perfectly suited to your specific research topic

In our research proposal template, we give you just enough direction to help you follow through but we don’t limit your creativity to a point that you can’t express yourself and all the nuances of your research.

For almost all sections, you get a few useful examples to point you in the right direction. The template provides you with a typical PhD proposal structure that’s perfect for almost all disciplines. It can come in quite handy when you have everything planned out in your head but you’re just having trouble putting it into pen and paper!

Conclusion: writing a PhD proposal

Writing a PhD proposal might be confusing at first: you need to follow a certain logic and share all the required information without going too long or sharing too much about the project.

And, while your supervisor will certainly be there to guide you, the brunt of the work will still fall on your shoulders. That’s why you need to stay informed, do your research, and don’t give up until you feel comfortable with what you’ve created.

If you want to get a head start, you might want to consider our research proposal template. It will offer you a structure to follow and give you an idea on what to write in each section.

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Frequently asked questions about PhD proposals

  • There really isn’t a specific rule when it comes to the length of a PhD proposal. However, it’s generally accepted that it should be between 1,500 and 2,000 words.

    You can’t elaborate on such a serious project in less than 1,200-1,500 words but going over 2,000 is overkill. You’ll lose people’s attention and water down your points.

  • There seems to be some confusion over the terms “dissertation” and “PhD” and how you write proposals for each one. However, “dissertation” is just another name for your PhD research so the proposal for a dissertation would be the same since it’s quite literally the same thing.

  • Yes, as mentioned, you need to demonstrate the feasibility of your project within the given time frame and with the resources you need, including budgets. You don’t need to be 100% exact but you need to have accurate, based estimates for everything.

    More importantly, you need to show that you thought of every little detail.

  • This will change from one institution to another but these things will generally have a big impact on the reviewers:

    • The contribution of the project to the field
    • Design and feasibility of the project
    • The validity of the methodology and objectives
    • The supervisor and their role in the field
Bethany Fagan

Bethany Fagan Senior Manager, Content Marketing at PandaDoc

Bethany is the Senior Manager, Content Marketing at PandaDoc. She has over 10 years in the sales and marketing industry and loves crafting new stories and discovering new content distribution channels. Outside of the office, she spends her time reading, working out at Orangetheory or trying a new Brooklyn brewery with her husband and two French Bulldogs, Tater Tot and Pork Chop.

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