A good PhD research proposal may be the deciding factor between acceptance and approval into your desired program or finding yourself back at the drawing board. Being accepted for a PhD placement is no easy task, and this is why your PhD proposal needs to truly stand out among a sea of submissions.

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

Here is a closer look at the PhD proposal process and what it should look like.

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Key takeaways

  • A PhD proposal summarizes the research project you intend to conduct as part of your PhD program.
  • These proposals are relatively short (1000-2000 words), and should include all basic information and project goals, including the methodologies/strategies you intend to use in order to accomplish them.
  • Formats are varied. You may be able to create your own formats, but your college or university may have a required document structure that you should follow.

What is a PhD proposal?

In short, a PhD research proposal is a summary of the project you intend to undertake as part of your PhD program.

It should pose a specific question or idea, make a case for the research, and explain the predicted outcomes of that research.

However, while your PhD proposal may predict expected outcomes, it won’t fully answer your questions for the reader.

Your research into the topic will provide that answer.

Usually, a PhD proposal contains the following elements:

  • A clear question that you intend to answer through copious amounts of study and research.
  • Your plan to answer that question, including any methodologies, frameworks, and resources required to adequately find the answer.
  • Why your question or project is significant to your specific field of study.
  • How your proposal impacts, challenges, or improves the existing body of knowledge around a given topic.
  • Why your work is important and why you should be the one to receive this opportunity.

In terms of length when writing a PhD proposal, there isn’t a universal answer.

Some institutions will require a short, concise proposal (1000 words), while others allow for a greater amount of flexibility in the length and format of the proposal.

Fortunately, most institutions will provide some guidelines regarding the format and length of your research proposal, so you should have a strong idea of your requirements before you begin.

Benefits of a strong PhD application

While the most obvious benefit of having a strong PhD application is being accepted to the PhD program, there are other reasons to build the strongest PhD application you can:

Better funding opportunities

Many PhD programs offer funding to students, which can be used to cover tuition fees and may provide a stipend for living expenses.

The stronger your PhD application, the better your chances of being offered funding opportunities that can alleviate financial burdens and allow you to focus on your research.

Enhanced academic credentials

A strong PhD application, particularly in hot-button areas of study, can lead to better career opportunities in academics or across a variety of industries.

Opportunities for networking and research

Research proposals that are very well grounded can provide footholds to networking opportunities and mentorships that would not be otherwise available.

However, creating an incredible proposal isn’t always easy.

In fact, it’s easy to get confused by the process since it requires a lot of procedural information.

Many institutions also place a heavy emphasis on using the correct proposal structure.

That doesn’t have to be the issue, though.

Often, pre-designed templates, like the PandaDoc research proposal templates or PhD proposal templates provided by the institution of your choice, can do most of the heavy lifting for you.

Research Proposal Template

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How to write a Phd proposal with a clear structure

We know that the prospect of writing a research proposal for PhD admission may appear the stuff of nightmares. Even more so if you are new to producing a piece such as this.

But, when you get down to the nitty gritty of what it is, it really isn’t so intimidating. When writing your PhD proposal you need to show that your PhD is worth it, achievable, and that you have the ability to do it at your chosen university.

With all of that in mind, let’s take a closer look at each section of a standard PhD research proposal and the overall structure.

1. Front matter

The first pages of your PhD proposal should outline the basic information about the project. That will include each of the following:

Project title

Typically placed on the first page, your title should be engaging enough to attract attention and clear enough that readers will understand what you’re trying to achieve.

Many proposals also include a secondary headline to further (concisely) clarify the main concept.

Contact information

Depending on the instructions provided by your institution, you may need to include your basic contact information with your proposal.

Some institutions may ask for blind submissions and ask that you omit identifying information, so check the program guidelines to be sure.

Research supervisor

If you already have a supervisor for the project, you’ll typically want to list that information.

Someone who is established in the field can add credibility to your proposal, particularly if your project requires extensive funding or has special considerations.

The guidelines from your PhD program should provide some guidance regarding any other auxiliary information that you should add to the front of your proposal.

Be sure to check all documentation to ensure that everything fits into the designated format.

2. Goals, summaries, and objectives

Once you’ve added the basic information to your document, you’ll need to get into the meat of your PhD proposal.

Depending on your institution, your research proposal may need to follow a rigid format or you may have the flexibility to add various sections and fully explain your concepts.

These sections will primarily be focused on providing high-level overviews surrounding your PhD proposal, including most of the following:

Overall aims, objectives, and goals

In these sections, you’ll need to state plainly what you aim to accomplish with your PhD research.

If awarded funding, what questions will your PHd proposal seek to answer? What theories will you test? What concepts will you explore in your research?

Synopsis

Briefly, how would you summarize your approach to this project?

Provide high-level summaries detailing how you mean to achieve your answers, what the predicted outcomes of your PhD research might be, and precisely what you intend to test or discover.

Significance

Why does your research matter? Unlike with many other forms of academic study (such as a master’s thesis), doctorate-level research often pushes the bounds of specific fields or contributes to a given body of work in some unique way.

How will your proposed PhD research do those things?

Background details

Because PhD research is about pushing boundaries, adding background context regarding the current state of affairs in your given field can help readers better understand why you want to pursue this research and how you arrived at this specific point of interest.

While the information here may (or may not) be broken into multiple sections, the content here is largely designed to provide a high-level overview of your PhD proposal and entice readers to dig deeper into the methodologies and angles of approach in future sections.

Because so much of this section relies on the remainder of your document, it’s sometimes better to skip this portion of the PhD proposal until the later sections are complete and then circle back to it.

That way, you can provide concise summaries that refer to fully defined research methods that you’ve already explained in subsequent areas.

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3. Methodologies and plans

Unlike a master’s thesis or a similar academic document, PhD research is designed to push the boundaries of its subject matter in some way.

The idea behind doctoral research is to expand the field with new insights and viewpoints that are the culmination of years of research and study, combined with a deep familiarity of the topic at hand.

The methodologies and work plans you provide will give advisors some insights into how you plan to conduct your research.

While there is no one right way to develop this section, you’ll need to include a few key details:

Research methods

Are there specific research methods you plan to use to conduct your PhD research?

Are you conducting experiments? Conducting qualitative research? Surveying specific individuals in a given environment?

Benefits and drawbacks of your approach

Regardless of your approach to your topic, there will be upsides and downsides to that methodology.

Explain what you feel are the primary benefits to your research method, where there are potential flaws, and how you plan to account for those shortfalls.

Choice of methodology

Why did you choose a given methodology?

What makes it the best method (or collection of methods) for your research and/or specific use case?

Outline of proposed work

What work is required for PhD research to be complete?

What steps will you need to take in order to capture the appropriate information? How will you complete those steps?

Schedule of work (including timelines/deadlines)

How long will it take you to complete each stage or step of your project?

If your PhDproject will take several years, you may need to provide specifics for more immediate timelines up front while future deadlines may be flexible or estimated.

There is some flexibility here.

It’s unlikely that your advisors will expect you to have the answer for every question regarding how you plan to approach your body of research.

When trying to push the boundaries of any given topic, it’s expected that some things may not go to plan.

However, you should do your best to make timelines and schedules of work that are consistent with your listed goals.

Remember: At the end of your work, you are expected to have a body of original research that is complete within the scope and limitations of the PhD proposal you set forth.

If your advisors feel that your subject matter is too broad, they may encourage you to narrow the scope to better fit into more standardized expectations.

4. Resources and citations

No PhD research proposal is complete without a full list of the resources required to carry out the project and references to help prove and validate the research.

Here’s a closer look at what you’ll need to submit in order to explain costs and prove the validity of your proposal:

Estimated costs and resources

Most doctoral programs offer some level of funding for these projects.

To take advantage of those funds, you’ll need to submit a budget of estimated costs so that assessors can better understand the financial requirements.

This might include equipment, expenses for fieldwork or travel, and more.

Citations and bibliographies

No matter your field of study, doctoral research is built on the data and observations provided by past contributors.

Because of this, you’ll need to provide citations and sources referenced in your PhD proposal documentation.

Particularly when it comes to finances and funding, it might be tempting to downplay the cost of the project.

However, it’s best to provide a realistic estimate in terms of costs so that you have enough of a budget to cover the PhD research.

Adjustments can be made at a later date, particularly as you conduct more research and dive further into the project.

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

Item Qty. Cost Subtotal Total
Project Allowance
Translator 3 months $500 $1,500
Transportation within state 3 months $400 $1,200
Interview software 1 month $30 $30
Recording equipment 1 $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 fees $240
Total Resources $11,940

Using PhD proposal templates

Aside from any guidelines set forth by your institution, 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.

However, since everything is so structured and formal, you might want to use a PhD proposal template to help you get started.

Templates can help you stay on track and make sure your research 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 Phd proposal templates? Here are some pros and cons to help you make a decision.

The pros:

  • Expedites the proposal process.
  • Helps you jumpstart the process with a flexible document structure.
  • Often provides sections with pre-filled examples.
  • Looks better than your average Word document.

The cons:

  • May be limiting if you adhere to it too much.
  • Might not be perfectly suited to your specific field of research, requiring some customization.

In our PhD 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 PhD research proposal 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 onto the page!

Writing a PhD proposal that convinces

Writing and completing 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 when writing a PhD proposal and give you an idea on what to write in each section.

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Research proposals for PhD admission: tips and advice

One of the most important tips for any piece of writing is to know your audience. The staff reviewing your PhD proposal are going through a pile of them, so you need to make sure yours stands within a few seconds of opening it.

The way to do this is by demonstrating value and impact. Academic work is often written for a niche community of researchers in one field, so you need to demonstrate why your work would be valuable to people in that area.

The people reviewing your proposal will likely be in that field. So your proposal should be a little like a sales pitch: you need to write something engaging that identifies with the “customer”, speaks to a problem they’re having, and shows them a solution.

Taking some inspiration from the former University of Chicago professor Larry McEnerney, here are some ideas to keep in mind…

  • It’s common for undergraduates and even seasoned academics to write in a specific format or style to demonstrate their understanding and signal that they’re part of the academic community. Instead, you want to write in such a way that actually engages the reader.
  • You can do that in one of two ways:
    • Identify an uncharted or underexplored knowledge gap in your field, and show the reader you have what it takes to fill in that gap.
    • Challenge the status quo. Set up an idea that people in your field take for granted — maybe a famous study you think is flawed — and outline how your project could knock it down.
  • This is why it’s important to understand who your audience is. You have to write your proposal in such a way that it’s valuable for reviewers. But within your proposal, you should also clearly define which community of researchers your project is for, what problems they have, and how your project is going to solve those problems.
  • Every community of researchers has their own implicit “codes” and “keywords” that signal understanding. These will be very different in each field and could be very subtle. But just by reading successful PhD research proposal examples in your field, you can get a sense of what those are and decide how you want to employ them in your own work.
  • Lots of academic papers follow the “Martini glass model”. You should avoid it.
    • In this model authors start “at the bottom of the glass” with a very narrow introduction to the idea of the paper, then “fill the glass” with a broader and broader version of the same idea.
    • Instead, follow a “problem-solution” framework. Introduce a problem that’s relevant to your intended reader, then offer a solution. Since “solutions” often raise their own new problems or questions, you can rinse and repeat this framework all the way through any section of your proposal.

But how can you apply that advice? If you’re following something like our research proposal template, here are some actionable ways to get started.

  • Your title should be eye-catching, and signal value by speaking to either a gap in the field or challenging the status quo.
  • Your abstract should speak to a problem in the field, one the reviewers will care about, and clearly outline how you’d like to solve it.
  • When you list the objectives of your proposal, each one should repeat this problem-solution framework. You should concretely state what you want to achieve, and what you’re going to do to achieve it.
  • While you survey your chosen field in the literature review, you should refer back to the knowledge gap or status quo that you intend to work on. This reinforces how important your proposed project is, and how valuable it would be to the community if your project was successful.
  • While listing your research limitations, try to hint at new territory researchers might be able to explore off the back of your work. This illustrates that you’re proposing boundary-pushing work that will really advance knowledge of the field.
  • While you’re outlining your funding requirements, be clear about why each line item is necessary and bring it back to the value of your proposed research. Every cent counts!

Frequently asked questions

  • 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 1,000 and 2,000 words.

    It’s difficult to elaborate on such a serious project in less than 1,000 words but going over 2,000 is often 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 exact, but you need to have accurate estimates for everything.

  • 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.

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Originally published June 9, 2023, updated February 6, 2024