How to write a PhD proposal

How to write a PhD proposal

Are you a PhD candidate?

Great — but trust us, we know how much pressure that can entail. One of the most aggravating parts of the doctoral deal can be the PhD proposal. It is understandable to fear that the final dissertation could go wrong and negate your years of hard work and study — all over one research project.

You don’t want that to happen to you — quite understandably. You’ve worked hard to get where you are in your academic pursuits. The thing that stands between you and your ultimate career goals is that pesky dissertation, and the first step in completing it is the PhD proposal. Fortunately, that is something that falls within our area of expertise.

To help you nail down a PhD proposal with awesome results, we have put together this how-to.

In this tutorial, we will help you conquer the following points:

  1. Understanding the purpose of a PhD proposal
  2. Developing a working title
  3. Adding to the discussion
  4. Following the right format
  5. Planning to write your PhD proposal
  6. Writing your PhD proposal
  7. Proofreading for awesome results

But before we get to the specifics, it is better to pose a straightforward question.

How to write a PhD proposal?

This is the most common question among applicants. And of course, the answer depends on why you’ve decided to pursue your degree. If you are serious about your goals, you already have more chances to succeed and write a paper of high quality.

Before you start writing any proposal be it a marketing proposal, PhD proposal or even if you ask yourself what is a technical proposal, you should know that each one has certain limitations and requirements. You’ll want to check the specific guidelines of each department where you intend to apply. In general, we suggest about 2000-3000 words for a PhD proposal.

Remember that in your proposal you will demonstrate to instructors and supervisors how you can gather your thoughts on the subject and make it well structured. Your future success will heavily depend on it.

Let’s get started…

1. Understanding the purpose of a PhD proposal

The purpose of a PhD proposal is to help you research, complete, and deliver your PhD dissertation with greater ease.

Moreover, the PhD proposal helps you sell your primary instructor on your chosen research topic. Nevertheless, your PhD proposal is as much for you as it is your instructor. Done correctly, your proposal will act as a permanent roadmap as you complete your research and write your dissertation.

The basic objectives in creating a PhD proposal are as follows:

Create an outline:

  • Engage your instructor and gather feedback
  • Layout a testable, adaptable model for your dissertation
  • Develop the ideas that will make it into the final product

Understanding such purposes as these will influence the rest of the PhD proposal writing process.

2. Developing a working title

It might sound a bit obvious, but the working title of your PhD proposal has a subtle effect on its success. What you call your project will reflect its PhD statement.

Often your can glean a working title for your PhD proposal from an established thesis statement.

Questions to ask to help you achieve this:

  1. What problem does my dissertation seek to solve?
  2. What might the research prove?
  3. To whom is this information most relevant?

Ideally, every aspect of your PhD proposal will speak directly — and with authority — to your peers working inside your respective field. Choose a title that will grab their attention and shape your research to fit — and to hold your peers’ interest!

3. Adding to the discussion

A PhD proposal should prove to your primary instructor that you are immersed in and fully understand a niche topic in your field of study.

The point is to make a contribution to your field — and that’s one of the main concerns your supervising professor will be looking to see in your PhD proposal.

To achieve this goal, try to remember these objectives of a PhD proposal:

  1. Carefully evaluating existing research
  2. Enriching the broader understandings and implications of your research
  3. Proving the practicality of research outcomes
  4. For specific advice relevant to your chosen doctoral degree program, as always, consult with your instructor.

4. Following the right format

The typical sections of a PhD proposal are:

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Existing literature/significant prior research
  • Thesis or project statement
  • Approach
  • Potential outcomes
  • Limitations
  • Contributions to knowledge
  • Proposed dissertation chapters

5. Planning to write your PhD proposal

Consider the organization of your PhD proposal writing process before you actually start writing.

Don’t let that happen to you. Plan the flow of your writing — and stick to the plan!

The plan to write a PhD proposal is as follows:

  • Roadmap
  • Work out any visual you would like to include
  • Explain your methodology
  • Describe the data to be used
  • Postulate possible outcomes of reviewing the data
  • Introduction
  • Abstract
  • Bibliography

6. Writing your PhD proposal

After creating a PhD proposal plan, the next step is to start the actual writing process.

Consult with your instructor to make sure you use the right tone and writing conventions, but remember, for the most part, PhD proposals adopt a more formal style than other types of writings — even other academic papers you might have written. Make sure you clear this up, before you start writing.

7. Proofreading for awesome results

A PhD proposal calls for grammatical correctness throughout.

The best practices for proofreading a PhD proposal are as follows:

  • Read the proposal over and over to yourself to identify unnatural wording
  • Proof, proof, and proof again — taking a break in between writing and proofing sessions to allow your brain to rest
  • Ask a few friends to read your PhD proposal — the more the merrier!

Accuracy is never more important than in a PhD proposal. Make sure extensive proofing is a part of your plan.

A dissertation proposal and a research proposal: what’s the difference?

Writing a PhD research proposal may be a challenge. But writing a doctoral dissertation is much more difficult. For anyone, there are fewer challenges and fear in the business world than figuring out how to respond to an RFP.

As you’ve discovered, the goal of any research proposal is to present and justify the need to study the problem. Also, you should present ways to conduct the study from a practical point of view. Be aware of specific guidelines for each case.

Stages of writing a dissertation may also develop according to specific rules which are better to learn before you start writing. A dissertation proposal also includes points that you plan to cover and examine during your research. The difference between a research proposal and a dissertation is that a dissertation is not based entirely on research. Instead, it presents new opinions, ideas, theories, and practices.

Are you ready to write a PhD proposal?

We don’t have to tell you just how important a PhD proposal really is — that much, you already know. We hope our tips and free template serve you well as your take the difficult steps to earn your meritorious doctoral degree!

Needless to say, a PhD proposal is one of the most important documents you will ever have to submit.

Do you have any extra tips? Please share them with us, in the comment space below!

Originally published  May 26, 2014, updated June 13, 2018

Eugene Zaremba

Eugene Zaremba Director of Demand Generation at PandaDoc

Eugene works at PandaDoc as the Director of Demand Generation. He is an avid fisherman, taking nearly 20 fishing trips every year.

Related articles

What is PandaDoc?