Writing your research proposal

So you’ve done your upgrade talk (which hopefully went smoothly after checking out my top tips), but now you have to write it all up and submit a research proposal. Well never fear because I have this covered too!

First off, see if you can get hold of a previous example. At Sheffield we were shown some old proposals (with names removed so we didn’t know who’s they were), and were given a chance to critique them. This was a great way to see what not to do. If you can’t get hold of an old proposal, then ask to be given a list of the sections that you need to include and the points to be covered. The overall structure of all research proposals will be pretty similar but each department will vary in its particular requirements.

To give you an idea, my proposal went something like this:

  1. Introduction – essentially a five-line summary of the literature gap and why this matters. I like to keep intros short and sweet, saving the detail for later on.
  2. Aim – think carefully about the wording of this and try to make it a punchy one-sentence affair. Get your supervisor to help you. If you need to, you could include a few separate research questions. But perhaps put these in a bit later on because having a really clearly stated aim right at the start of the proposal grabs the reader’s attention and ensures that they get your take-home message from the word go.
  3. Background – a condensed lit summary stressing the gap where the project fits.
  4. Justification – describing the context/ ‘big picture’ of why this project matters and expanding on where the project fits within the chain of research.
  5. Research objectives – these are almost like a ‘to do’ list of the steps that will be taken to achieve the project’s aim. Mine were things like ‘literature synthesis’ and ‘produce case study examples’. Five or six is a nice number of objectives, busy but do-able! If you have research questions, then perhaps include them right before the objectives?
  6. Research approach and methods – I took a couple of paragraphs to outline my overall methodology and the philosophical position of my project. Then I went through each research objective in turn and detailed the methods that I’d be using to do it. In this section I also briefly detailed the pilot work that I’d done, under the relevant objectives. This section is likely to be by far the longest and is also the section that will vary most between PhD subjects. So have a good think about how best to communicate what you’re actually going to do and be sure to explain your methods nice and clearly. Diagrams, flow charts and examples from the lit are great additions to this section.
  7. Intended outcomes – a list of the outputs of this research and why they are necessary. This section is really all about stressing your original contribution. Be sure to link back to your main aim.

I covered all that in around 4000 words and followed this up with appendices outlining my research timetable, budget, funding sources and anticipated programme of publication. This might all sound a bit OTT but I definitely think doing a series of tables covering these points fended-off a lot of potentially tricky questions in the viva. For almost any logistics/ practicalities question that I was asked, I could just get out a nicely presented table and it immediately looked like I was on top of things!

Spending a bit of time on things like the appendices, figures and general formatting makes a big difference. The more polished and professional the proposal looks, the easier it is to defend because your viva panel will go into the interview feeling like you’ve put the effort in and are on top of things. As always, the first impressions do matter.

Otherwise, I think the main advice I can give you is to consider the key things that you need to get across. If I were on a viva panel the things that I’d be asking about are: what are you studying (= the aim); why bother (= identifying the lit gap and the broader justification); how are you going to do this (= the objectives and methods); will this work (= methods and any pilot work along with details of the practicalities); and finally, what is the original contribution of this project (= the intended outcomes and publications). Incidentally, I was asked questions on all of these things during my own upgrade viva.

Oh and one last thing, I know you’ve written a lot of essays and reports in order to get to this point in your academic career but never forget to leave yourself time for proof-reading and editing. And make sure to get your supervisor to read through the whole thing and give you lots of comments – it’s what they’re there for!

Now get off the internet and get writing.

p.s. Thanks to a bored PhD student (presumably) who was enabled by memegenerator.net to create this post’s title image. Clearly their research proposal wasn’t going fantastically well at the time, so perhaps they’ll be able to benefit from these tips!

2 thoughts on “Writing your research proposal

  1. Pingback: MPhil to PhD upgrade - Camilla Rootes

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