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How to Write a Good PhD Research Proposal

Jan 17, 2023Date Published
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Your PhD research proposal is arguably the most important document in your graduate application. Your school or faculty looks through tons of applications every intake. Knowing how to write a good PhD research proposal is often the key that sets you apart from other candidates. Why Do You Need to Write a PhD Proposal? Your research proposal for PhD essentially helps you make a case to the university about your eligibility as a candidate. A solid research proposal tells your university:

Why Do You Need to Write a PhD Proposal?

Your research proposal for PhD essentially helps you make a case to the university about your eligibility as a candidate. A solid research proposal tells your university:

  • What knowledge your research proposal will contribute to existing literature
  • What problem or research gap your study intends to address and how this is significant
  • That you have a blueprint in place with the relevant knowledge and skills to build your study from
  • The critical, analytical, evaluative, and creative skills that set you apart from other candidates
  • How you will be an asset to the university and its research efforts
  • The resources it may need to allocate to you for your research
  • Which supervisors/experts you may work with

Knowing how to write a good PhD proposal is what vastly improves your chances of getting into a graduate program. Funding for research and limited slots for candidates every intake is very competitive. So what are you bringing to the table that makes you the easy choice for your university? That’s what your PhD research proposal lets the school know.

How to Write a Great Research Proposal for PhD

Before looking at the components of a standard PhD research proposal, here are a couple of tips to remember:

  • A good PhD research proposal is concise, easy to understand, and relevant. Don’t make the mistake of overcrowding your proposal with technical jargon to impress your university. Potential research supervisors are looking for candidates who can naturally show their knowledge, and their critical and analytical skills. Use technical terminology where it’s needed, but make sure your piece is easy to read and understand.
  • Read and write a lot. A thorough, convincing research proposal requires a robust understanding of your subject matter. Chances are your proposal will end up in the hands of experts in the field. They will know better than anyone what contribution your proposal brings to it. To build a convincing proposal, you’ll need to research extensively and write a lot. Revise your drafts until you have what you feel is your best work.
  • Ask for feedback. Ask your undergraduate or master’s professors to review and critique your PhD research proposal. Many of your lecturers will themselves be PhD holders. They have insight, experience, and expertise that you don’t. Seek out advice and feedback from professors in the field on how to write a research proposal for PhD. They might offer perspectives and guide you to resources you didn’t think of or didn’t have access to.
  • Start early. The earlier you apply, the more chances you have of getting in. Many universities accept students on a first-come, first-serve basis. You might have an incredible research proposal but miss the chance because you applied too close to the deadline.

The Components of a PhD Research Proposal

How detailed should a PhD proposal be? Different universities may ask for different things in a research proposal. Most proposals, though, contain some core elements.

1. The Title

Your title reflects the main purpose of your study. What are you planning to investigate? What impact, relationship, correlation, phenomenon, etc., are you looking at? Your title should, at a glance, let the reader know exactly what problem or question you’re seeking to address.
Here’s a tip: write your title after you’ve completed at least the first draft. As you research and write the proposal, your ideas will come together more cohesively. You’re better able to reflect the core of your paper in a title once you’ve gone through the whole process.
Also, your title isn’t set in stone. Your research proposal, objectives, and design may change and evolve throughout your study. It should, though, be an effective launchpad to get you started.

2. Research Background

- also known as the research rationale, background of the study, and so on. In this section, briefly cover the background of your topic in the context of your field of study. Go over what existing and current research says. What recent and/or significant developments stand out in this field? Is there more than one school of thought about findings? How do they differ? How are they similar? And – importantly – what gaps are there in the research? For example, is the data exclusive to a specific geographic location? Is there a lack of recent data? Are there specific, under-explored variables? Why are they significant?

This section lets you show the reader that you’re well-versed and familiar with existing literature. You know the different perspectives, strengths, and limitations of influential literature. This may be where you choose to include a brief literature review (which we’ll cover in a bit). And against this backdrop, you highlight where the gap in current literature is, and why it’s important to close this gap.

3. Research Questions

These should let your readers know exactly what you’re planning to investigate. What is the main problem, question, or gap in research you’re exploring? What are the relationships, correlations, impacts, consequences, etc. you’re trying to find?
Your research questions are guideposts for your research proposal. They help you keep on track and keep your study focused. So, you need to be very precise and clear when crafting them. Don’t include too many variables to explore in a single question. Alternately, don’t have questions that are too broad. You may muddy the focus of your paper as a result.

Here are some things to keep in mind to write good research questions.

  • Avoid yes/no questions
  • Don’t ask leading questions. As you’re conducting scientific research, you must approach it from a neutral standpoint. Assuming answers, or crafting questions with specific answers in mind, compromises the credibility of your paper.
  • Ask “how” and “why” questions. Avoid “what” questions. These yield more analytical discussions, rather than purely descriptive ones.
  • Be realistic about what you’re planning to investigate. You should be able to answer your research questions within the time and resources available.
  • Contribute something original to existing knowledge. Your research proposal will essentially be invalid if you’re investigating questions that already have answers.
  • Make sure your research questions are relevant and contribute something of value. You’ll have a better chance of getting accepted and receiving funding and support for research questions that contribute something significant to existing knowledge.

Remember, you can adapt the questions of previous research in your field or for your topic. What did those questions fail to address or answer? How and why do you aim to answer those questions? For example, a key study may have data exclusively from one part of the world. You may argue that this research doesn’t have external validity or generalisability because it doesn’t factor in geographic, demographic, or sociographic differences. You can then adapt the research questions of previous studies for the context you’re exploring.

4. Literature Review

In this section, you overview existing, significant, and relevant literature. This isn’t as simple as summarising several sources, though. Here, you demonstrate the knowledge from which you built your research proposal. Consult peer-reviewed journals, articles, books, and other credible primary and secondary sources.

Categorise your information critically and analytically. What similarities and differences occur in the data? How has the research evolved over time? Is there any debate within these disciplines about a specific topic or phenomenon? How do studies compare against each other? And, again – what gaps exist in the research? Remember, if there is a thorough comprehensive body of literature covering everything, new studies are redundant.

This is another opportunity to showcase your in-depth knowledge and ability to critically and clearly present your ideas. Don’t try to summarise entire studies and journals. Stick to the salient information and organise it all comprehensively and meaningfully.

In some cases, your literature review may be part of your Research Background. Your university may specifically ask for this. You may also have to restructure these components depending on assigned word limits.

5. Research Methods

- also known as Research Methodology, Study Design, or Project Design. Here, you outline exactly how you’re going to carry out your PhD research proposal.

First, discuss the theoretical framework within which you’re going to analyse your findings. Explain why you’ve chosen this specific framework. What does this promise to contribute to existing knowledge? Are you building on existing studies using this framework? Are you approaching the field/topic/problem with a new or rarely used framework, and why? How does your chosen theoretical framework inform your research methods?
Describe whether you’re replicating or adapting an existing study or designing an original one. Remember to provide a rationale for your choices and how they help best answer your research questions.

Things to keep in mind when designing your research methodology:

  • What data are you going to collect? Is your data going to be quantitative or qualitative? Why is this the right choice for your PhD research proposal?
  • How are you going to collect your data? Are you conducting surveys, interviews, focus groups, content analyses, etc.? Will you use more than one research method, and why? What’s your rationale for your chosen method(s)?
  • How will you find and access your sample? Why did you choose this specific sample?
  • What is your research locale? Why did you choose this locale?
  • What is the duration over which you plan to conduct this study? Why did you choose this duration?
  • How will you analyse your findings? Why did you choose this method?
  • How will you guarantee that your data is reliable and valid?

6. Timeline

Here, you demonstrate that you have a step-by-step plan to conduct your research. Break down each of the steps you must take to complete your study. Set down how long each of these steps will take to complete. Illustrate here that you can complete your study well within the duration of your PhD program. This includes time for reviews and revisions.

Again, remember that this is tentative. Your plans and timelines will evolve and change as your study evolves and changes. This step helps you show admissions officers that you have planned realistically and methodically to conduct the study.

7. Bibliography

Finally, you will need to list out all the sources you consulted to draft your research proposal for PhD. The style of referencing you use may depend on what your university asks for. Be sure to check which style you’re asked for when listing your sources!

Final Thoughts:

We hope this PhD proposal template answers your questions about how to write a good PhD research proposal! Word limits, components, criteria, and so on may vary depending on the program and school you’re applying to. But most research proposals for PhD consist of the above components! Thoroughly read what the program is asking for and stick close to them. Remember, to stand out from the dozens if not hundreds of applications, you need to demonstrate your knowledge, ability, and potential. The foundation on which you build your proposal is what your study can contribute to the literature. Your readers need to be able to tell the value you contribute to academia as well as the university. So, start early. Be concise, clear, and thorough. Since this is the document that’s crucial to getting accepted into your dream PhD program, it’s the one you need to spend the most time and effort on.