Applying for a PhD

a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

2 The research proposal

2.2 your proposal: writing it up

The research proposal will need to be written in such a way as to demonstrate your intellectual and communicative competence, your expertise so far in your particular area of study and your potential contribution to knowledge. You will need to prove succinctly that something is genuinely at stake in your enquiry and so justify the academic and financial support and resources you are seeking. It is crucial that your proposal is well written and makes the case clearly and convincingly. Make sure that there no errors in spelling, punctuation or syntax, as you need to convince your reader that you can WRITE. The quality of your writing is almost as important as what you say.

Before you start the research proposal process do seek out and follow the advice of academics from your new or even your old departments.

What: questions and hypotheses

The first stage of writing your proposal involves changing your chosen research topic or idea into a hypothesis or set of hypotheses that can and should be investigated. That is, it will involve turning your research topic into a worthwhile proposition.

Your original idea should now take the form of a question or hypothesis that needs and deserves further study. See the section From topic to question (in The research topic section) for help with this part. You need a clear and precise object of study - modifications can be made in the future. If you feel the need for further guidance you should speak to someone knowledgeable, for instance your prospective supervisor.

You need to have a working title, a potential research problem, questions to be addressed and tentative predictions or explanations to be explored and tested. Your research questions will later have an influence on your choice of material and methodology.

  • what is the overall objective or purpose of your project?
  • can you express your core idea in a working title?
  • have you framed your topic or idea as a problem or question and stated it clearly?
  • what are the sub-questions that also need exploring?
  • have you drawn up any predictions?
  • what tentative explanations do you intend to investigate?
  • have you considered the delimitations of the scope of your study? what are you excluding?
  • what are the distinguishing characteristics of your project? 

Gaps: alluding to the critical literature

A literature review or critical survey is the next important task in developing your proposal, although the reading which underpins it will necessarily have begun well in advance. Why? At this stage you need to frame your proposed thesis topic within the existing body of knowledge in your chosen field in order to demonstrate some originality. This will help demonstrate not only the need for your research but also, perhaps, that it will have the potential to be turned into a publishable piece.

A one-year (two-year part-time) Masters by research will, of course, necessitate a less extensive literature review than a PhD.

Carrying out a literature review gives you the opportunity to summarise the current state of knowledge in your area. You will need to demonstrate an ability to evaluate critically, to integrate and to synthesize briefly but meaningfully the relevant works in your field. You will need to isolate key authors, theories and frameworks to engage with or exploit. This will also help lead to the development of a comprehensive and up-to-date bibliography in the long term. Remember that changes can, and probably will, be made in the future. Try to do your best within the time you have available.

When writing up your Research Proposal, you will not have the space to allude to many of the secondary sources (not to mention the time to read them!): this does not matter - keep them for the dissertation proper. Your aim in the Research Proposal is merely to demonstrate that you know the field and have identified a gap.

It might be useful to think of your literature review in three different phases.

  • Phase one is about generating ideas to lead to the main question of your research. You might even have an essay or a Masters dissertation to draw from here. By identifying gaps and weaknesses in the literature, you will have already isolated a problem and built a platform from which to argue for new theoretical insights or new conceptual frameworks. This phase should have been completed in your transition from topic to question (as covered in The research topic).
  • Phase two is about substantiating ideas. This is the current phase relevant to your research proposal. Adding to the bibliography you originally used to generate ideas, this part of the literature review involves reading of greater depth and coverage. This will help you situate your research in your field and demonstrate the importance, significance and (in the case of a PhD) the originality of it in your research proposal.
    • do you demonstrate your skills and knowledge and your understanding of your field?
    • do you show that your search for secondary materials has been thorough yet focused?
    • do you demonstrate that your materials and sources are authoritative and relevant?
    • How can you most effectively situate or frame your proposed hypotheses in the light of current debates?
    • have you defined the key concepts and terms?
    • have you specified your proposed theoretical perspective?
    • how can you exploit your literature review to justify your new investigation and show its significance?
  • Phase three is the extensive search and critique of the literature for your actual written research. You will undertake this during the PhD proper. For a more detailed discussion see Building a bibliography and The writing process

How: methodology

This third stage of your proposal process is about detailing how you will carry out your research. It is your opportunity to specify what you will be looking at, the way you will engage with the primary material of your project and also how you intend to do this. The methodology section of your proposal will specify in detail the research operations and instruments you intend to employ to address your research question(s) or test your hypotheses. This stage is about using your research proposal to demonstrate feasibility. Of course, if you are proposing a more traditional e.g. literary critical thesis then there may be less to say as regards methodology than if your proposal involves amassing quantitative or qualitative raw data (for example via interviews or questionnaire analysis). When outlining your methodology ask yourself the following questions:

  • have you defined your primary materials?
  • in what ways can your chosen methodology be applied to your proposed materials?
  • can you show that your methods can be used to explore your key problem satisfactorily?
  • how clearly have your methods been explained?
  • have you used appropriate and standard terminology?
  • how will you convince the reader of your research proposal that your approach is the most appropriate one?
  • what are the possible criticisms?
  • does your proposed research process help you examine the relationship between theoretical framework and textual (or other) evidence?
  • what relevant training do you have?
  • have you considered any further training or preparation you might need?

Structure and composition: crucial elements

  • Title: the title should give a clear idea of your topic as it currently stands: you may well change it once engaged in your research
  • Thesis: this first sentence or short paragraph should explain in clear language the aims, focus and argument of your research as well as the field and primary sources it will cover. You will need to explain how any work you have already done in your first degree or Masters makes you particularly well-equipped to work on this topic. For example, you have already studied the Eighteenth Century in two modules and now you want to work on Rousseau; or because your MA in critical Theory has given you a range of conceptual tools with which to analyse your chosen corpus of texts - in particular via feminist and psychoanalytical theory.
  • The body of the proposal: referring methodically to the secondary sources and identified gaps, this section should mention methodology, chapter content and breakdown
  • Conclusions: at this point, they will be provisional but nonetheless help to give a shape to your proposal
  • Your future career: is this Masters a grounding for a PhD? Will this PhD lead you on an academic career?
  • Append a draft bibliography, citing primary and secondary sources
  • Adhere to the word limit
  • Aim for a clear and concise style