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How to write a great research proposal

Continuing our series of postgraduate application tips, in this article Dr Ioannis Pantelidis of the University of Brighton Doctoral College shares his tips on writing a brilliant PhD proposal.

Depending on which university you are applying to, they will have their own ways of asking you to present a proposal, and there are some things you need to do before you reach the stage of having a complete proposal, so we will look at the whole cycle of what you should do before submitting. For example, on the University of Brighton website, you will find a page explaining how to make an online application which also includes some guidance on how to write a research proposal. Dr Pantelidis suggests to look for details on word counts and make sure that you have talked to an academic in the university before submitting the proposal.

The writing process

Have a passion – A deep interest in your subject area should be driving your proposal, whether it is your own individual proposal or a funded project.

Reading and researching – Start by reading as much around the subject area as possible. But once you start reading, Dr Pantelidis suggests that you also write notes at the same time and keep a note of the citations.

Reflecting – Very soon after you have been researching, you need to start reflecting on the thoughts you have gathered and gap you are filling in the research area. Once you have identified this, you can move on to the heavy writing.

Writing – This will be the main bulk of the writing you will do towards your research proposal. Dr Pantelidis reminds that the proposal should tell a story, and you want the reader to understand your thought process and take them on a journey throughout the proposal.

Reflect again – Once you have written the proposal, let it rest for a while and then revisit it, and read it again to see whether what you have written makes sense as a story.

Improve – Your reflection period should then allow you to identify areas in which you can improve, such as checking citations.

Discuss and reflect – Dr Pantelidis notes this as a very crucial point that once you have a very good draft, he suggests that having identified a potential advisor or two – an academic in the department of the university you have targeted – that you send them the draft of your proposal. Give them some time to have a look at it and then discuss how it can be improved further.

Rewrite – From your discussion with your potential supervisor, you will need to rewrite to include suggestions from your supervisor.

From here your proposal will then be submitted to the university. It is worth noting that having a potential supervisor within the university will give you a stronger chance of your proposal being accepted, so it is very much worth reaching out to supervisors before you submit a proposal. This can also give you a better chance of having this person as your supervisor or being part of your supervisory team. You will also need another person within the university to have an interest in your project to ensure you are invited to an interview.

Now that Dr Pantelidis has described the process of putting together your proposal, he provides this checklist of all of the elements that should be included in your project.

Elements of a proposal

Title – This is a key element as it will give an overview of the area of study you are covering with your project. The title should give people an indication on whether this is an area that they will be interested in or not, so it is important to win over potential supervisors at this early point.

Context of the research – You need to include why this is important to you and why you think there is a gap in the current research on this. Dr Pantelidis suggests around 500 words for this.

Literature – This is where you include what you have read and what you have learned from it. You should compare some existing literature from one or two different authors to come up with some insights on what exists in the bigger body of the literature and then making the link to your own project. Dr Pantelidis suggests around 1000 words for this.

Research questions / hypothesis / aim and objectives – Your research questions must be clear. Some proposal formats will prefer a hypothesis, which is more common for STEM subjects, or aims and objectives. Dr Pantelidis notes that writing a research question can feel more intuitive to your research or writing a key aim and what are the objectives in reaching that aim.

Methodology – This is explaining the strategy behind the methods you are using where you showcase that you understand the methodological implications – in other words you are putting together a strategy of how you are going to approach this project. Dr Pantelidis suggest around 500 words for this.

Ethics – Dr Pantelidis notes that it is becoming more common for supervisors to expect something about the ethical considerations of the project, so you need to demonstrate that you are aware of the implications your project has on potential stakeholders. It is possible to do this in 500 words.

Timescale – Here you need to show that you can recognise key milestones in your research and that you have a backup plan in case things go wrong. Dr Pantelidis suggests also using a Gantt chart which shows the breakdown of time needed on each part of the project. Overall you need to show a realistic understanding of how you will effectively carry out your project despite any disruptions to your plans. This can be done in 200 words.

Reference list – You will need to refer to other’s work to make your own arguments. This will vary from project to project, but you will need enough to back up all areas of the argument you are making. This could range from 15 – 40 citations.

Additional tips

University vs department – Dr Pantelidis notes to be careful when you send a proposal to a university versus a department. There may be a generic proposal that the university asks for in terms of structure, however individual departments can require different ways of proposals being submitted, such as the University of Brighton arts and humanities PhD proposals.

PhD depositories – Making use of PhD depositories will give you an idea of what PhD’s generally look like and this can help improve the format of your own work.

Grammar software – Making sure that your grammar and spelling is correct shows that you have taken the care with your work to remove silly mistakes. Software such as Grammarly can help spot these mistakes for you.

Reference software – This can help putting your references together and in the right format easier. You can use advanced features such as in Word to automatically create tables of contents or bibliography lists.

Supervisor – It is risky to submit a proposal to a university without having a connection within the department that you would hope to be your supervisor. Minimise this risk by approaching potential supervisors before submitting your proposal first.

Post interview – After a PhD interview, the supervisory team will look to develop your proposal further for study. If you submit a 1,000-word proposal, they will look to develop this into a 4- or 5,000-word proposal with further research. However, if you initially submit a longer proposal, you can save time and made the decision quicker for the panel.

You can watch Dr Pantelidis’ full video below.

Olivia Weatherill • February 16, 2021

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