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How to Write a PhD Proposal
A PhD proposal is a focused document that introduces your PhD study idea and seeks to
convince the reader that your idea is interesting, original and viable within the allocated study
period and with the resources available. It also provides a preliminary review of the literature and
proposes how the research should be carried out. The purpose of this guide is to assist
prospective PhD students write good quality proposals.
2. Some vital Assumptions
You have the ability to study in your chosen area: This is normally indicated by a previous
lower qualification, such as a Masters in a related discipline. However, this does not mean
that you should already have all the capabilities required as doctoral research is a
You have a viable idea: The purpose of a PhD proposal in to convince other researchers that
you are able to study your chosen topic up to a doctorate level. Fundamentally your idea
should make sense, be of a doctoral standard, have not been done before, and be
achievable with the resources you have available.
Your idea interests you: There is no point just borrowing an idea from a prospective supervisor
that means nothing to you. One of the first questions you should try to answer is, “my PhD
idea is interesting because…” Your answer will not have an authentic ring to it if you
cannot express this from within. Extrinsic motivations like pursuing someone else’s idea
will not get you through (the equivalent of) a three year full-time research project.
You are at a position in your life where obtaining a PhD is achievable: Whilst there is no
age limit, and no background or personal circumstances which disqualify anyone from
attempting a PhD, it should only be attempted by people who are sufficiently committed to
the endeavour to overcome any distractions in impedances.
3. Front Matter
Spend time researching, reflecting on and discussing your PhD topic idea until it crystallises.
This will involve doing a literature search to see what other people have already done in this
area in order to establish the originality of your idea. It is quite normal for an idea to evolve and
change during this process.
You will then be in a position to write your title, aim and main research question. These should
all be synonymous but have a different style:
The title should describe the research that is going to be carried out. It should be less than
about 20 words long and should not be written in the form of a question. It should also
indicate the scope of the study so that it can be assessed as being a single PhD project.
Most titles start off as too broad. For a data analysis PhD, a good way to narrow down a
title is often to consider where you are planning to obtain your data.
The aim should explain what the research study is seeking to achieve. A good word to
start with is “to”.
The main research question is the overall question the study is seeking to answer. Some
studies have several research questions or a main question and sub-questions.
Once you have written these, you can now write your objectives. Objectives state how the aim is
going to be achieved and are more specific. They sometimes follow the process of carrying out
the research (e.g. starting with a literature review then moving on to data collection and analysis)
or they may relate to different facets of your aim. A rule of thumb for the number of objectives is
to write between 3 and 7. In summary, all your front matter should be consistent.
© Peter Samuels, 2017 Page 2
4. Structure and Length
A common structure for a PhD proposal is:
Introduction/background (use one or the other)
Aim, objectives and research question(s)
The literature review is sometimes included in the introduction/background. The research
question(s) is(are) sometimes left out.
Additional optional features are:
Table of contents – this is useful with proposals which have subsections or are over 4
pages long as they can help the reader navigate your document
Significance of the study
Schedule of events
The purpose of a PhD proposal is to convince other academics that your research idea is viable
and worth studying. Overly long proposals with unnecessary descriptive detail are normally less
convincing that well written, focused, short proposals. A suggested optimal length is between
2,000 and 3,000 words, not counting the reference list.
5. Fundamentals of Academic Writing
In order to write a good proposal you will need to have a grasp of the principles of academic
writing. These can be viewed as a
tree (see right). The basics of
academic writing are vocabulary,
spelling, punctuation, grammar
and sentence construction.
There are two free websites which
can help this process:
– a free application for
checking grammar, spelling,
punctuation and sentence
construction. It can be
downloaded in different
The Manchester Academic
Phrasebank (http://www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk/) provides examples of vocabulary
at different stages of research writing. It can help you to vary your language, but make
sure that you understand every word that you use.
© Peter Samuels, 2017 Page 3
6. Follow Academic Writing Style and Use Evidence
Write clearly and concisely (don’t try to impress your reader with long words or complex
sentences). Avoid personal (first person) language by using the passive voice. Introduce
acronyms (abbreviations for noun phrases) before you use them. Don’t use a journalistic style or
colourful metaphors. Avoid rhetoric (asking questions). Avoid subjective judgments without
evidence. When evaluating evidence, be cautious about the conclusions you draw so that they
are consistent with the strength of the evidence you have presented. This is known as hedging.
For more information, see http://www.uefap.com/writing/writfram.htm > Features.
All specific claims you make should be backed up with citations. Do not steal other people’s
work by using their claims or ideas without correctly attributing them (this is known as
plagiarism). Even if you put their claims or ideas in your own words you still need to
acknowledge them. For more information, see http://www.turnitinuk.com/.
7. Learn to Write Good Paragraphs
Learning to write good paragraphs is the most important lesson in academic writing. Academic
paragraphs should be about 125 words long on average (or within a range of about 70 to 180
words); they should start with some kind of topic sentence then develop this topic by providing
explanations and examples, then evaluating the evidence presented, drawing the topic to some
kind of conclusion. Paragraphs should be coherent and contain one main point. For more
information, see http://www.uefap.com/writing/writfram.htm > Paragraphs.
8. Argumentation and Argument Planning
Make sure you have a clear thread of argument running through your proposal. There are two
basic argumentation styles in academic writing:
Single argument/opinion: a claim on a topic is introduced then justified with supporting
evidence. You may consider contrary opinions, but these will be argued against. The
evaluation or conclusion will come down on one side, confirming your original claim in your
topic sentence. It is often used in shallower, descriptive writing.
Discursive: a topic is introduced neutrally without a specific claim, evidence is presented then it
is evaluated, drawing a conclusion about the topic which could not have been expected
from only reading the original topic sentence. It is often used in deeper writing.
Single argument/opinion style is more appropriate for your introduction/background, your
problem statement and
for the first part of your
argumentation is more
appropriate for parts of
your literature review
and methods sections.
Now allocate an
estimated word count to
each section of your
proposal using the 125
words per paragraphs
rule to estimate the
number of paragraphs you need to write. You can
now plan your argument by pretending to give a
presentation using one bullet point per paragraph.
Think about your points: Do they follow a logical sequence? Are they equally important?
2. Problem statement
3. Aim and objectives
4. Literature review
4.2 Theme 1
4.3 Theme 2
4.4 Theme 3
5.1 Data collection
5.2 Data analysis
Black points =
Green = discursive
© Peter Samuels, 2017 Page 4
9. Individual Section Genre
Your title, introduction, problem statement, aim and objectives are the most important parts of
your proposal to write well because they will be read first. Your introduction should establish a
broader context than your proposed topic, drawing your reader towards it by creating interest
and a rationale. It should be descriptive and not contain a deeper argument (that belongs in
your literature review).
9.2 Problem statement
Your problem statement should follow on from the broader territory established in your
introduction and focus upon the actual issue you are proposing to study (known as your niche).
The conclusion at the end of the last paragraph should be equivalent to your aim.
9.3 Literature review
Your literature review should provide your reader with the necessary background to evaluate
your topic. It should be more than a sequence of paragraphs summarising individual academic
sources (known as an annotated bibliography). One approach is to organise your literature into
about three themes which address wider research topics. The sources you identify will not be
equally important/relevant; this should be reflected in how much you write about them.
As your word count is limited, one approach is split your literature review into subsections,
starting with an introductory paragraph then followed by a descriptive paragraph and a
discursive paragraph on each theme. The former should address shallower questions (such as
who, what, where and when); the latter should address deeper questions (such as how and
why). Finally, a discussion subsection can be provided with summarises and combines the
findings from the themes and introduces any research studies specifically relevant to your own.
A rule of thumb is to have about 25 sources in your literature review with about 7 per theme and
only a few on your niche topic. It is also wise not to over-read: Try to obtain about 50 sources
then select half of them. A useful tool for this is Google Scholar (https://scholar.google.com/).
You will need to use critical thinking in choosing your themes and selecting evidence, and critical
analysis in the way that you evaluate it. For more information, see http://www.criticalthinking.net/
and http://www.uefap.com/writing/writfram.htm > Functions > Writing critically. Your conclusions
in each discursive paragraph should be cautious and use hedging (see above).
Some proposals call this section the methodology (the theory of how research should be
undertaken) whilst others call it the methods (the techniques and procedures used to obtain and
analyse research data). The former should not discuss all aspects of methodology but focus
upon key elements such as the strategy (e.g. experiment, survey, case study, ethnography or
big data) along with the associated methods (Saunders et al., 2016).
The methods section is often divided into data collection and data analysis. Your proposed
methods should contain some detail but not too much, backed up with an evidence-based
argument that connects back to your literature review. They should be introduced cautiously in
order to leave room for future changes (based on your PhD literature review). Deeper writing
may include a discussion of the validity and accuracy of your data, the way your proposed
methods are suggested to be applied, and any limitations.
Saunders, M., Lewis, P. and Thornhill, A. (2016) Research Methods for Business Students, 7th
edn. Harlow: Pearson.