I want to talk a little bit about research proposals. Whether you’re applying to do a PhD or potentially partway through a master’s project or looking at a research project slightly further ahead than that, a research proposal is something that you’re likely going to have to write somewhere along the way.
Essentially, it is is a document that sets out what you’re trying to achieve with a particular piece of research that you’re suggesting that you want to do.
Now, this is something I’ve only done a couple of times myself so this is in no way a video where I’m professing to be an absolute expert in this subject. But, I wanted to let you in on my process for writing my PhD proposal in case you’re thinking of applying to a PhD program or potentially are part way through a master’s project and have to do a
research proposal as part of that.
So, when I first set out to write my PhD proposal I essentially put it under three different headings. My first one was the Research Objectives, my second one was Background Knowledge and Context and my third section was Methodology. After that was also an Indicative Bibliography which we’ll talk about in a little minute. So, the first section was research objectives and essentially what this is is setting out what I was looking to achieve with the piece of research that I’m currently doing.
In many ways, lots of these things have shifted slightly since I actually started doing the research because, sometimes, you can’t predict what you might find out until you actually start doing the project. But in this section I took a couple of different approaches to laying out what I wanted to achieve at that point in time.
So, although there is definitely an argument that a PhD proposal or research proposal is an opportunity to set out how good you are at writing, I also chose at the very very beginning of mine to set out in bullet points what I was looking to achieve with my PhD project. So, I put down four bullet points which broadly outlined some of the things I was hoping to explore, analyse or find out during my research.
I then followed this up with a whole lot of context which really aimed to suggest why I was the best person to do this research project and why it might be important.
If this is something you’re looking to develop skills doing. But, in using both bullet points and then a more prosaic form, what it meant was that I’m quite aware that people that look through these proposals probably look through an awful lot to try and shortlist down to the people that they might interview and then to whittle it down even further after that process.
So, by using bullet points, essentially what you’re doing is making that person’s job a little bit easier for them. And, as well as having that in-depth prosaic bit where you show off your writing skills and really explain in-depth why you want to find out these things that you’ve bullet pointed. But bullet points just gives them the headlines and just really sets out nice and simply what this research project is aiming to do.
The second section that I laid out was Background Knowledge and Context. So, within this I was aiming to show that I’ve done a little bit of reasoning around this area already and knew what direction the field was going in, as well as what some of the key texts were. But also, in doing that, I’m also setting out, again, why this research project is really really important. So there’s bits where I’m setting out that there is a particular gap in knowledge somewhere that I can fill in but I’m also pointing out where, in the conclusions to an article or a book, another scholar might have suggested that more work needed to be done on a particular subject.
Here, I’m aiming to point out bits of literature that I agree with and will be using to reinforce my argument or to guide to my research but also looking to point out some bits of literature which I slightly contest. In showing that you’re aware of the literature that already exists, this area very much works in tandem with the indicative bibliography which I’ll talk about in a moment.
But while the indicative bibliography tends to be more just a laying out of different references that you might use, this is a chance to really show that you understand those works. Not just that you’ve just managed to do a Google Scholar search and write them out in a list but you’ve read through a few of them and have started to get a grasp on what fields that you’re looking to put your two pence into.
Thirdly was the section Methodology, in which, broadly speaking, I set out how I was going to do my research project. Now this is a really important and part of any proposal because it shows that you’ve not just got a passion for this subject, you’ve not just done a little bit of the reading, but you’ve also got an idea of how you’re going to go about undertaking this research project.
A PhD is three years which in some ways feels like a very long time and in others feels like a very, very short amount of time and so this is an area in which you can set out that you’ve thought about how those three years might play out (or however long your research project is). So, for example, I set out that for the first nine months I probably would mostly be delving into a lot of the existing literature to further iron out where my research was going to sit and how I was going to add new knowledge to the field.
And then there’s about a year in which I said I was going to go and do field work, which has largely corresponded to how I’ve actually done my research project. But it’s worth pointing out that this can change after you start. Finally, any research proposal is going to involve an indicative bibliography. And essentially what this is is a list of references which you might use in your final research project. And this final section very much takes place in conversation with the earlier Background Knowledge and Context section.
The trade-off being that, in the earlier section, you can go into a few sources in real detail and really show that you’ve understood those and maybe criticize them a little bit or maybe suggest how they might shape your research project.
In this section, however, all you’re really able to do is list them. This means that you’re able to include a much wider range of work within your indicative bibliography but that you can’t really go into it in any detail whatsoever other than listing it. It’s worth making sure that, within this section, you’ve both got some really up-to-date sources to show that you’re on top of current research in your field and you can see where it’s heading at the moment and in the near future but also you make sure that you’ve included some of the really foundational texts within your field which might be slightly older but will naturally be just as important to your research project.
In summary, I’d like to say that doing a research proposal, whether you’ve got to do one or whether it’s just as an exercise in order to set your mind in the right direction for undertaking a bit of research, is a really, really useful exercise. It makes you think about exactly how you’re going to do this piece of research as well as to start to work out what direction, what literature you’re going to need to read and what kind of directions your project might go in. But a big thing that I’d always remember is this is the start of a research journey it is not the end of one.
So you’re not expected to make any big conclusions, you don’t necessarily have to have some kind of big hypothesis (although you might have an idea as to why you’re exploring the thing you are and where that research may head).
The proposal, then, is very much an opportunity to lay out exactly how
you think it might happen at this point. It doesn’t mean these things aren’t changeable as your project goes forward, it’s just to prove that you are capable of planning a project to the detail that is required.