The key to a successful PhD is in the planning. A good plan cannot guarantee a successful outcome, but a bad one can make it impossible to achieve success. Therefore, a PhD proposal needs to contain all the elements of a good plan. It needs clarity, focus, smart goals and clear milestones.
The problem with PhD applicants
When PhD applicants come to see me I ask them to tell me what they want to study. They normally talk for about 20 minutes with great enthusiasm and then take a breath. I take the opportunity to interrupt and ask them to now tell me what they want to do in one sentence or question. Almost inevitably, they can’t. So I send them away to come up with their question or sentence embodying the aim of their research. And if they come back again, then we sit down to outline a PhD proposal.
What you need to outline a PhD proposal
Once you have established either a research question or an aim, then you have the first stage of your PhD proposal. The elements that I expect to see in a PhD proposal are
- Research aim/question
- Literature Review
- Study Design and Methodology
- Data collection
- Timescales, Deliverables and Milestones
The secret here is clarity and brevity. I usually suggest to my students that the best model is one of those competition tiebreaker slogans: “Bright Hub is a good source of knowledge because..." (Complete in not more than 15 words). In this context, it becomes “The aim of my PhD is to..." or “My PhD seeks to answer the question ....". Everything else is built on this, so it’s worth trying to get it right: even if it evolves during the life of the project
These are the things that you need to do in order to answer your question or meet your aim. Each objective may form the basis of a chapter in the final thesis. Thus, the first objective is normally concerned with reviewing prior knowledge in the field by reviewing the literature. The next is normally concerned with study design: how are you going to answer the question and why are you going to do it that way? Typically, the third objective is concerned with the data that you need to collect. How are you going to do it and why are you collecting that data? The next objective would then be to analyse your data and obtain your results. The penultimate objective is normally to use the literature and your own results to answer the question or meet your aim. The final objective would then be to discuss what has been learnt.
Your outline needs to define the scope of your literature review. A good starting point is to find literature about the problem, the context in which the problem exists, and the methodological basis. Literature which relates to more than one of these aspects is particularly relevant. Your outline should also suggest which resources you will use to find the literature.
Study Design and Methodology
This section will detail what you are planning to do and why. It will vary enormously according to the domain of your PhD. Science and Engineering PhDs generally use methods and approaches which are well defined. Social Science PhDs have a wider range of methods and approaches to choose from and therefore methodological selection justification and where necessary adaptation are a much bigger part of these PhDs. You will also need to identify any ethical implications in your outline, so approval can be gained before you start your study.
This section will outline the data you are going to collect, how you are going to do it and why. Data comes in many forms, and you need to make sure that you can feasibly collect the data you need within the constraints of time, ethics and your knowledge and abilities
You need to have an idea of the results you are expecting, so that you can be confident that the data you collect will give you the results you need.
What do the results mean? In the context of a social science PhD, this can be one of the richest sections of a PhD and a real chance for you to demonstrate the contribution of your work, and to develop novel methods and approaches.
The conclusions can be summed up as “What have you learnt by the end of the process?" This is not just what have you learnt about the problem under investigation, but what have you learnt about doing research. A PhD is still a learning process, and your contribution to knowledge can be about methods and the research process as well as the problem.
Timescales, Deliverables and Milestones
The final stage to outline a PhD proposal is to define smart goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) with timescales and interim deliverables and milestones. These form the link between your proposal and the study itself.