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What is....the Proposal?
The largest (and most time-consuming) part of earning a PhD is the thesis, or dissertation; this is an original body of work that demonstrates the candidate has the ability to produce high-quality research. Before the thesis comes the proposal, in which you must convince your committee of the merits of your proposed research and your ability to complete it. In this article we'll discuss the PhD research proposal criteria.
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Show Your Background
Your committee will want to see that you have sufficient background in the area to know whether the problem is solvable and have an idea of how you want to attack it. Additionally, most of your committee members probably aren't experts in the subject area and need more information before they'll be able to understand your proposal. It's your job to provide that information.
Thus, your research proposal should always start off with a background review. Don't worry about repeating what people already know; the few people in the room who are familiar with the material will understand that others are not, and even people who work in the same general field may appreciate a refresher. That doesn't mean get carried away, but do cover the basics of anything that will be required to understand the actual proposal, at least at a high level. Professors generally don't mind admitting when they don't know something, as long as you don't look like you expect they should; as long as you hit the highlights, they'll ask if they have questions about the specifics.
The written portion of your proposal should have correct citations and show that you've done a thorough survey of the field to determine what is already known. There's a reasonable chance that your committee (particularly your advisor) will be familiar with at least some of the work cited, so if this isn't accurate they will question your ability to do the work.
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Show Your Relevance
Once you've established the background, it's time to introduce the problem you hope to work on. This is where you define the problem exactly; it needs to be very clear what you plan to do. The research proposal is a contract between you and the committee that says exactly what you need to do in order to be awarded the PhD. By being very clear as to what is expected, you avoid arguments later as to whether you've completed a sufficient amount of work.
After you've introduced the problem, you'll want to talk about why it's important and any plans you have for how to attack it. The PhD dissertation needs to make a significant contribution to the literature; if you show that your work would answer a question that a lot of people are interested in, this is generally sufficient to show significance. Laying out a plan of attack has several purposes: it shows that you have an idea of what you're going to do, and it allows the committee to make suggestions and point out obstacles that you might not have thought of. Part of choosing a good problem is ensuring that it can be completed by a graduate student in a reasonable amount of time; your plan of attack demonstrates this.
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Get to Work!
If you've shown that the problem is significant and feasible to complete in a reasonable timespan, and that you've done your background research and formulated a plan to complete your desired task, your committee should approve the proposal. They make add additional restrictions; for example, the author's committee asked that he publish his work before the defense in order to demonstrate the significant to the people on the committee not familiar with that area. Afterwards, you'll probably need to have everyone sign off on your proposal and turn in a copy to the graduate school.
Congratulations! You are now a PhD candidate!