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2.6 PhD Proposal Writing Guide and Tips

There is an established format that you need to follow in order to write a successful Ph.D. proposal. It goes without saying that this should be in well structured, grammatical, Standard English, free from errors in punctuation and/or spelling.

The structure of the doctoral proposal needs to give a clear outline of what the thesis will cover and how this will be done. The thesis proposal should not be particularly long, however (usually not more than three thousand words at the most) yet it should say succinctly exactly what you hope to achieve and the methodology you will apply, as well as giving a brief outline of your reading thus far, perhaps with an embryonic bibliography. You will also need to give a timescale of the stages of completion.

The basic structure of the thesis proposal in most cases should be as follows:

  • The Thesis Statement – this is self-explanatory in many ways but it needs to be both deep and specific bearing resonance of knowledge of existing research and defining precisely how you intend to add to it. This should not simply be a sentence or two stating vaguely what your thesis is about but rather a clearly defined and developed statement of the precise aims and objectives of your research. You do not need to have a definitive title at this stage – in fact, most students leave the wording of the title to the end – it is much more important to give a detailed idea of content to achieve success.
  • Introduction – this will be different from introductions to your essays, dissertations etc. as you are introducing a much more extensive thesis. Moreover, you need to bear in mind that at this stage you are proposing ideas so have in mind all the time the need for brevity and originality. Your audience here is a well-read, experienced board of academics so you have to be clear and concise whilst engaging them sufficiently with your Ph.D. proposal to recommend its acceptance. The introduction is your first chance to impress, so make sure you open strongly by developing what you have begun to write about in your thesis statement. As you do not have much space, it is a good idea to focus very much on the central idea which you hope to develop, tempting as it is to digress; save development of other areas for the chapter summaries and instead establish your core thesis effectively.
  • Chapter Summaries – students are often anxious about how many chapters a thesis should contain. Whilst this is a little like asking, ‘How long is a piece of string?’, it is a good ‘rule of thumb’ to take five as an average, not including your introduction and conclusion. This is not definitive, however, as the number of chapters very much depends on the subject and your methodology. However, you should be aware that five would usually be considered to be the minimum number as less would not cover the ground of a Ph.D. thesis sufficiently. Each chapter summary should give a very brief outline of the aspect of the topic to be covered in each. You should also give some indication of the main texts you will be using in each, perhaps quoting a key extract with accompanying analysis, if appropriate to your subject area.
  • Conclusion – like the conclusions with which you are familiar from your academic career thus far, you need to summarise your ideas in your conclusion to your thesis proposal. However, here you need also to give a strong idea of areas of research which you might cover in the future. This might, in fact, be suggested by research in progress and the research committee will recognise this and take it into account when making a decision about your work. Notwithstanding, you would be wise to give an indication in your conclusion that your Ph.D. research is not the end of your work but merely a stage of it. This is important because you will not only be indicating how your own academic research might progress but also making a statement as to how your research proposal is suggesting a topic capable of sustaining not just the current scope of the proposal but also future work. This emphasises the importance of the research and its place within the overall body of knowledge on the subject (see section on conclusions in this guide).
  • Bibliography - it is very important that you supply the research committee with as complete and comprehensive a bibliography for your thesis as you can at this stage. Of course, you will not be expected to supply what will be your ultimate bibliography because you will be adding to it as your thesis progresses. Still, evidence of thorough reading which has helped you identify your research area will help the research committee to make their decision and, it is hoped, decide in your favour so be as comprehensive as you can be.

"Remember throughout the preparation of your Ph.D. research proposal that you need to stress how original and important your research will be and how much it will add to the body of knowledge on the subject: you are aiming to impress!"

Specimen Layout for Thesis Proposal

Title Page
Working title (need not be definitive) plus your name, academic institution, date and degree for which the thesis will ultimately be entered.

Table of Contents
This is self explanatory, just briefly listing contents of proposal with page numbers.

This is a concise summary of the proposal and methodology (no more than one page).

This should give an outline of how you intend the thesis to be established. You should emphasise how you see this contributing uniquely and originally to the body of knowledge on the subject.

Chapter One
A crucial chapter as you should continue smoothly from the introduction, establishing the themes and methodology and opening evidentiary support.

Chapter Two
Focus on one aspect of your thesis, supported by examples of evidence and analysis to be used and developing the grounding of theme and methodology in chapter one.

Chapter Three
Focus on one aspect of your thesis, supported by examples of evidence and analysis to be used. You can be a little more inventive now as your thesis is well founded.

Chapter Four
Focus on one aspect of your thesis, supported by examples of evidence and analysis to be used and begin to turn the thesis towards the conclusion.

Chapter Five
Focus on one aspect of your thesis, supported by examples of evidence and analysis to be used bringing the thesis towards its conclusion at end of this chapter.

Summation of your thesis proposal with indication of future possible research; this is very important to the success of your proposal so make it strong.

Full list of all texts, correctly referenced, consulted during the formulation of your proposal (see the section in this guide on bibliographies and referencing correctly).

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