Getting it down on paper
Now you have made notes on the context and rationale, considered your methodology and the ethical considerations relevant to your future research, it is time to turn your attention to writing the proposal. It is important to present a proposal designed around a clear focus. For instance, a title such as ‘how does technology affect learners in schools’ is not well defined or clear enough. These decisions may change once you are engaged in your research, but at the proposal stage you will need to outline a plan of research that is new, coherent and manageable.
The first part of your proposal might start by introducing the broad context to the discipline and research space by offering some detail of what other research has found. If you are planning to apply for a Professional Doctorate, it is particularly important that your introduction includes your professional research context. You may also want to highlight key concerns, problems, or issues that will help to underline the importance of research in this field and/or context. You will want to cite others’ work, and use this to outline a research space, or a ‘gap’ that has yet to be investigated.
This ‘gap’ can then be articulated as the basis of the aims, objectives and research questions for your work. Think about articulating the aims of your work as a clear statement that speaks to how you see your research contributing to the existing literature or knowledge about practice, and the objectives as how you will achieve these aims. Craft your research questions so that you can (once the research is underway) provide answers through the findings.
The Literature Review:
Once you have set a broad context for the work, you will want to provide greater detail from the literature. A literature review in a doctoral proposal is of key importance. You will want to include and critically synthesise some of the important literature in the field. A synthesis means that you will bring together similar findings, settings or themes. Avoid writing paragraphs that just describe what other research has found. The academic panel is interested in your work and your position in relation to the existing literature. Your writing should focus on key points supported by relevant citations.
You will want to demonstrate that you have read a sufficient body of work that allows you to propose a methodology that will provide the framework to your research. This will allow you to justify your approach and show how your methodology will allow you to collect and analyse the data in ways that will help you answer your research questions and achieve your research aims. An important part of your methodology will be a section on ethics.
Citations and referencing
Citing others’ work is an important part of your proposal. When you report on others’ findings, ideas or theory you must provide an in-text reference and the full reference in the reference list at the end. Click here for The Open University guide to referencing. Keep any direct quotations to a minimum (the panel is interested in your words not others’).
Before submitting your work
The academic panel will pay close attention to the way in which your proposal is structured and written, so take time to write, reflect on and revise your work before submission.
Conventions in academic English are discipline specific, but there are some points you may want to bear in mind as you read and revise your work. Academic writing is formal (take a look at any journal article) and so you should avoid contractions and colloquialisms. Structure your proposal with headings and subheadings using numbering or emboldening. Structure your writing into paragraphs that each make a distinct point. Write in short clear sentences and check your referencing. You may find it helpful to ask your current or former academic supervisor, a family member, friend or colleague to read your proposal for clarity.
Use these links to read a sample research proposal, and open access guidance from other universities.
- Sample research proposal
- Sydney University/ How to write a research proposal for a strong PhD application
- Find A PhD/How to write a great PhD research proposal
- University of Exeter/ Writing a PhD research proposal: A 6‐step general guide for prospective PhD researchers
If your doctoral proposal is well formulated, you may be invited to discuss it at an interview with an academic panel. Receiving an invitation to interview can induce both excitement and nerves. Excitement because the invitation shows experts in your field see potential in you and your research project, and nerves because the interview is the ‘key’ to moving onto your doctoral programme. You should be able to say more about the topic, literature and approach than is in the (short) proposal.
You should listen carefully to ideas from the interviewers, who may think that the research could be approached in a different way. This kind of discussion is not necessarily negative, it shows they are interested but want to see how you can consider different possibilities and issues. Even if you have previous experience of being either an interviewer or interviewee, an interview for doctoral study may be quite different to interviews that you have experienced previously. Careful preparation will give you the best chance in being successful.
Preparing for your interview
Read your proposal critically and look for potential challenges to your work. What limitations and challenges might the panel want you to discuss? Makes some notes on what these are and how you might respond to them.
Ask a friend, colleague, or family member to read your proposal and ask you some questions. Having to explain your research to someone else will give you opportunities to practise articulating elements of your proposal out loud, which will be useful for the interview.
Create some questions to ask at the interview. The interviewing panel will be pleased to engage with your questions also.
You will have been told who will be at your interview. You may already know some of their work, but check their profile on The Open University, Twitter, or LinkedIN to see their current research work and how their interests connect to yours.
Remember that you have been invited to interview because the academic panel has seen potential in you and your research and they want to find out more. Also remember that an academic discussion can be robust and there is often differing opinions and sometimes disagreement. You will almost certainly be challenged on aspects of your proposal, rather than understand a challenge as a personal attack, see this as the panel being interested in the detail of your work. Your response will show to what extent you can consider different possibilities and issues, which is important in academic work. Make sure you understand the questions they are asking and take your time to answer. Be interested and curious in what the interviewers ask. How does their question or point challenge what you think about your proposal? See the discussion as an opportunity to develop your thoughts about your research and talk about it with experts in the field.
Activity: Now watch this video with supervisors and students talking about the types of questions that often come up in interviews and the experiences of current doctoral students.
As you watch the video make some notes that will help as you prepare for your interview.
What it is like studying at doctoral level?
Watch the video where doctoral students talk about their experiences of their doctoral research
Now you’ve come to the end of this series of articles you should feel more confident about writing your research proposal and preparing for your interview. You can refer back to this information at any point throughout the process to support the planning and writing of your proposal and preparation for your interview.