Writing your PhD proposal: What isn’t in the manual?


Are you considering applying to do a PhD? Katie shares her warts-and-all experience of writing a proposal and enjoying it…By Katie Hall

When I started to think that doing a PhD might be a realistic goal, a friend said to me, with irony, “If you don’t hate your PhD, you haven’t finished it yet”. Writing my proposal was a similar, but microscale, experience.

First of all, applying to do a PhD is a commitment, and I was juggling this alongside course work and paid work commitments. It’s essential to be sure you want to do further study. There are some useful resources about postgraduate research options on the careers and skills website and blog.  Timing is everything and things move very fast at the start of the academic year.

I hope this next point goes without saying, but the best starting point was the guidance on the websites of the institutions where I applied. Once I’d defined exactly what I wanted to research, and where it would be possible to undertake that topic and whether there was a supervisor available, my list narrowed, which was a relief. The most significant element of the application is the project proposal – which needed to clearly explain what and how I planned to research and demonstrate my capability to work at a PhD level.

Each institution had its own requirements, and although similar, the prescribed list of documents was annoyingly different, so every application had to be tailored. For example, one university wanted a 600-word outline of my proposal,  another wanted 4,000-words. Some wanted the personal statement and resume included, some wanted that in separately. All the advice I read said it is vital to submit exactly what is asked for, as well as meeting all the deadlines.

The other complication to this is funding (funding bodies are varied but ‘find a PHD’ is a good starting point to navigate the options). Sometimes funding applications are within the PhD application, sometimes they are a separate exercise asking for similar-but-different components.

The only way I could manage this was to track in a spreadsheet the various institutions, funding providers, submission requirements, deadlines and my progress. This way I was able to manage my time to produce everything (as well as meet all my other commitments). For funding, I realised most of the deadlines come at the end of term one or the beginning of term two; however, for PhD applications that do not require funding, there is a more flexible approach and deadlines range from the end of term two to a rolling basis. I also explored international options, and some academic years (e.g. Australia) are on a different timeframe, so it is critical to check this.

When it came to sitting down to plan and write the proposal, I felt a bit more in my comfort zone. The proposal was not dissimilar to the kind of essay I had written for undergraduate English Literature modules, but demonstrating a more sophisticated and mature style, structure, argument and use of the literature. My Masters had been good preparation for this – despite not having to deliver those kinds of assignments, I’d had to think in a more critical way about primary texts. However, this may not be the case for students from different disciplines. I found my personal tutor was a good source of encouragement and advice on style, and happy to read through early drafts.

The proposal ended up being a combination of:

  • Articulating my question well,
  • Providing a quick sense of relevance (useful for those shorter word counts),
  • Showcasing a broad spectrum of relevant literature as succinctly as possible,
  • Highlighting the originality of the question – whether it fills a gap, takes the next step, intersects two areas in a new way,
  • Positioning the question in a context – for me this was both the context of queer feminist literary theory and also the application in the current climate of feminist activism,
  • A clear description of proposed research methods and, I recommend, project management approaches,
  • Positioning me as the person to write this research, and
  • Sounding confident (but not arrogant), knowledgeable, enthusiastic, willing to learn and work with a supervisor (essentially the proposal is a sales pitch).

What I found most interesting was how much I enjoyed doing the work – reading the literature, writing the proposal. I wanted to do more, and this gave me the reassurance I was on the right track. This was useful for interviews because I enjoyed discussing my ideas, and every conversation has been an evolution of the proposal, which I hope will continue once I start my PhD candidacy.

About the author

Add Comment

By Admin

Your sidebar area is currently empty. Hurry up and add some widgets.