How to Write a PhD Research Proposal

Written by kaye jones
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How to Write a PhD Research Proposal
A PhD can take up to eight years to complete. (student image by Vasiliy Koval from

The PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, is among the highest academic qualification in the U.S. education system. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the PhD program consists of advanced study and a dissertation of original research, supervised by faculty members. A research proposal is the first step in the PhD process and, although it may seem daunting, can be easily broken down into manageable tasks.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    Choose a research topic. Start by selecting an area that interests and excites you. To make this easier, select an area in which you have some background knowledge and experience.

  2. 2

    Decide on a research question. You must convince the reader that your question is worthy of study and, above all, will make a new and original contribution to the field. Also, ensure that there is a member of faculty with the experience and subject knowledge to supervise your research.

  3. 3

    Conduct a literature review. Use books and academic journals to get well acquainted with your research area. Find out who the major scholars are in this field, and any research that has already been conducted. This will give you a better idea of where your research will fit.

  4. 4

    Choose your methodology. How will you answer or investigate your research question? Although this is only a proposal, you need to include a basic overview of how you intend to answer your research question. Include a hypothesis for your study, objectives, details of how you will interpret the data and a time frame.

  5. 5

    Write up the proposal. Check the recommended word length for your department; around 1,000 to 1,500 words should be enough. Define your research question, include a rationale, details of your methodology and a full bibliography of the sources used in your literature review.

Tips and warnings

  • Get help and advice from staff and students in your University department who have experience of writing a PhD proposal.
  • Allow plenty of time for completing the proposal.
  • Write down details of every source you read to make compiling your bibliography easier.
  • Avoid ambiguous research questions or those which cannot be suitably answered using your time and resources.

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