You love doing research and you're about to apply for a PhD. It's time to write your research proposal!

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Whatever your field, follow these 4 tips to prepare a successful research proposal.

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is an academic document that you submit as part of your PhD application. It outlines your research interests and motivations, the problems you'd like to solve, and how your research will contribute to your field of choice.

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In your research proposal, you need to demonstrate that your research is:

  • original 💡

  • meaningful 🧠

  • doable

Key elements of a research proposal

PhD requirements vary a lot across institutions, fields and countries. The key is to contact your department to learn about the specific requirements for your program.

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Don't worry if you're not far along in the application process or haven't chosen an institution yet. You can start thinking about what to include in your research proposal now.

Universal elements ✅

  1. Introduction: Describe your background, research interests, and motivation.

  2. Literature review: Outline the theoretical context of your research byreferring to relevant literature in the field.

  3. Research problem and objectives: Describe a specific area you aim to study and your research goals.

  4. Methodology: Explain the tools and approaches you'll use to achieve your goals.

  5. Reference list: Cite the literature you've used to write your proposal.

Optional elements❓

  1. Budget: Explain how you'll manage the budget if your research is funded.

  2. Progress plan: Create a provisional research timeline with important milestones.

  3. Ethical considerations: If your research involves working with people, explain how you will maintain ethical standards.

#1: Define the research problem 🧐

A research problem is a one-sentence statement or brief paragraph about a specific unresolved issue that you want to address. It's the backbone of your project. For example:

The relationship between gender, race, and income inequality has yet to be closely studied in the context of the millennial gig economy.

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To make your research problem actionable, you'll need to break it down into research objectives. Research objectives are steps you plan to take to address the research problem. For example:

  1. Analyze how gender influences income levels in the millennial gig economy.

  2. Examine the impact of race on employment conditions in the millennial gig economy.

  3. Study the combined effect of gender and race on income inequality in the millennial gig economy.

Pro tips 🎯

To find a research problem, reflect on areas that genuinely interest you. Pursuing a PhD is a challenging long-term commitment. Choosing a topic you're passionate about will help you enjoy the process, strengthen your application, and find additional motivation during struggles.

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Keep in mind that a research proposal is just a proposal. As you progress through your studies and gain more experience, the direction of your research or your methodology might change slightly. It's common for your final PhD dissertation to differ from your original idea.

#2: Propose an original contribution 💡

When preparing for a PhD, you'll hear a lot about the importance of originality in your research. Reading plenty of academic articles in your field will help you identify a research gap — an area that nobody has studied before and that has a need to be filled.

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The more you read, the better you'll be at formulating informed and meaningful research problems and objectives.

Pro tips 🎯

Create an organized system for the articles you've read with basic information and your summary of content.

It's also a good idea to ask your supervisor for any additional readings you might have missed. If you find academic reading intimidating, follow these reading strategies to help you digest the information more easily.

#3: Use a proper format 📄

A research proposal in an official document, so you need to use an appropriate format. Pay special attention to these details:

  • Word limit: Research proposals are usually 1,000-3,000 words long.

  • Institution guidelines: Stick to the proposed style and structure.

  • Academic English: Write in formal language.

  • Clear structure: Break your document into clear sections for easy reading.

  • Proper citing: Use an approved citation format.

To make sure you've done everything correctly, have your draft proofread by your PhD supervisor.

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Pro tip 🎯

If your field is in STEM and you deal with complicated formulas, consider using a suitable editor like LaTeX. You can also ask your department if there's a specific template available.

#4: Apply for a scholarship 💵

When it comes to funding your research, you have two main options:

  1. Self-funded research

  2. Scholarship Rihanna doing

If you choose to apply for a scholarship, you'll need to submit your research proposal to an admission committee. Some members might not even be from your field, so it's crucial to be able to "sell" your research:

  • Be clear in your writing.

  • Show your enthusiasm.

  • Make your argument accessible to diverse audiences.

Pro tip 🎯

Do additional research on what might be selling points in your field. Look for trends and innovations that can make your research proposal more appealing for funding.

Quiz time!

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Jasmin studies molecular biology and wants to apply for a PhD. What does she need to include in her research proposal to get the funding? Select all that apply:

A. Describe how her research will back up the existing research.

B. Explain her background and passion for molecular biology.

C. Give a list of research objectives.

D. Introduce the basics of molecular biology.


Choose the correct answer(s):

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