Getting started on your PhD proposal

A couple of people in my wider circle have recently asked me about how to get started on a PhD proposal. This advice is mostly for people in the arts, creative or humanities fields where there is typically a lot of freedom for the student to set their own question and focus, and based on my experience as a supervisor and student in the UK and Australia.

There is no rigid format for a proposal, but those of us inside academia have certain expectations, so it can be daunting for someone who hasn’t even started a PhD yet to work out what to write, let alone how to write a good one! (But that is the point of this whole blog!)

A proposal is often something that students are asked to do by potential supervisors, and will also help shape the university application. Not everyone does the final step of talking to the potential supervisors, but everyone should! It makes a major difference in having a strong application and being sure your supervisor is the right person to support your project.

Having a strong proposal is useful if you are going to be reaching out to potential supervisors, for applying for scholarships, and for having a flying start to your PhD journey!

I am sorry, this is a 2,000 word post–but I wanted to walk you through every step of the way from ‘maybe I could do a PhD on that?’ to having a brilliant proposal! 

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To get started, sit somewhere comfortable where you can focus. Take a pen and paper, or a notes app, or somewhere where you can sketch out ideas. This is pre-work, you can’t move on without doing this work, but it really isn’t ready for public view yet. (If you want more information about ‘pre-work’ see my posts on ‘pre-research‘ and ‘pre-writing‘).

  1. What kind of PhD do you want to do?
    For example, do you want to do a creative project or an analytical project? Do you want to do field work, or read a lot of books? Do you want to work in a team, or on your own? Do you want to study full time or part time?
  2. What methods do you want to use?
    Some PhDs use close analysis, others take a historical approach, some are about interviewing people and others about crunching stats.
    You will have used a lot of different methods already in your undergraduate, Honours and perhaps Masters degrees. Which ones resonated with you?
  3. How do you want to think about your topic?
    No knowledge is just knowledge (as I have discussed before in ‘What is Knowledge and how to I contribute to it’). How are you looking at the information you hope to find out? This is called your  ‘lens’.
    Are you taking a particular philosophical approach? Are you taking a political approach? Are you taking a pragmatic approach? Perhaps your approach is technical, or influenced by a specific artist or school?
    This will be what we call the ‘theory’.
  4. What kinds of answers might you find?
    What happened, why do things happen, who does things…
    Are the answers going to be useful, or interesting, or beautiful, or make money?
    How might it help change things (about what we know, what we value, or what we do)?
    Who might care about those answers? (It’s fine for the person who cares to just be ‘me in my own work’; but it’s also okay for the answer to be ‘these million people in the world’).

There you have some important building blocks.

You’ll notice I haven’t encouraged you to think much about publication, writing the thesis or the content of your PhD. This is because most people already have an idea about writing and content, and those ideas get in the way of making a useful plan.

Take some time–maybe a couple of days but at least a lunch break–to get some critical distance from what you have written down. When you come back to it, does it still look good? Are you excited by it?

You are going to be doing this for at least three years, so if you are bored or exhausted by the idea before you even get started, that’s a big warning sign. Don’t worry though, you haven’t committed to anything yet. Take out another piece of paper and start again from the top.  Almost no-one gets this perfect on their first run through!

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Once you come back to the questions above and you are feeling excited, empowered, and energised by them… then it’s time to start working on the proposal itself. 

Again, get yourself comfortable and in a place you can focus. Most homes and workplaces are full of interruptions, so it can be a challenge to find a time and place to get back into the academic groove.

Most academic writing days start with reading, so it’s a good habit to start now! I recommend these blog posts:

Different approaches work for different people, and you might find a blend of both is helpful!

If you’ve read both of these, it’s probably time for a quick break–have a stretch or a coffee. (Find out more about using the Pomodoro technique to maintain focus here.)

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Now it’s time to have a first go at the proposal. You are looking at producing 1-2 pages of academic prose.

You want to tell the story of your research, explaining what your project is, why you want to do it, and why it is worth doing.

At the same time, you want to answer the typical questions a potential supervisor will have about the project (both the Faff and the Firth method help you do this).

Once you have a rough draft, take another break! Come back to it later, and see if it makes sense to you. Are you still excited by the plan? If not, come back another time and try again.

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Once you are happy with your rough draft, it’s time to think about how to refine it. Refining your draft means shaping it up to fit the supervisor and university you are planning to apply to. That may mean that you end up with a few different versions of the proposal for different audiences, that’s totally normal (it’s like writing a tailored cover letter for every job you apply for!).

If you haven’t already found potential supervisors, this is how to look for one:

  1. Go look at the University you are considering applying to, and find potential supervisors. 
    Some universities will have a search function on a ‘Find a Research Supervisor’ page, like this one at the University of Melbourne. In other places, you just have to browse through, like this link at La Trobe University.  In the UK, it is normal to browse the staff profiles of the department you are interested in, like this link at Oxford Brookes University.
  2. Make sure your potential university actually has experts in your area.
    Students who are supervised by someone who is not an expert in their area have a more difficult time. Having colleagues, both a cohort of students and other staff, in your area makes a PhD more social and rewarding, so it’s worth searching out the best place for your project.
  3. Read the work of your potential supervisors.
    Get their book out the library, or see if they have any articles that are available Open Access. Do they have a social media account, or do they blog or appear in the media?
    Their approach should be one that you can live with, because that’s usually what they know best, think is best, and so will suggest you take on!

Once you have a potential supervisor (or a short list) selected, rewrite your proposal so instead of it explaining what you want to say, it tells the supervisor what they want to know. 

Most supervisors will be asking questions like:

  • Am I the right person to supervise this project? Do I have the expertise, either in content or method, to support a researcher?
  • Is my institution the right place for this project? Do we have the resources (library, collections, equipment, travel grants etc) to help this happen?
  • Does this person know what a PhD is, and how hard they will need to work to get there? Does the person know that they will be doing most of the work themselves (with support from the supervisor)?
  • Am I excited by this project? If I have to talk about it, read drafts etc about it for at least three years, will it be worth it? (This is particularly a question for popular or famous supervisors who have too many students already).

Read through your new draft. Does it explicitly or implicitly answer these questions?

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See if you can get some feedback.

  • Do you have an academic friend who could read it over for you?
  • Go back to that lecturer you liked in your previous studies and email them to ask for advice. If they are in the same city, offer to take them out for a coffee.
  • If you don’t know anyone, get onto Twitter and try putting out a request to @PhDForum or @PhDconnect–they will often retweet, and academics online might offer to read your work and give you feedback. Ask again if it didn’t work after a few days–Twitter is a firehose and things can get lost.

You may get lots of conflicting advice, or advice that isn’t relevant. Don’t dismiss the feedback, though you might not choose to implement all the suggestions. Conflicting or irrelevant feedback might mean that your project is overly complicated, or unusual, or confusing. Think about whether you can streamline the project, or if you can explain it more clearly. Have a go at re-writing the proposal again.

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The last person to ask for feedback is your potential supervisor (!!!!). Turn your proposal into a brief email (again, here’s a link to some advice on successfully emailing academics) addressed to your potential supervisor.

Address them by their full title (“Dear Professor Singh,” or “Dear Dr Xi”).

Explain:
your academic background, and interest in doing a PhD.
your project in 2-3 sentences. Attach your full proposal to the email.
why you want to work with this supervisor at this university.

Say you would like to explore working together, and propose taking them out for coffee (if you live in the same city) or request a short Skype chat (if they live in another city).
List potential dates and times that you are able to make (accomodating time differences if relevant). Ask if any of these work for the supervisor.

Sign off with a professional greeting, and your full name.

The response to this email will tell you a lot about what it’s like to work for this supervisor. If they get back to you within a week or so, are polite and encouraging, are keen to meet and give you useful advice when you do… this is a good sign that they will be an effective supervisor.

Someone who doesn’t get back to you, is rude or distracted, doesn’t really understand your ideas, or who you just don’t get on with, is probably going to be busy, rude or difficult for the rest of the project. This is a two way proposal–you are interviewing them too!

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I know this looks like a lot of drafts, a lot of re-writing, a lot of feedback, a lot of steps. And that is absolutely true. 

A PhD is a long journey, it’s complex, and challenging and difficult. That’s why you want to do one!

It’s a good idea to use the proposal stage to test out whether something with lots of drafts and critical feedback is a project you want to pursue. Perhaps it isn’t, and you can save yourself lots of time, effort and money working that out early on.

But if  PhD is right for you, and the supervisor is right, the university is right, the project is right… then you are set for an academic adventure!

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I hope you found this post useful in thinking about your PhD proposal, going through the intellectual and practical steps, but also discerning whether to do a PhD, what kind, where and with whom. I’ve seen lots of good advice about STEM PhDs and programs in the US, but much less about the less regimented way we write proposals in HASS in Australia and the UK. 

Let me know if you found it helpful, if there’s anything I missed, or if proposals are done differently in your country! And enjoy the journey!

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