PhD Thesis Proposal Checklist

Research proposals are frequently classified as an ‘occluded’ genre of academic writing due to a number of reasons. On the one hand, they have a crucial role in the success or failure of your PhD projects. The inability to outline a realistic and interesting research direction and proposed objectives leads to declined offers and the inability to find quality institutions and supervisors willing to give your project a green light. On the other hand, students rarely have access to real documents they can analyse to actually learn how to master proposal writing. During your Undergraduate and Master’s studies, you could easily ask your tutors to provide sample essays and assignments from past years to see what works for getting high grades and what does not. However, you cannot ask your prospective universities and supervisors to give you access to real proposals composed by other students to perform a similar analysis.

This situation leaves many people in the dark regarding the optimal tactics and strategies for writing a successful research proposal. As opposed to Master’s theses, there are no ‘preparation years’ making you ready and well-informed about the things you need to include in your draft in order to make it more effective. The following proposal checklist was developed by our expert PhD writers to address this gap and help you better understand the expectations of universities and supervisors. With many of our staff members having decades of academic experience in these roles, they shared the things they expected from their own students in the past. The following checklist answers most questions on how to write a phd proposal.

Structural Elements

This part of the checklist may be seen as one of the most ambiguous ones due to the lack of clear definitions of some terms provided by universities and supervisors. On a paper, your thesis proposal must demonstrate the following elements:

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Expert knowledge of all published literature in your field of interest.
A clear awareness of existing research gaps and understudied areas of knowledge.
Unambiguous and SMART research objectives addressing an important problem in your field of interest.
Your capability to develop a solid methodological design that ensures the possibility of addressing your posed research objectives.
The relationship between your formulated PhD topic and the wider field of existing knowledge.

Here are some examples of SMART and methodologically solid PhD objectives:

Wrong: To develop better employee training strategies for the sales department.

Right: To establish an understanding of mentors’ strategies for supervisory tasks in sales employees’ onboarding.

Wrong: To create a better plan for training sales employees in modern companies.

Right: To produce a framework supporting informed decision-making in training new sales department staff members that focuses on the development of consumer needs identification capabilities.

Overall, you have to show that you are a capable researcher interested in a complex problem that no one has thoroughly studied yet. Your project has a realistic timescale in terms of required resources and your ability to complete it, which means that a green light signal from your selected university will instantly set you in motion. Effectively, you are fully aware of the method you will use to achieve your proposed objectives while the completion of your research will create tangible value for all practitioners in your field.

This task seems like a challenging one due to its relative ambiguity. However, we can eat an elephant by dividing it. Let us analyse how every individual section can contribute to this larger goal. This way, we will check out small elements and will enjoy a cumulative effect afterwards.

1. Proposal Title

Your title must match the following checklist criteria:

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Be specific.
Accurately summarise the general idea of your proposal.
Be self-explanatory.
Fully convey the aim of your proposed study.

Here are some examples of potentially problematic titles that should be revised:

Wrong: Rural development policies: Key challenges and facilitators.

Right: Self-governing communities in India: The implications of the panchayats organisation system for realising the Rawlsian concept of reasonable pluralism.

Wrong: University-industry collaboration policies and the problems of university patenting

Right: Academic patenting challenges in Indonesia: An analysis of recent patent litigation disputes.

Any person reading your title must be able to instantly get a general idea of your research focus and understand what you are trying to achieve with your PhD thesis. This process may require multiple revisions. Start with several titles writing them down as a list. Try to eliminate unnecessary words and fit them within a single line of text. Next, show them to several fellow students or some writing experts to check whether your title is easy to read and understand. Look at some examples of other studies in the same field for ideas on its structure and formulation. Ideally, your title should instantly ‘sell’ your project to any supervisor you are going to show it to.

2. Research Summary

Most PhD proposals usually contain some form of a research summary. It follows the title and must address the following goals:

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To explain what your study is about.
To explain why your study is relevant.
To summarise your main points.
To be sufficient for ‘selling’ your project to your prospective supervisor.

This is another sphere that requires maximum attention. Busy academic practitioners may not have the time to read every sentence within your proposal. Place your main focus on your starting sections to ensure that every element they appraise builds tension and increases their willingness to support your project. Keep in mind that this section can be read by many persons some of whom may not possess in-depth knowledge in your field. Hence, it should be sufficiently interesting and easy to read for them to pass your proposal to supervisors who might be interested in your project.

3. Research Significance

To succeed in your application for a PhD project, you need to address the following two objectives:

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To demonstrate how your research will advance the existing understanding of the studied topic.
To show how your findings will close some identified gaps in current knowledge in your sphere of interest.

These two checklist items must be clearly formulated using sign-posting techniques in order to reflect your complete understanding of your project’s research significance. On the one hand, you can focus on your academic contribution and explain how your thesis is developing the ideas of the analysed past studies and addresses their gaps. This should move the ‘line of sight’ in your area of interest further as your project will expand everyone’s awareness of key problems in this sphere. On the other hand, your project can be beneficial to specific population groups or stakeholders. This practical significance should also be mentioned since your thesis should create value for society at large and lead to some practical implications.

4. Problem Statement and Research Purpose

Many students make the mistake of defining their problem and research purpose in vague terms. While building predictions before completing the study may be a challenging task, here are some ideas that can help you make this section substantially more focused:

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Think of the population affected by your analysed problem.
Define how your solution will help them.
Explain the purpose of your study (are you going to solve the problem, expand the knowledge about it or tackle some of its constituent elements).
Link your choice of proposed study participants with the affected population and the analysed problem.

These parts are closely related to the practical significance of your study and explain why your problem is relevant to large population groups and how answering your thesis question may create value for them. This defines your research purpose and your intention to complete your project. You may also refer to your personal knowledge of the field and your interest in the problems explored by your proposed thesis.

5. Preliminary Literature Review

The Literature Review section of your proposal needs to address the following objectives:

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To show your complete awareness of all important studies in your field.
To provide a context for your project by outlining the existing status quo and ‘grey areas’.
To explore the methods used by different researchers to approach problems in your field of interest.
To provide a critical review of existing literature in terms of its limitations, gaps in knowledge, and potential methodological deficiencies.
To develop a clear justification of the significance of the selected topic you are planning to study.

Effectively, the checklist items above imply that the existing research in your field of interest does not fully address your posed objectives or fails to provide clear and unambiguous evidence supporting or discarding some hypotheses and theories. Your project seeks to address this gap in knowledge since you cannot find any similar studies published within the previous 3-5 years, which substantiates the academic novelty of your proposal. The Literature Review section must clearly demonstrate that your thesis will be positioned at the forefront of existing research in your field. However, you are also aware of all prior projects and their deficiencies forming the gaps in knowledge you are planning to close. At the same time, the identified niche must be sufficiently narrow in order for your research question to be manageable and realistic. This informs the second aim of your Literature Review, namely to provide a critical review of successful projects in your field and to base your methodological and theoretical choices on their strengths.

6. Theoretical Framework of the Study

In addition to the awareness of all recent literature in your field, you need to show your in-depth understanding of:

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Key theories formulated by relevant scholars in your subject area.
Your theoretical framework and its constituent elements.
Clear links between your theoretical framework and your hypotheses, questions, and research problems.

This part of your PhD proposal shows your capability to analyse the limitations of existing theories and frameworks and seamlessly integrate them into the theoretical frameworks of your study. This way, you utilise existing instruments in this field to answer your own unique questions.

7. Research Hypotheses and Questions

This section may be viewed as one of the most crucial ones in terms of the quality of your proposal and its perceived significance in the eyes of university supervisors. You must ensure that your research question, problems, and hypotheses are:

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SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound).
Achievable and manageable within the scope of the resources and instruments you possess.
Well-grounded in high-quality peer-reviewed sources.
Researchable and logical.

Many proposals fail since their authors formulate excessively ambitious objectives that cannot be realistically achieved by a single researcher or narrow their objectives down too much. The second option makes them more viable but fails to demonstrate value from their realisation. You need to find a fine balance between these two polar opposites.

The same is true for your research question. Most PhD theses limit their focus to a single one. This may be seen as an optimal solution in terms of balancing the ambitiousness of your project with your real resources and the timeframe of 3-4 years. Make sure that your research question is properly refined using the following checklist:

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Read broadly to pinpoint your problem with a sufficient level of detail.
Analyse the potential implications of your research question.
Ensure that you possess the resources necessary for answering it.
Make sure that this question is answerable in general.

Effectively, your research question needs to answer both ‘what’ and ‘why’ reasons for pursuing your research project objectives. On the one hand, it outlines your ultimate aim and information related to your topic of interest. It refers to your research gap and implies that its answer should close it completely or contribute to the existing body of knowledge on potential ways to close it. On the other hand, its formulation is appraised by supervisors in terms of its feasibility and complexity. In other words, you should be able to answer it through 2-3 years of intense research, which will result in new and relevant findings valuable to practitioners, academic scholars, and society at large.

8. Key Terms and Definitions

Your proposal may be read by people who are not professionals in your field of research. Here are some ideas on how you can improve the readability of your document:

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Provide referenced definitions of all key terms used in your proposal.
Explain any abbreviations you are planning to use.
Show your document to several persons to ensure that it contains all elements necessary for understanding your research purpose and motivations.

9. Research Methods

The Methodology section of your study has to address the following points:

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Demonstrate how your methodological choices help you address your research question and objectives.
Describe specific methodologies (qualitative, quantitative, mixed-method) that will be used for data collection.
Refer to relevant peer-reviewed sources analysed earlier that use similar methodological choices.

This part refers to the ‘outer layers’ of the Research Onion model and explains how your choices of research philosophies, strategies, and approaches line up with your earlier posed question, objectives, and hypotheses. These links should demonstrate your competence and understanding of methodologies used in PhD projects and substantiate your choices in terms of their similarity or difference to other studies analysed in your Literature Review.

10. Data Collection and Analysis Instruments

This part provides a more specific overview of your research methods including:

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The data collection methods you are planning to use (interviews, surveys, observations, etc.).
The project timeline and its intermediary milestones associated with primary or secondary data acquisition.
References to high-quality peer-reviewed literature utilising similar methods.
Links between your preferred instruments and the objectives/question of your study.
Links between your preferred instruments and earlier selected methodologies.
Optimal sampling strategies.

By the end of your Methodology section, your readers must see a clear plan of action based on both the earlier analysed peer-reviewed studies and your superior knowledge of research methodologies and methods. This outlined schedule supports your SMART objectives and explains how you can realistically achieve them within the 3-4 years of your PhD project duration. You should also explain your sampling choices and the reasons why you consider them optimal for ensuring your study’s validity, reliability, and generalisability to the whole studied population. While some of these elements will be revised or refined later when you start collecting real data, you must demonstrate your understanding of all potential implications arising from your methodological choices. For example, you should explain how snowball sampling is associated with potential sampling bias and how you are planning to address this risk to validity and reliability.

11. Planned Resource Allocation

The analysis of required resources forms another integral part of your Methodology section. It addresses a number of checklist items including:

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The description of all required resources (materials, equipment, access to some targeted organisations or population groups, etc.).
Explanation supporting the stated need for these elements.
Confirmation of resource availability.

This section shows your readers that you are fully aware of the challenges you are going to face during the realisation of your future PhD project. It allows you to demonstrate your knowledge and expertise by clearly outlining how these barriers can be addressed and how you can ensure that your journey will be successfully completed no matter what.

12. Data Analysis Plan

In your Methodology, you also need to explain the kinds of instruments you are planning to use for processing your collected information including:

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Statistical instruments such as linear regressions, ANOVA, T-tests, etc.
Software used (SPSS, Excel, etc.).
Specific techniques related to data processing (randomisation, interview transcription methods, colour coding, etc.).
Analysis techniques for qualitative data (thematic analysis, colour coding, narrative analysis, etc.).

This plan continues the analysis of resources you possess and shows your good understanding of potential data processing methods and their strengths and weaknesses.

13. Ethical Considerations and Limitations

All PhD proposals must clearly specify:

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The anticipated difficulties associated with the selected data collection methods.
The provisions implemented to ensure the respondents’ anonymity and confidentiality.
Potential conflicts of interest arising from the questions asked to the participants.
Instruments used to ensure the security of the stored data.
Potential risks and benefits to the participants.

The ethical considerations part of your Methodology must outline how you are planning to avoid or minimise potential conflicts of interest and what measures you will utilise to ensure that the participants will suffer no adverse consequences associated with their inclusion in your study. Some of the best practices in this field include the use of informed consent forms and other instruments ensuring full awareness of the respondents/interviewees about the aims and objectives of your project as well as their right to quit it at any stage preceding data analysis. Additionally, you may discuss cybersecurity measures such as using password-protected devices for storing and processing sensitive information or randomisation and anonymisation techniques used to minimise the possibility of identity disclosure.

Stylistic Elements

The following checklist includes the items referring to the style of your PhD proposal:

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Provide a list of detailed references and a bibliography supporting your proposal.
Use academic writing style and refer to yourself in the third person.
Use future tenses to describe your planned research project.
Provide a timetable of the activities you will perform within the following years if your PhD proposal gets confirmed.
Proofread and edit your proposal to avoid any typos or grammatical and stylistic mistakes.

All PhD proposals have to follow a strict academic writing style referring to the author in third person and using future tenses to describe the actions you are planning to take. Additionally, you need to include a sample timetable outlining all your research activities. If English is your second language, you may need to take some additional lessons in academic writing or use professional proofreading and editing services to achieve a superior quality of your draft.

University Requirements

Many PhD students are fascinated by the opportunity to submit their proposals to multiple universities simultaneously. This significantly reduces their risks of failure and allows them to expand their choice of supervisors and programmes. However, the following checkpoints need to be observed in order to minimise potential problems associated with this approach:

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Appropriate citation style.
Recommended font sizes, margins, etc.
Specified word count and section names.
Proper use of attachments and appendices.

While PhD proposal requirements may be deemed flexible, strictly observing the guidelines of a particular university may be extremely beneficial. This way, you demonstrate your genuine interest in their offering and your willingness to strictly follow their suggestions. Otherwise, you may create an impression of a person simply sending the same proposal template to your ‘mailing list’, which may not be a good start for productive future cooperation.