The research proposal is probably the most important part of your PhD application (check our my PhD application tips post for information about the other aspects of your application). It showcases your research skills, creativity and originality! Usually between 1500-3000 words, depending on what the requirements are (mine was 2000 words). When you think about it, it’s actually not a lot to showcase your whole research idea so you have to plan it properly. Here are my notes for how to write a research proposal:
The main sections: title, aims, objectives, background, methods, implications, costs, ethics. Structure your proposal into these general sections to ensure you’ve covered all the important parts.
Aims & Objectives
Your aims and objectives should be clear. The Aim is a statement of what you want to find out from your research and the objectives are a few specific statements of the actions/steps you will take to achieve your aim. Objectives should include terms like: to collect, to measure, to map out, to classify, to develop etc.
The background sets the scene. Keep it clear and logical. Start with the context of the topic you are researching. For example, I talked about the burden and prevalence of maternal depression worldwide and then more specifically Bangladesh, why rates are higher linking it to published literature. Then discuss why it’s important to tackle your issue; why maternal depression is a public health issue. Then finally identify the research gap in your topic and explain how your project addresses this gap. This is crucial- make sure your research addresses a clear gap in literature!
Break down the methods to address each objective. This should include the databases you will use for your systematic review, what type of study (RCT, cohort study, case-control, cross-sectional, secondary data analysis, qualitative thematic analysis etc), how you will sample, the outcome & exposure variable and what you will use to measure them etc. This section doesn’t need to be as detailed since your PhD will be to build on this. But it has to give the admission panel confidence that you know what is required and have the knowledge about methodologies appropriate to your aim.
Your research should have clear implications for 1) the literature and future research in your field and 2) the real world: e.g policies and practice, health and healthcare systems, local, national and international guidelines etc. Make sure you are specific about how your research is going to positively impact the knowledge already on this topic and the real world.
Be clear about projected costs. This is especially important for funded studentships. If you mention certain costs in your proposal it means you’re more likely to get the funding during your PhD because you mentioned it previously instead of springing up a random cost. Common costs include resources, fieldwork, equipment.
Ethical consideration is a must in any research proposal!! Even if you have very little ethical risks in your research, there will be something you can mention here. Whether that’s dealing with confidential data, human participants, drugs and treatments. You don’t have to mention specifically how you’re going to obtain ethical approval (if it’s something more complicated) but you need to show you understand what the ethical risks are and that this will be dealt with appropriately.
Your research proposal should be SMART! Specific: be specific and clear with what you are researching, why it’s important and what you will do. Measurable: how are you measuring if you make progress throughout your PhD? Have a criteria of how different progress levels. Achievable: are your aims, objectives and methods achievable with the means and resources available to you? Realistic: is your research realistic in this world and be of real value and are you able to commit to it. Timely: will your research be successfully completed within your (usually 3-4 years) PhD? Indicate how many months it will take you for each of your phases.