Writing a PhD research Proposal
School of Languages, Literacies & Translation, USM Friday, 25 July 2014
Dr. Omer Mahfoodh
Based on a talk to lecturers from
Rajamangala University, Thailand
2. Research proposal: Introduction
3. Process of developing a proposal
4. Components of a PhD research proposal
5. Introduction Chapter
6. Literature Review Chapter
7. Methodology Chapter
8. Common mistakes in proposal writing
Academic life in higher education is a complex
process of adaptation to new community in which
the central skills which can help students to undergo
a successful adaptation are writing and reading.
Reading and writing, which are grouped under
academic literacy practices, in any discipline in
higher education comprises the essential processes
through which students learn and develop their
To understand students’ learning in higher
education, we have to take into account the
importance of cultural and contextual components
of writing and reading practices in shaping the
development and the experience of students in
Based on our recognition of the importance of the
essential skills of writing and reading for
postgraduate students, it should be clearly
understood that writing in higher education is not a
set of rules that should be followed strictly.
Rather, writing in higher education is merely a set of
These conventions are varied and they are practiced
and learnt implicitly. Identical conventions in two
contexts are hardly to be found.
Graduate students in any discipline have to be
involved in various genres of writing.
These written genres may include research proposal,
thesis, research article, reports and grant proposals.
All of these academic practices depend on the
command of writing and reading skills.
The guidelines given in my presentation should be
considered as suggestions.
They are intended to help you to know about the
components of a research proposal.
This short guide may assist you to write a good
research proposal and may help you to think about
your proposed PhD/M.A/M.Sc research in a clear,
structured and meaningful way.
I would like to stress that my presentation is only a
general guide and it does not guarantee
acceptance onto a postgraduate program and your
supervisors may have other views and ideas.
Acceptance of a PhD student onto a research
program is affected by many factors such as:
1. the nature of your proposed research,
2. the quality of your ideas,
3. your ability to commit to an intensive period of
4. the effectiveness of your research proposal in
communicating your ideas,
5. the “match” between the proposed research and
the potential supervisor and
6. the capacity of the research department.
In the research world, the research proposal is
considered to be one of the central features.
Proposal writing is important to your pursuit of a
The proposal is, in effect, an intellectual scholastic
contract between you and your committee or
It specifies what you will do, how you will do it, and
how you will interpret the results.
When a postgraduate/graduate student applies to
join a Ph.D, M.A or M.Sc, she/he needs to include a
research proposal which is not lengthy. It is rather
short and may not exceed 20 pages.
After getting the admission and registration, the
student also needs to produce a research proposal
which may include three chapters: Introduction
chapter, Literature Review chapter, and Methodology
The length of these chapters may be 60-180 pages;
variations exist from one context to another.
Because our focus is on “Research Proposal”, we
need to define the two key words: research and
Meanings in the Oxford online dictionary
Research means “the systematic investigation into
and study of materials and sources in order to
establish facts and reach new conclusions”.
Proposal means “a plan or suggestion, especially a
formal or written one, put forward for consideration
The word ‘research’ has been widely used in everyday
It is used to describe a variety of activities such as
finding a piece of information or taking notes and then
writing a research paper.
It may refer to the act of informing oneself about what
one does not know, perhaps by searching
unsystematically through available sources to locate
few small bits of information.
Although these activities has been called research,
accurately they have other names: information
gathering, library skills, and documentation.
Definitions of research and proposal
Research is a systematic process of collecting
data, analyzing, and interpreting them in order to
increase our understanding of a phenomenon
about which we are interested or concerned
(Leedy & Ormrod, 2013).
A research proposal is a written report presenting
the plan and underlying rationale of a future study
(Gravetter & Forzano, 2011).
Typically, the presentation and approval of a formal
proposal is required before a piece of research can
This applies to the graduate student in a university,
for whom the approval of a research proposal is
required in order to proceed with the research and
It applies also to the application for funds to support
research, where the proposal is the vehicle by which
the proposed research is assessed, and decisions
are made about its funding.
The following diagram shows my own
conceptualisation of writing a PhD research
It may be applied to postgraduate students working
on the first chapters before doing a proposal
It may be important to mention that developing a
research proposal is a cyclic process which is a
complex process and affected by various factors in
the context: latest research, supervisor, discipline
requirements and university requirements.
theses, chapters in
Choosing an area of research (Field)
Choosing a topic and reformulating a
Reformulating the research objectives
Choosing methods of data collection
Background: review of studies
Complete proposal: three chapters
(Introduction, Literature review and Methodology)
Components of a PhD proposal
1. Title page
3. Table of contents
Title page includes title of the research, your name,
and your university
A working title of your proposed research; this may
not be the finalized title of your research project, but
must show that you have already formulated what
you are planning to achieve or carry out.
It should be concise and descriptive.
Often titles are stated in terms of a functional
relationship, because such titles may clearly
indicate the independent and dependent variables.
It is preferred that you give an informative but catchy
An effective title not only attracts the reader's
interest, but also creates a positive attitude towards
A good title should orient your readers to the topic
you will research.
A good title should iindicate the type of study you will
A brief overview of the general area of study
(approximately 300 words) summarizing what? why
and how? you are proposing to undertake within the
It is a brief summary that should focus concisely on
the research objectives, the rationale for the study,
the hypothesis (if any), the method and the main
Descriptions of the method may include the design,
procedures, the sample and any instruments that
will be used.
Proposal: Thematic Structure of the Main Part
Introductory Chapter: Thematic Structure
Background: Field of study
Statement of the problem
Research objectives/ questions/hypotheses
Limitations of the study
Significance of the study
Definition of key terms
Literature Review Chapter: Thematic Structure
Related studies: Critical review
of previous studies
Methodology Chapter: Thematic Structure
Type of the research design (Quantitative,
Qualitative, or Mixed method)
Respondents/participants: Sampling procedures
Data collection: instruments and
methods of collecting data
Data analysis: Procedures/steps of analysis
Ethical considerations: Permissions to
conduct the research
While references refer to all sources you referred and
cited in your proposal, bibliography includes all sources
you referred to but not necessarily cited in your
It should be written based on the style recommended by
Most common styles are APA, MLA and Harvard
It can include a copy of the questionnaire, interview
objectives or some other documents readers may need
to refer to when examining/reading your proposal.
The main purpose of the introductory chapter is to
provide the necessary background or context for your
How to frame the research problem is perhaps the
biggest problem in proposal writing.
If the research problem is framed in the context of a
general, rambling literature review, then the research
question may appear trivial and uninteresting.
However, if the same question is placed in the context
of a very focused and current research area, its
significance will become evident.
The introductory chapter generally covers the
1. State the research problem, which is often referred
to as the purpose of the study.
2. Provide the context and set the stage for your
research question in such a way as to show its
necessity and importance.
3. Present the rationale of your proposed study and
clearly indicate why it is worth doing.
4. Briefly describe the major issues and sub-problems
to be addressed by your research.
Identify the key independent and dependent
variables of your experiment. Alternatively, specify
the phenomenon you want to study.
State your hypothesis or theory, if any. For
exploratory or phenomenological research, you
may not have any hypotheses.
Be clear about what your study will not address
through explaining the scope of your proposed
research in order to provide a clear focus.
Provide definitions of key concepts.
Statement of the problem
It is an important section in which the
researcher/student must explain academically the
problem under investigation or the gap in the
The statement of the problem should:
1. answer the question: “What is the gap that needs to
be filled?” and/or “What is the problem that needs to
be solved?” and
2. state the problem or create the gap clearly.
Limit the variables you address in stating your
problem or question.
In some contexts, it ends with some statements on
the purpose of the study.
You should develop your proposal to demonstrate
that you are aware of the important issues, themes
and debates in the relevant literature, identifying
existing gaps (both theoretical and practical).
You must refer to key articles and texts and briefly
show that you understand how they are relevant to
your research area.
A PhD is an original piece of work and so you
should demonstrate that your proposed area of
research has not been studied before.
The literature review serves several important
1. Ensures that you are not "reinventing the wheel".
2. Gives credits to those who have laid the groundwork
for your research.
3. Demonstrates your knowledge of the research
4. Demonstrates your understanding of the theoretical
and research issues related to your research
5. Shows your ability to critically evaluate relevant
6. Indicates your ability to integrate and synthesize
the existing literature.
7. Provides new theoretical insights or develops a
new model as the conceptual framework for your
8. Convinces your reader that your proposed
research will make a significant and substantial
contribution to the literature (i.e., resolving an
important theoretical issue or filling a major gap
in the literature).
This chapter should contain sufficient information
for the readers, the committee or the supervisor(s)
to determine whether methodology is sound and
It should provide sufficient details for another
qualified researcher to implement the study.
First you need to describe the design of the study
and give justification for your selection.
The selection of the research design is based on
your research objectives.
The researcher must take into account that the
most appropriate research design is the design that
addresses the research objectives.
Indicate how the approach fits the overall research
Your methods should have a clear connection with
your research questions and/or hypotheses.
In this chapter, ways of collecting data are provided
with clear and sufficient explanation of the
procedures of data collection.
Describe the specific methods of data collection you
are going to use, e.g., interviews, questionnaires,
observation, archival or traditional library research.
Procedures and techniques of analyzing data are
also described in Methodology Chapter.
In this chapter, justification for the selection of some
particular instruments such as questionnaires should
be effectively explained.
Permissions to conduct the research and how to get
them should be included in this chapter too.
1. Failure to provide the proper context to frame the
2. No clear explanation of the scope of the study.
3. Failure to cite landmark studies and important
4. There is inaccurate presentation of the theoretical
and empirical contributions by other researchers.
5. Failure to stay focused on the research objectives.
6. Lack of development of a coherent and
persuasive argument for the proposed research.
7. Too much detail on minor issues, but not enough
detail on major issues which are the concern of
8. Difficult to follow because there is no clear sense
9. Too many citation lapses and incorrect
10. Too long or too short (it is based on the
guidelines given by your university/department)
11. Failing to follow the a particular writing style (APA
or Harvard) consistently.
Most students' literature reviews suffer from the following
1. Problems in the organization and structure.
2. Lacking focus, unity and coherence.
3. Being repetitive of information.
4. Failing to cite influential journal articles and previous
5. Recent developments and findings on the topic are not
included in the proposal.
6. Critical evaluation of cited papers is inadequate or
7. Citing irrelevant references.
8. Depending too much on secondary sources.
Writing a research proposal is not an easy task because it
entails the use of a wide range of language skills, study
skills and academic literacy practices.
It is affected by various contextual factors which may be
related to the supervisor, the student, the discipline and the
requirements of the institutions.
The guidelines that have been published and can be
accessed online should not lead the researcher. Rather,
such guidelines should help the researchers to come up
with appropriate proposals.
The final decision of the quality of the proposal is based on
the evaluation of the research supervisor or the committee
in the context.
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Writing Thesis and Dissertation Proposals