How to write your PhD research Proposal

Jan 16, 2012 by     28 Comments    Posted under: Post Graduate

For any PhD application, a research proposal is a must. For many people this is a painful headache. I had the headache for a VERY long time till I searched and researched repeatedly on how to do it. And here is my understanding of all the things I learned to help you write you PhD proposal quickly.

Download the university proposal template

At this stage hopefully you already have talked to your potential supervisor. If not, find your supervisor first because they will surely want you to modify some of your ideas. Once you have suggested topic, it is time to write the proposal.

Every university has their own research proposal template. Some wants 2 page, some wants 15-20 page. So depending on the universities you want to send to, you need to get their PhD research proposal template first. You might also want to know what citation format they use. If they use APA, then you should use APA, if they use harvard you should use the same too. Having their proposal template will help you.

If you are unable to find the proposal template you can ask the potential supervisor or the research office of that university.

Find the (research) gap

In your PhD you are meant to do original work. Therefore, it is very important that you find what has not been done. And the only way to do is to study prior literature on the area.

Hopefully from my previous post on finding your research area you have a topic that you want to address. So lets start with that. Once you start reading some articles, you will be able to come to certain understanding on what might be lacking. Start writing based on the potential missing parts – these are the research gaps you want to fulfill. Please do not worry too much at this point because once you enroll your course you may have to change the idea. So important is find it quickly and write it quickly.

But where to search for that “research gap” quickly?

A very good question I should say – where to find the gap. I am hoping you are still in a university and your university subscribe to this thing called web of knowledge by ISI. If you have that, then it gets much easier.

First you open the site by sitting in your university campus because usually they will have computer IP (Internet Protocol) address restriction. Once you open search for the keywords, variables and your system that you identified before.

Now once you search your topic you will come to the next page – which is usually sorted by the date of publication. Change this to by highest citation first. Once done, you will see it may be from many areas besides the area (main system) you are interested in. So refine those from the left side. Once you are there, now you also want to refine via recent years (latest 3 or 5). Because if no one has done anything recently it may not be an area of interest. Once you have done that you should have enough material to read and gauge what might be the research gap.

Now write it up!

So you have already done the literature review and you have found the potential gaps. What are you waiting for? Start writing. Once done take a break and come back later to see if you can find some more ideas. Make sure your english is correct and no spelling or grammatical mistake.

Once you are happy with the proposal send it over to your supervisor.

Do the changes supervisor asked

Every proposal I send to supervisor when I was applying for PhD came back with many many comments. Dont be afraid, it is normal to see all red!! Do the changed they asked and send it back to them.

This whole ping pong process can take some time so better do it early and quickly so that your supervisor still remembers what you are doing! The whole process should not take you more than a week but combine it with few other university you are sending to, it may take some months.

[Image courtesy of Batikart]


About Avijit Paul

I am a PhD student at Queensland University of Technology, Australia. My primary field of work is in analyzing and making sense of ‘big data’ generated from Social Networks during crisis events. As my work involves design and programming, I constantly switch between these two areas. On top of that I am also interested in business and founded couple of startups. Please visit about me page from the top menu to learn more about me.

28 Comments + Add Comment

  • Its good.I will appreciate more if you write details related to most of the phd students in their fields.But over all okay.

    • emm, I only know one field – my field. But this was meant to be more generic with something common with the hope that it helps out people.

  • i am very impressed with your frankness and by reading your tips am quite confident.thank u
    am got eligible for osmania university pre-phd entrance exam 2012 kindly suggest me how to write proposal and to find suoervisor.

    • I am afraid I cant do that for you. You have to write and find someone who can help you look at it. I am not familiar with how Osmania University works

  • plz help how to select the area in English language teaching

  • I love to do research at this archive of grin – a publisher located in Munich, Germany ( They have a great range of topics in their archive which inspired for better ideas or at least let me narrow mine down. I even published some of my essays with them – publishing never has been easier and I love seeing my papers associated with an ISBN as it opened up great contacts and more than once interesting oppertunities in research fields, eventually it gave me the chance to speak in front of a professional audience at a bio conference . We’ll see where the future will lead me to with it.

    • Good luck and all the best for your future Micheal

  • I am Md. Shohel Rana from Bangladesh. I have been completed BSc (hons) in Computing & Information Systems from Daffodil Institute of IT, Under: London Metropolitan University, UK. I have been completed MBA (major in Finance & Marketing) from Daffodil International University. Now I am studying (MDMP) MASTERS IN DEVELOPMENT MANAGEMENT AND PRACTICE at BRAC University, Address: 66 Mohakhali, Dhaka 1212, Bangladesh. My Masters course will be finished April-2013. So I am looking for Doctoral course in Development study. If have any opportunity for me from your side then please send guide line and details.

    • can you send me your email so that I can send you info if I find?

  • I am really impressed. For my reading MSC. programme Development communication I have to submit a research proposal as an assignment of the subject of reseach methodology in 10-15 pages in any topic.

    • Glad to hear that. Good luck with your proposal.

  • hi,i appreciate for your very good information,i am Master student in marketing management and I have been completed Bachelor degree in pure mathematics,2 years ago for several months i lived in sydney in australia and i love this country,(i am in iran right now) i like to continue my education for phd in australia but i do not know many things for how to get scholarship from an australian university for phd.these days i am searching a subject for my master degree proposal and i want to know that, is there any relation between my proposal subject and getting scholarship for phd?if yes,what kind of topics for proposal you recommend to me,thanks alot

    • I am afraid on top of what I have written in the blog I do not have time to help you. Please find a local IDP office to seek more help. Other than that, you really need to do your own homework as the first step for PhD is to expect doing things alone.

  • why u do not answer me?

  • Dear Avigit paul
    thanks for such a nice info, I have completed my masters (Energy & Environment engineering) and now i want to do ph.d but i am facing disturbance in selecting topic for ph.d. so kindly help me out to solve this problems.
    my email
    i will wait for your reply. . .

    • Thanks for reading the blog. I am afraid I dont have time to help you personally. If you need help please look for local IDP office at your country.

  • In the section ” How to write PHD proposal” you wrote ” At this stage hopefully you already have talked to your potential supervisor.”. so basically you are suggesting that while applying for a Scholarship, let the professor know you are interested in working with him before applying directly to the university ?. And if the professor is interested, then apply to university or the university will offer scholarship and then you contact the supervisor?

    Secondly, should one write a letter directly to the professor and ask him if their is a position available in his LAB?. And if position is available, then should we apply to the professor directly or university?

    How does the process work?.

    • Yes, you are supposed to talk to them first

  • hi iam anusha i have done my m.pharm(pharmacology) in hyd i am intersted in doing my phd in australia could u guide me pls in doing my research project pls revert me

    • Hi Anusha I have written all that I know in this blog. Please go to the step by step guide from the front page. That should be enough to get started because I spent months on that. After that you can ask IDP or other places to help you.

  • Hi Paul. Do you know where I can download proposal template for application at QUT?

    • I dont know any place to download that. I can upload mine that I submitted and link to you. Can you please email me so that I can send that to you first and later upload to the site when I have chance?

  • Thank Paul.
    It ‘s awesome. Could you please send to I ‘m really appreciate for your help.

  • Thank you Paul,

    Very helpful tips for letter to supervisor and how to write proposal.

    • Thanks and Good luck

  • Hi,
    I found your tips helpful..
    However I would like your advise on something…I am in process of applying for my PhD the supervisor provided me with PDF stating his projects which are suitable for application and has even mentioned “you have to do XXX” so he is consider people for only his projects? He has even asked for a proposal how to go about this?

    • Most of the supervisor will ask for proposal to see what your ideas are. So you should send one.
      I don’t really know if she is considering for her project only but as a Professor she would generally be in charge of one or two project at least and will think you will suit one.

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