If our WordPress statistics are to be believed, quite a few readers find this blog while looking for advice on how to write a good PhD proposal. A quick Google search for “how to write a PhD proposal” returns several links, including the guidance offered by Dr Audra Mitchell in a guest post on this blog. Many universities also offer their own instructions outlining what they expect from a PhD proposal. Much of this advice, however, tends to be quite technical. What information to include and how it should be structured is certainly important. Having a clear research question is also essential; although, this will probably shift a bit once you actually start your research.
I want to suggest a different way of thinking about your PhD proposal that might in turn influence the way in which you write it.
Imagine for a moment that you are wandering around your favorite bookstore. You might buy something. Or you might not. After all, you have a precariously stacked tower of books that you want to read collecting dust at home. As you amble between the rows of shelves, you casually pick up books and scan the blurb on the back. You lose interest in some of these summaries after only a sentence or two; others you read all the way through. Occasionally, what you read on the back is enticing enough that you actually crack open the book and read the first few pages. If these hold your attention, you might even commit to reading the whole thing.
Your PhD is a book that your supervisor will be reading for (at least) the next four years. Moreover, he or she can’t just put it down or sell it to the used bookshop if it turns out that the story isn’t really all that interesting half way through. Over the past year, I have learned first hand that taking on a PhD student – from a supervisor’s point of view – is a big commitment that comes with A LOT of reading.
Your PhD proposal is like the blurb on the back of a book. You need to write your proposal in a way that will convince a prospective supervisor that he or she wants to read the whole book enough to make (at least) a four-year commitment to it.
With that in mind, there are three factors about a book summary that I suspect most influence whether I choose to buy the book:
- Does it grab me – does the topic or plot sound interesting, innovative, or exciting?
- Have I read other books by the same author – and did I enjoy them?
- Is the style clear – can I read quickly and not miss a thing?
If the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” odds are the book will end up on my growing to-read pile . If the answer to any one of these questions is “no,” odds are it won’t.
What does this mean for how to write a good PhD proposal?
First: Make sure that your proposal is written in a way that is engaging. It is not enough to simply include all of the relevant information. You have to convince your prospective supervisor that this research matters; that it is important or innovative – preferably both. (This is not a license to descend into hyperbole. Your thesis will not cure cancer or discover the secret to world peace.) Whether your PhD proposal is exciting and innovative depends in part on how you frame your research. Are you merely repeating what you’ve read in the literature or have you taken your own position? Whether your PhD proposal is exciting and innovative also depends, however, on who you pitch it to. You should research prospective supervisors carefully and select who you send your proposal to wisely.
Second: Unless you’re a superstar and have already published articles in academic journals or are approaching a supervisor who already knows your work from a previous degree, odds are the person reading your PhD proposal won’t be familiar with your work. If there is an essay from your previous degree that you are particularly proud of, consider sending it along with your proposal as a “writing sample” of “sample of previous work.” Don’t be surprised, though, if the prospective supervisor doesn’t read this through all the way. (Like I’ve said before, supervisors are very busy people.) Even so, he or she will probably appreciate the opportunity to see what you’re capable of. Whether you choose to attach a writing sample or not, the proposal itself is an indicator of the quality of your work – perhaps the only evidence of your capabilities that a prospective supervisor will see before deciding whether or not to take you on. Put in the time and effort necessary to make your PhD proposal engaging and easy to read.
Third: I reiterate, a good PhD proposal is easy to read. Pay attention to detail. It might seem elementary, but grammar, spelling and typos matter. A good PhD proposal will be free from typographical errors and muddled, run-on sentences. The core idea that you want to research should be clear and presented in a way that is easy to understand. Would you bother to read the book if the summary on the back was incomprehensible or riddled with typos? More to the point, would you commit four years to reading it? I think not.
In short, don’t focus simply on writing ‘a good proposal’; write a proposal for a good thesis. If your proposal makes you (or your disinterested roommate, or your older brother) want to read your thesis, it might just have the same effect on your future supervisor too.