Writing a PhD proposal (social sciences)

For many academics, each New Year brings a flurry of Email enquiries about PhD supervision. In my experience these tend to range between a vague notion about a topic (or a few possible topics) and a detailed account of a research idea, usually drawn from a successful MA thesis or an area of professional interest. What I hardly ever get, however, is a proper draft proposal.

For me, having at least a rough draft of your proposal before you contact potential supervisors is good practice, for a number of reasons: (1) it shows you have given the matter some thought; (2) it identifies you as someone who is able to work independently; and (3) it allows you to take ownership of your work from the start (and some supervisors WILL take over if you let them). If you are planning to apply for Research Council funding, a draft gives you a valuable head start – I also see the process of feedback and amendment for these high-profile applications as an excellent insight into what a student will be like to supervise (I generally ask for several redrafts before I will sign off).

A PhD proposal does not need to be long. In fact, I encourage applicants to be as concise as they can – Research Council application forms generally allow a couple of sides, 10 pt font minimum, so I would stick to that. For a social science PhD, proposals will contain a number of common elements:

A short paragraph describing your topic, stating why it is important. First and foremost, you should be proposing a project which is fresh and original rather than repeating previous studies.  The best research in my field tends to be both policy/community-relevant and able to make a contribution to cutting-edge academic debates, so look for a social need and gaps in the relevant literature. Your project should pass the ‘so what?’ test on both intellectual and practical grounds. This is especially the case if you want to work with a marginalised group as an outsider – your study needs to have clear benefits for your participants, and it should be obvious that you are the right person to do it and are doing it for the right reasons (if you’re not sure this is the case, perhaps read this post and reflect). If you’re applying for research funding, your project rationale should also link to the strategic priorities of the funding body.

Research questions
Two or three specific questions you will answer. They must be ones which have not been asked before in the particular way you will ask them. They should usually be narrow, focusing on aspects of issues or relationships between phenomena (e.g. ‘what are the causes of violence against sex workers?’ is too broad, but ‘what are sex workers’ experiences of violence under different legal/regulatory models?’ is more promising). You should also be realistic – what exactly are you going to be able to find out? Be wary of questions which are too ambitious – this often means causal, categorical, or conclusive. Avoid making assumptions that will threaten the validity of your analysis (e.g. ‘how can parents who formula-feed be made aware of the benefits of breastfeeding?) Never ask something you feel you already know.

The trick is to develop research questions which both create a do-able project and account for the complexity of the social world, and to represent these as simply as you possibly can. This is difficult! Your research questions will probably go through several iterations with your prospective supervisor, so they don’t have to be perfect first time.

Literature review
This is directly linked to your rationale and research questions – a summary of existing relevant work, identifying the gaps (both empirical and theoretical) your project will fill. You may be looking at several areas of literature – some providing general context while others relate to particular issues. In a project on violence against sex workers under different legal/regulatory models, you would probably be making use of general work on violence against women/sexual violence, more specific literature on violence against sex workers (of all genders) and violence against particular groups who may be more at risk within the industry (women of colour and trans women, for example), and literature covering different models of sex industry regulation and their implications. Studies would probably be both empirical and more conceptual in focus.

Don’t just write a list in this section – introduce different bodies of literature, summarise key themes and points, identify gaps, and make explicit how all this frames your particular project. Be clear in your mind about how you are using the literature at hand, and how you might feed back into the literature and make new contributions when you have completed your research.

Theoretical framework
The conceptual material in your literature review might inform your theoretical framework – the concepts most central to your research project. You might be focusing on gender as a key category of analysis; you might (should) also be taking an intersectional approach. You might be making use of other concepts such as agency or stigma, or developing the work of particular theorists. You need to have an idea of how all this relates together and whether there are any useful connections or knotty contradictions at work.

Your theoretical framework will and should change as you develop your PhD project, coming to fruition when you have finished your data analysis and are (hopefully) ready to say something new. It need not be fully developed in your proposal. In fact, if I see a PhD proposal which has an elaborate theoretical framework already, it often raises questions about whether the student is setting out to confirm things they feel they already know. Nevertheless, your proposal should contain some indication of the theories and concepts you find relevant to your research questions, and (most importantly) some thoughts about how you might operationalise these. How can you identify agency, for example? How might you measure stigma? How can you put intersectionality into practice?

N.B. Not all proposals will have a separate literature review and theoretical framework: if your project is heavily conceptual these might be merged into one longer section, or if you are conducting a large empirical study which will generate an entirely new dataset you may not need to be so focused on the theory.

This is probably the most important part of your proposal – a description of what you are going to do in very precise terms. This should include your your broad methodological approach – is it quantitative or qualitative? Are you using a particular research design, for instance ethnography or case study? Are you situated within a specific epistemological framework, and why? It should also include any specific methodological techniques or elements of research design – for instance, if you are trying to explore the interactions between phenomena, how will you measure and establish these? (e.g. in a qualitative study exploring how breastfeeding impacts on mothers’ experiences of bonding with their babies, you would need to consider how you would tease out the role of breastfeeding from other factors).

Your methodology should give details of your planned sources of data and how you will sample them. Be specific: if you are doing interviews, how many? What types of people will you hope to recruit as participants, and why? If you are working with documents, how many and how will they be selected? You need to give assurances that you are not just cherry-picking your sample to confirm what you feel you already know – for instance, a proposed study on whether the media contains racist bias will be stronger if you are not just working with content from the Daily Mail. You should also give details of how you will negotiate access to your sources, and the more groundwork you can do in advance the better, especially if you are working on sensitive issues or with marginalised communities. Your methods should then be described as accurately as you possibly can, as well as your planned techniques of data analysis, with full attention paid to how you might operationalise your theories.

Your methodology section should be primarily descriptive – your prospective supervisor needs to be confident that you have thought your project through and are in a good position to carry it out. It should also be mostly practical: although reflexivity is essential to qualitative social research, your PhD proposal is probably not the best place to present your autobiography. You need to show that you are conversant with the methodological literature and with other, similar studies, and have thought about your planned project with reference to these. Of course, your methodology will evolve during the course of your project and it is always possible to change it – but it is essential to be thinking like a researcher from the start.

Sometimes this section will be part of your methodology; sometimes it will be separate. If you are doing any research with human subjects you will probably undergo a rigorous ethical review process within your institution, before you are cleared for fieldwork. If your topic is sensitive or you are working with marginalised communities, this can take a while and can involve various requests for amendments. This section is your chance to show that you have engaged with the literature on research ethics and thought about any potential issues for your study: use it to identify these and talk about how you might address them. Power relations, informed consent, anonymity/confidentiality, risk/harm, participant and self-care all need to be covered.

University ethics committees are notoriously conservative; you can take a critical perspective, especially where notions of ‘risk’ and ‘harm’ are concerned, and particularly in relation to the differences between working with more marginalised and more elite groups. However, you should also be aware that this is a bureaucratic process that could potentially stand between you and the successful completion of your research: some hoop-jumping may be necessary.

As the last section, your proposal should present a description of how you will break your research into manageable tasks and deadlines in order to get your PhD finished within the time you have (3-4 years full-time, 6-8 years part-time). It is best to present this in the form of a table, specifying dates by which you will have completed particular tasks. This timeline may change – but it is useful to have done some advance planning to show potential supervisors and funders that you are organised and likely to be able to deliver.

Finally, remember that you should probably try to fit all this on to two sides of A4. This usually includes references, so be strategic/sparing with these, and remember that you can allude to wider reading by using phrases such as ‘such as’, or ‘amongst others’ as part of your citations (this last tip is for PhD proposals only – you must not do this in your final thesis!)

Good luck 👍📚🎓