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:

Rationale
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.

Methodology
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.

Ethics
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.

Timeline
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 👍📚🎓

Research with marginalised groups: some difficult questions

Every year, students on the MA in Gender Studies ask questions about doing research with marginalised groups. The university is an incredibly privileged environment, but many of our students are politically committed and care passionately about issues of inequality. Often, they want to contribute to causes by conducting their dissertation research on related topics. However, there are questions around whether exploring these through research with human subjects is appropriate – too often students end up asking for time and attention from people who already live difficult lives, and producing projects which (due to time constraints and a lack of background knowledge) make little difference. I therefore advise students to ask themselves a number of questions when selecting their research topics:

  1. Who is this research for? Is there a demonstrable need?

The best way to approach this question is to design research in collaboration with community groups – some charities and organisations have data collection needs and are happy to receive offers from competent and committed postgraduate students (you may need to provide them with a CV or informal reference to assure them that what you produce will be useable). The Centre for Gender Studies has four Associate Members – Galop, RISE, the Sex Worker Open University and Survivors’ Network – who are asked each year if they would like any students to help them out with small research projects. Sometimes students have their own relationships with charities, NGOs or community groups, who can be asked if research might be beneficial (the onus must be on their data collection needs and not your interests, but if these are complementary, that’s great).

If there is no identifiable need in the community, there may be other ways to research the chosen topic which do not put people out or ask them to engage in intellectual, practical or emotional labour on your behalf. The best way to do this is to use pre-existing sources of data (see point 4 below).

  1. What are my motivations?

This question is related to the social need for the study, but pertains to you personally. Is this: (a) an issue and group you’ve been involved and familiar with for a while; (b) something you feel passionate about and want to educate yourself on; (c) an exploratory study which might lead to socially useful projects; (d) just curiosity? If (d), why are you curious about this group of people and is there a form of Orientalism at work? (Examples of some groups which are frequently exoticised and fetishised by ‘outsiders’: trans people, sex workers, Muslim women). If (b) or (c), you can probably conduct an initial study using pre-existing sources of data. If (a), you most likely already know of a community organisation or group to work with on a project there’s a need for.

Examine your motivations honestly – if you feel they are anything but honourable (or you are not sure what they are), do not conduct the study. If you feel confident about your motives and the need for your study, continue to examine and reflect on these throughout the research, to ensure the safety of your research participants and the rigour of your data. This does not mean spending hours navel-gazing and writing a methodology chapter which is little more than an autobiography. Instead, it requires you to make time to really look at yourself and become mindful of your relationships with participants and how they are structured by power and privilege. It may be possible to discuss these issues with some participants and to ask how they feel about the process – but this is a form of emotional labour which may be arduous as well (and therefore best avoided).

  1. Am I qualified?

Especially if you wish to research a more marginalised group of people, ask yourself if you have enough background knowledge or life experience to be doing so. There are differing opinions in the field about whether researchers should always be ‘insiders’ (and ways in which the ‘insider/outsider’ binary can and should be problematised).Being an ‘insider’ is also by no means a guarantee that you will be able to do good research. However, if you are not at all familiar with the group in question and do not consider yourself an ally in their struggles, you should ask yourself whether you are in fact qualified to carry your project out.

Academia is full of relatively privileged people, and if we all stuck to researching our own social groups there would be huge gaps in the knowledge and evidence base about key social issues (bigger than there are already). However, research on more marginalised groups should proceed from a commitment to and association with the group in question, and if you wish to make a career out of this type of research it should be combined with advocacy around (not just lip-service to) diversifying the profession. Ideally, research on marginalised groups would always be able to be carried out by members of those groups – since they are the experts on their own lives. This does not mean there is no role for allies or that ‘outsiders’ can never carry out research, but the aim should be to diversify academia so that fields of research on marginalised groups could always be insider-led.

  1. Do I need to ask people for their time/attention?

If you are able to go ahead with a project which involves human subjects, this does not necessarily mean you should. Ask yourself if you really need to create a new dataset or whether there is existing material which can be used to answer your questions. Charities and community organisations often have their own data archives – by far the most common research request made by our Associate Member organisations is for a student to conduct analysis on a pre-existing dataset they have not yet had time to work with. If you are not working with an organisation there are a number of public data archives, including the Mass Observation Archive which is housed at Sussex University. There are also web-based sources of personal narrative which are public, such as blogs, vlogs or Tumblrs (although since these are not research archives you should ask authors for permission before studying them). There are also interesting projects which can be conducted through content/discourse analysis of policy documents and media sources, which can give greater breadth of perspective than the small number of interviews it would be feasible to conduct for an MA study.

Think hard about whether you need new data, before you consider asking people to provide it. If you are doing a research project at the request of a community organisation and they are keen for you to work with human subjects, explore with them ways in which your participants could be remunerated for their contribution (but with no sense of obligation). We have a small budget in Gender Studies to support you with this, as long as there is a good case for the research.

  1. How will I look after my participants?

Research ethics are important to any project, but particularly one which involves a researcher with more privilege working with participants with less. Ensure that you develop a rigorous framework around anonymity and confidentiality, and (most importantly) that this is communicated to your participants effectively and in appropriate terms. Be aware that if you are not an ‘insider’ you may not fully appreciate the risks posed by participating in your research, so design your ethics framework and research instruments in collaboration with the community organisation or charity you are working with. The university has comprehensive ethics guidance and pro-forma documentation available online, and you should work closely with your supervisor to ensure that you have designed your research in as ethical a manner as possible. You should also be aware that this is the bare minimum in terms of actually conducting research in an ethical way – ethics is a process which requires you to constantly reflect and (most importantly) listen. If you have not read any feminist literature on research ethics, remedy that before you even think about recruiting participants.

If you are working with a service organisation or community group, explore ways in which they can help you to introduce yourself and put potential participants more at ease. When you recruit participants, emphasise that participating in the research is their choice and they can withdraw any time with no hard feelings. This is particularly important if you are recruiting through an organisation which provides help and resources, as there may be concerns that these are conditional on participating in your research. Be open to any misgivings or worries participants may have, and be aware of the fact that they may (rightly) suspect your motives. Also be aware that even if there is an identified social need for your research, people who are dealing with the practical and emotional consequences of oppression may not necessarily have the capacity to consider or care about it. It is patronising to expect participants to feel empowered, and arrogant to want to be appreciated, even if you have the best intentions. Of course, it’s possible to develop wonderful, mutually fulfilling relationships with research participants – but to expect this is a form of entitlement. Building trust takes time, especially if you are not an ‘insider’ or established ally (and often even if you are the latter).

  1. What will I do with the findings?

If you have been asked to conduct a research project by a charity or community group, ask them about helpful formats for your findings. Do not just forward them a copy of your dissertation! Depending on the target audience, possible outputs might be a short briefing paper, an informational video or a training workshop for staff. Writing a dissertation is a stressful process, and it might be tempting to just submit it and then forget about the whole thing. However, this would constitute a betrayal of the organisations and people who have given you their time and emotional labour. It would also expose self-serving motivations behind your research, and might cause community groups and individuals to approach future requests for research participation with justified trepidation.

Consider what you might do if you are asked to take part in academic or policy events or are contacted by journalists about your research, once it is complete. Do you really need to occupy the platform yourself, or can you hand it over to a community representative? If there is specific interest in your dataset or findings you may be the best person to describe these, but you should also ask for a community representative to share your platform in order to explore the issues first-hand and in more depth. If the request is simply for a generic ‘expert’ (which it very often is), always pass this on to representatives of the group in question. NEVER give out names or contact details of your participants without permission – if individuals have shown an interest in dissemination you might pass requests on, but in general it’s best to channel these through organisations or community groups.

To summarise: if your research is not needed, don’t do it. If you’re unsure of your motivations (or if they’re self-serving), don’t do it. If you’re a complete outsider, don’t do it. If you can use existing sources of data, use them. If you do end up working with marginalised people, look after them. Afterwards, give up your platform whenever you can.

Finally, read this: Fuck You and Fuck Your Fucking Thesis (why I will not participate in trans studies). Most of you will (quite rightly) be put off. If you can read it with no misgivings at all, you are probably kidding yourself (and definitely lacking the requisite sensitivity and social conscience for this kind of work). If you read it with a heavy heart but still want to carry out your research, come to see me and let’s discuss.