Top tips for writing your PhD research proposal
By Prof John Mercer
We all know that feeling. You’ve finally made your mind up that you want to take the next big step – whether that’s a new job or going back to uni to do a postgrad degree. The only problem is that you need to go through the application process and you just don’t know where to start. It’s no different if you want to apply for a PhD – the thought of starting a research proposal can be daunting.
So to help you get pen to paper, our friends at Midlands4Cities are offering some application writing workshops for people interested in their fully funded studentships covering course fees and stipend for living expenses on offer for arts, media and law PhDs at Birmingham City University. The Birmingham workshop takes place on 17 November, but don’t worry if you can’t make it. Dr John Mercer – Professor of Gender and Sexuality at Birmingham School of Media, shares his tips on writing a great application…
- What’s your topic and what’s the problem?
The starting point for any piece of research across any discipline in the arts and humanities is a research problem or a set of research questions which need answering. In order to make a successful research application you need to be able to describe really clearly not only what the subject is that you are really fascinated by and want to explore in detail but also to be clear that your research has a direction; it’s about solving a problem or answering questions. Good research (the kind that attracts research funding) will be clear on both counts.
- Who cares and why does it matter?
It’s really important to remember that there should be a wider audience for your research, both within academic circles (so subject specialists) but also beyond the university. This means that you need to be able to demonstrate that you know, understand and can engage with the kinds of discussions and debates that take place in your subject area and that your own research can be seen as making a contribution not just to your field but to a wider public debate. The ‘who cares’ test is really the fundamental measurement of a good piece of research and one of the questions that needs to be answered for a research project to be regarded as ‘fundable’.
- Every word counts, so choose them carefully!
Funding applications always have strict word counts and the Midlands4Cities application is no different. You’re limited to 400 words to outline your proposed project and preparation. Then you have just another 400 words to explain the context of the research, its aims and objectives, its potential application and impact. You also have to provide a short title. You should make full use of these available words. This means that the application form includes a proposal that is an exercise in precision and concision – so keep a tight focus and be very clear. Rambling and unclear research proposals rarely make for a good (or successful plan).