Luke Ottaway is a PhD student at Heriot-Watt University. His research is to do with examining organisational change through the sociological lens of Jurgen Habermas’ “theory of communicative action”. His March 2016 commencement of his PhD at Heriot-Watt proceeded a four year undergraduate degree at the same University, where he studied Business Management.

Whenever I have any kind of essay or assessment that needs doing, I always find that the best place to start is to break down everything that you need to do in easy to manage sections. No doubt that by this stage in your education this will have been very much drilled into your mind by now but always plan! It is so important, planning helps you organise your thoughts and manage what seems like a huge undertaking into no more than a sequence of very different/smaller sections which come together to make up a larger whole.

In the instance of a PhD proposal, I started by writing out the title of my proposed study, and then organising exactly what I needed to do into different sections, writing down:

  1. Introduction
  2. Aim and statement of objectives
  3. Literature review (split into two sub-sections with a section for the study’s theory, and a section for the study’s context)
  4. Methodology
  5. Indication of theoretical structure
  6. Provisional timetable of the research process
  7. Expected results

As a general rule, those are the standard sections that you will have to delve into when undertaking a research proposal, though you should naturally adapt your sections based on the demands of the topic itself.

Having written down the sections that will make up your PhD proposal, you should then look to write out what you need to do in each section.

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Introduction: Introduce what the study is about, what it is trying to do, introduce/define the theory and context of the study.

Aim and statement of objectives: Write out the overall aim of the study, as well as the key objectives that underpin it.

Literature review: Write out a section on the literature of your area of study, with a section on the literature to do with your theory, and a section on the literature to do with your context.

Methodology: Set out your research philosophy, and the forms you expect your data to take. However, bear in mind that your methodology may change drastically whilst writing your PhD.

Indication of theoretical structure: Give an indication of the form that your final theory is likely to take. What other theories, academics, ideas etc were used to arrive at your intended final theory? Again, this section is highly susceptible to change when you actually start writing your thesis.

Provisional timetable of the research process: Set out a timetable for when you expect to complete certain sections of your thesis, though this section can only be done based on your own educated guess.

Expected results: Write what you expect your study to have achieved by its completion.

By planning and organising what you need to do in each section, you then have a massively more manageable task. Whether you made the topic for your proposal yourself, or whether you are using one written by your supervisors (more likely if you were applying for a scholarship programme), planning and organising exactly what you need to do is the best way to start a PhD proposal!


Picture by ocviliamanda