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How to Write a PhD Research Proposal

Do you need to write a research proposal, but have no idea where to start?

By Katharina Weber, Research Scientist


You may have been asked for one when applying for a research program, writing an open application to a research group or looking for funding for your PhD position. You stare at the blank piece of paper. You hope it will somehow write itself.  You aren’t alone. Writing a scientific proposal ranks high on the list of the most unpopular tasks in research.


First, it’s helpful to keep in mind that the research proposal is meant to persuade potential supervisors or funders to give you the position or money you want. Your task then is to convince them of a few things:

  • The significance and originality of your project
  • The fact that there is only one suitable person for the job – you
  • Your scientific expertise but also of your passion for the topic
  • The feasibility of your project i.e. that the proposed outcome, timeframe and funding are realistic

Before you start, make sure your research proposal aligns with the topic of the research group or funding program you are applying to. Check for specific requirements, templates and guidelines of these institutions including specific structure or number of words. Often 2000 to 3000 words are suggested.


Ready to go? The following example structure might help you to organize your thoughts. The major part of the proposal should concentrate on the actual project description meaning points 6. to 9.

Note that some sections such as eligibility or track record might be asked for in a separate form during your application process and thus need not be repeated in the research proposal.

However, all these topics should be addressed at some point:

  1. Header
    State clearly to whom you are addressing this proposal and which program, subprogram or topic you are applying to. Include all formalities like:
    • Title of project
    • Start and end date
    • List of people involved: principal investigator you like to work with, collaborators, etc.
  2. Summary
    Give a short summary on the broad research area of your project and on your proposed contribution to this field and highlight its significance. Use simple terms and address this project summary to a general audience. Keep in mind that you might need to convince people who are not experts in your field.
  1. Eligibility
    Demonstrate that you meet all formal requirements of the fund or position such as having the required degree.
  2. Required resources
    List and quantify the equipment, facilities and labour you need. If you apply for funding, give a cost estimate for all expenses and state which of those will be covered by the fund and which are covered by other resources. Consider expenses like:
    • Your own labour
    • Possible (technical) assistance
    • Equipment costs: purchase, maintenance and consumables
    • Tuition fees
    • Travel costs for things like conferences
  3. Project overview
    Describe your proposed project, how it fits in the context of current research, why it is important and how it benefits the academic community. More specifically, link your project to the research focus of the institution/research community you are applying to and point out how they can benefit from your research with, for example, collaborations.
  4. Aim and objectives
    Narrow down your project to a few precisely formulated research questions. You can break down these research questions into several objectives. These objectives shall reflect the steps you need to take to answer the research question. Consider logical order and structure of your research questions and objectives.
  5. Background
    Provide context to your research. What is the current state of the area regarding knowledge, methods, theories? What are the open theoretical and practical challenges in this field? Demonstrate your knowledge of the research field and existing literature. Reference recent articles you think are important.
  6. Research contribution
    Position your own research in the chosen academic field. Highlight how your project will fill the existing gaps, how it will further this line of research and the academic community.
  7. Methodology
    State the strategy, methods and techniques you want to employ to answer the research questions. Which experimental approach you want to use to collect your data or what theoretical model you will base your simulation on? Explain why you have chosen this methodology and describe its advantages and limitations.
  8. Work plan
    Write important milestones for the entire PhD project to demonstrate that your project can be finished within the set time frame. While no one expects you to hand in a comprehensive plan for the entire three to four years, you might, however, be able to lay out a draft work plan for the first year.
  9. Track record
    Show off your track record including academic qualification, achievements and publications. Give also evidence of other assets such as good writing and language skills or available funding. Emphasize how the PhD position would perfectly fit in your track record and that you are the ideal choice to conduct this research.
  10. Career development
    Explain how this position or funding fits into your career development, how it will help you to reach the next step in your scientific career and how it aligns with your long-term research goals.


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