Advice on writing a research proposal

The Central European University (Budapest, Hungary) has an excellent explanatory video on what to pay attention to when writing a research proposal – particularly for a PhD. Eszter Timar of the Center for Academic Writing at the CEU gives the following tips – since the slides are not online, I wrote down the points she is making:

Purpose of PhD proposal:

  • convince others (department) value of your research

  • demonstrate you are an expert in your field

  • demonstration of competency

  • assist you as a planning tool

Questions that need to be asked:

  • What are we going to learn from the proposed project that we currently do not know?

  • Why is it worth knowing?

  • On what basis, how can we evaluate the validity of your conclusions?

(Pay attention to the reader of the proposal. Find out about these professors – their expertise, publications, courses)

When writing a proposal:


  • Give it a title, which is informative of the topic of the proposal

  • The title should be meaningful, suggesting the topic, the puzzle, and perhaps the answer to the problem

  • You can use a double title

Introduction (10%):

  • Set the context for your proposed project and capture the reader’s interest

  • Define the key terms used (whose definition are you using)

Theoretical issues and literature review (should be very rich –> you are an expert):

  • Give a statement of the general theoretical problem, with supportive bibliography, references, indicating that you have a grasp of the subject

  • Include the main authors that have written about your subject

  • Emphasise how your research will fill a gap

  • Don’t include more than one main question (may be included in the title)

  • You may have sub-questions (indicate them clearly, max 5-6)

  • Questions should be answerable, but not with yes or no: what, why, how, where who

  • This questions should not be immediately answerable

Methodology (should be as detailed as possible):

  • Give a specific detailed indication of how you will go about answering your key questions

  • Explain why the suggested methodology constitutes the best way in order to study the objectives

Conclusions and indications of research:

  • What new knowledge will the proposed project produce that we do not already know?

  • Why is it worth knowing?

  • How will you evaluate and ensure the validity of your conclusion?

Bibliography/reference list:

  • Follow the standard format in your discipline (embedded –> references in the end, or footnoted –> bibliography in the end)

  • Recommends the Chicago manual on referencing

  • Format in your discipline as the format that your department requires

Signs of a weak proposal:

  • Too long

  • Poor structure or language use. Clearly define the chapters/subchapters to indicate the structure

  • Inappropriate use of technical terms (without definitions or not in the right sense)

  • Research is too ambitious (impossible in given time and constraints)

  • No literature review

  • No theoretical foundation

  • Unrealistic costing

  • Method not clear or inappropriate

  • No references, no bibliography

Additional advice:

  • Check what the exact requirements are (length, format, deadline) Max 10% longer/shorter

  • Give yourself plenty of time to redraft, revise

  • Include sections with headings in the proposal

  • Be clear and consistent

  • Ask a friend of read it

  • Try to consider your reader’s expectations

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