Writing a PhD research proposal is your first step while considering your PhD journey. It is true that most of us, at this stage, are not all that lucky to have undertaken a master’s degree in a university that trained in research. Some of us were clueless about how a research proposal was written until the PhD entrance.
Not very long ago, I was there. Many of us are at that stage when we first think of doing a PhD. But it is vital that you believe in yourself first and in the technique second. At the outset, let me say it is not all that difficult to write a good proposal—sure, it may take substantial time.
So, where do you begin? What do you first think of when you want to do a PhD? What are the prerequisites? And how do you get there? All these questions would find parts of their responses throughout this essay.
Significantly, this whole essay relies on personal experiences. However, it seeks to give an insight into Ph.D. proposal writing to benefit those applying to Indian universities. This essay does not even claim to be the best (or the only) source for you to refer to. Treat everything I write here as suggestions with a tinge of personal anecdote.
Why do a PhD in India anyway?
There are several reasons why a student in India chooses to do a PhD in social sciences. There may be a monetary incentive in the form of a Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) provided by the University Grants Commission (UGC) that pays relatively better than the jobless state of affairs. In addition, a PhD could be an excellent leverage to hold onto—in case things, such as UPSC preparation, don’t reap benefits. In other words, a PhD could be added as an alternative career option.
Apart from that, there are those of us who want to get started with something (Because of pressure from family to do something), and a PhD seems like an option that could be explored. What is wrong with giving it a try, anyway?
And finally, there will be those who really want to do a PhD to push through their life in academia. Some really want to do something in their field of research and want to train people like us later on. All these reasons are equally good enough to do a PhD in India. But first, be clear about what you really want this PhD for.
PhD – a brief introduction
Before really starting out with doing a PhD, it is critical to give an outline of what it is like to do a PhD in India. Well, a PhD is a hard choice. Many of us may really enjoy it all. But some may not really like it all that well.
You must know whether you really can sit through your life reading books, writing summaries, thinking hard (about God knows what), and getting used to supervisors (if you are lucky, you get the best of them; well, if you are smart enough, you may even lobby to get good ones).
Apart from that, your PhD may invariably sustain for the next four (sometimes five; if you are digging hard, maybe even six) years. The first year will be “coursework”—where you are trained to undertake research on your own.
In the second year, you sit and think and rethink and then, maybe, also write and explain all that you write, and then get what you have written approved in a centre-committee meeting.
And post that the life could be—eat, sleep, read, watch movies, read, watch series, meet supervisor, get told by your supervisor to submit chapters, read… This sums up your PhD life. There are several other things to consider in India before doing a PhD. There is a lack of funds for higher education. There is also a lack of a sustained supervisory environment. Apart from that, there is no space for mental health concerns. So, keep yourself sane always.
Now, what is a PhD research proposal?
Whenever you think of making a PhD research proposal, the first question that comes to your mind would be: How do I begin? Well, you may have to start somewhere. If you plan to do a PhD, several things must already be floating in your head. But there may not be coherence to those thoughts. Here, let me try to dispel ways to bring certain coherence to your ideas and thoughts about PhD project.
Anytime you think of a PhD, think of it as a long-term project, working under a specific supervision. Now, a PhD proposal is an outline of the broader project you seek to undertake in the next few years. That is all a proposal is. It is like a mathematical problem. It needs to entail all that you would do to solve it. Rather than really solving the problem, you are outlining how to solve it.
A proposal should tell its readers what questions you are asking, what hypothesis you are validating, what are the ways you are trying to solve this problem, how have others solved this (or similar other) questions, and why they may have all gotten it wrong (if not wholly wrong, what they may have missed), and how you are seeking to change what you already know.
This is all there is to writing a PhD proposal. A proposal need not be the best proposal out there, but it should always be a doable project. It should aim for coherence, and clarity, and invigorate a certain curiosity in its readers. But, achieving all this takes time—it also takes lots of reading, lots of thinking, and lots of writing—and lots of everything that is a luxury.
What is the structure of a PhD proposal?
Each university department has its own requirement for a PhD proposal. Some want you to write just one page, while others want you to write a synopsis, like a 12–14-page proposal. You need to be mindful of what their requirement is and abide by it. For that, you need to visit the respective department websites (if they have one) and inquire about the requirements. Now, despite these technicalities, there is a certain coherence to all proposals. They are simplistic: you ask a question and tell the committee how you seek to solve that problem.
Each PhD proposal should have one “research background” (or introduction), then there is a “literature review”, then you either have to state your “questions” and “hypothesis explicitly”, then rationale and scope, then you need to lay out your “methods and approaches” and finally a section on “bibliography or references”. All these components make up for a good proposal. But, depending on the word limit, you may need to tweak your proposal. If they have asked for a two-page proposal, you may need to write your literature review crisply, spend little time on your background, and spend more space on methods.
What are the kinds of questions to ask before you sit to write?
Now, the tricky part. Once you have decided on where to do your PhD, you also need to know on what topic to do your PhD. Pick up something you like—after all, no one wants to stare at their laptop screens for six-odd years without really enjoying what they are doing. If you are not sure what questions to ask, READ. Read essays, books, and journal articles. These good essays will contain an important question and would have tried to answer a specific one.
Now, think about it. Does it make sense? Do you think something is amiss in that process, approach, and answer? For instance, when, for instance, you study why people fight each other, you ask, are all people fighting all the time? Are there societies that don’t fight? If there are, why don’t they fight? Have they been studied? If they have been studied, what are they not explaining? Thinking about a question for your PhD is more about reading—reading well enough to think for yourself. Once, let’s say you found a question. You need to read more now. You need to ask, are there others who are asking similar questions? If so, how are they trying to answer this question? How else can they be answered?
Asking questions is a technique.
This brainstorming exercise should also lead you to think hard about things. As a PhD student, for most parts, you are only thinking (well, sleeping too!). Once you get your hands on a question and read around it, you will get a sense of how you can think of a project similar to this more extensive one. You will get ideas about how you can think of different ideas but use similar approaches to solving those puzzles. You will also be able to develop thinking coherently. This is necessary. After getting a sense of what is out there and what is not there yet, you need to think of writing your proposal.
1. start with a brief background.
When you think of writing your PhD research proposal, you will have a sense of the questions (if you are trained enough and thought hard, puzzles even) you have in mind. Now, in your background, you are supposed to write a good enough outline of what you are doing through this PhD research proposal. In one page, you need to outlay some critical aspects of why this is relevant, why this is important, who is doing this research, and how you want to do it differently from them.
It should let your readers know exactly what you are trying to do without them having to read the whole PhD research proposal to make sense of what you are doing. At times, we get lost in the process that we know what we want to say but don’t know how to say it. That is okay. Writing takes time. And you will get there if you try hard enough.
2. write a comprehensive literature review.
Indian universities are obsessed with questions of “research gap”—as if they are trying to fix them, trying to fill it. And for that reason, your literature review is significant. A literature review not only gives your reader meat of the problem but also tells them how you may be trying to expand on the existing knowledge. For that, you would have read enough and read well. You need to clearly understand the kinds of questions that are asked in other writings and how they are trying to solve those questions. \
Writing a literature review is a critical component of any research output. In recent years I have learned some skills of writing a literature review. Much of the learning comes from Marc Trachenberg’s The Craft of International History, which provides some of the best advice for someone working on international history. Elsewhere, I have already covered, quite distinctly, how one could read for a literature review, and how one could write literature review.
2.1. how do I write my literature review?
Here is a gist: In any research project I undertake, I divide the literature into two parts: all the books/articles that define the lay of the land of that topic; and then I look at the recent works on the topic I am researching. I also refer to Annual Reviews to understand the trajectory the arguments have shaped over the years in the field and posit what kinds of aspects have puzzled scholars. Once I read the recent works (and refer to their bibliography to get hold of other exciting papers/books), I list the kinds of arguments the authors are making and ask, are they convincing enough? If so, how can I substantiate them further, and if not, what is missing from them?
After going through multiple articles, I sit down to write my assessment in the literature review. I use the funnel method, which means I begin with substantive themes and then move to particular themes that narrow my focus. To do so, I first look at various themes and subthemes the authors seek to cover and at how they converge and diverge from each other. I also see if they are conversing with one another while making their cases.
After that, I synthesise all that is being argued and then write paragraphs compiling what they are saying, what they are not saying, and why they should have said what they are not saying. I then look at the gaps within the larger arguments presented by these scholarly writings. And then propose how I seek to contribute to the larger debates and address the gaps that exist in the research. I also use ZOTERO for referencing, which I have found immensely useful—and I suggest everyone use it.
3. research questions and hypothesis
Once you have written your literature review and once you have identified what has not been done, you may now need to ask questions. My suggestion: ask one broad question and ask multiple related questions. This is useful. You may ask, how do electoral politics influence voter behaviour? Then, to supplement that, you need to ask multiple related questions. You may need to ask: What are the different kinds of electoral policies exist in India? In what ways do they influence voting patterns? Does caste, class, and gender cleavages play a part in voter behaviour? What are the narratives that float around voter behaviour? And are they right? Each of these sub-questions is so broad that they could as well be asked as the main question, but the trick is to ask smartly. Act as if you know.
Once you have asked several questions, you may also write a hypothesis. Some call it an informed guess; others call it a “falsifiable proposition”. There are multiple ways of defining a hypothesis. And for interpretative research, there is a certain redundancy of hypothesis. That aside, your hypothesis needs to be validated. You are not proving your hypothesis. If you are proving it, then it is not good research. You are always validating your research hypothesis. Remember that. This is the most crucial part of your research project. Most of the faculties would not have had the time to read through every single PhD proposal, so they would sift through pages to reach research questions and hypotheses. You need to be clear about what you are asking and how you are seeking to solve this.
4. rationale and scope
Not every research project explicitly asks you to mention this. And if they have not asked for the mention of scope and rationale, it is instructive that you write it yourself. You need to know what is the scope of your research. It simply means what boundaries you draw beyond which you do not seek to venture into. Let’s say you want to study India’s foreign policy during the Nehruvian era. If so, your scope may be limited to the period between 1950-1964.
Just because you are studying India’s foreign policy, you don’t go on studying everything under the sun. You may also want to study a specific aspect of this Nehruvian foreign policy—maybe his vision about the world, his desire to sustain good Sino-Indian relations, or maybe something else. That is your research scope. Your scope tells the reader what you are doing and, importantly, what you are not doing. Now, rationale is put justification for all that you are doing, and why you want to do what you claim to do. And how that will help benefit the knowledge that exists out there already. You need to clearly state why you are undertaking this research, using this method and period, etc. All that is your rationale.
5. what are the approaches and research methods?
Frankly speaking, this is the most critical part, but also the most neglected part of your PhD research proposal. Part of the reason why it is the most neglected is due to the lack of methodological training among Indian academics per se. There is also a tacit understanding among the committee members that you would be trained for one year in methods after being admitted into the course. Therefore, they do not quite bother about methods. But you still need to do your background research. You need to know how you are trying to solve this question.
For that, you need to ask: Is my research empirical? Is it qualitative or quantitative? Does it require that I read books and interpret them? Or does it require me to do fieldwork? Do I have to sift through large chunks of data? Or do I have to sit in a library and read through dusty archival materials? Answering these questions will give you a sense of what your approach/method is likely to be for this project. It will provide you with a coherent understanding of how you will build your case using what methods and techniques. Elsewhere, I have devoted some space for discussing research methods in international relations (likely to be similar to most of the social sciences). You may get a better sense of how you may build your case.
6. how do you create a bibliography or a reference list?
The final stage of a PhD research proposal is creating a meticulous reference list. There are several citation styles: MLA, APA, Harvard Styling, CMS, etc. You don’t need to go in-depth about all these at this stage. For now, you need to list out all the journal articles, books, and news sources you read and have cited. To list all the sources, you may use citation generator tools online if you are not all that comfortable with Zotero and Mendeley.
This does not require any thinking but mostly doing. It also requires acknowledging others who have helped you make this case. This is the final part of the PhD research proposal. Once you have completed your referencing, you need to go back and format it properly. No one wants to read a clumsy essay. Everything one writes must be in good shape before others pick it up with interest. If it is clumsy, even you wouldn’t want to look at it, let alone show it to others. Therefore, make sure to clean your draft once you have written it.
7. some final tips for writing a good PhD research proposal
Anything we write the first time is not always our best writing. We require time to write good stuff. We also want to make sure that there is a certain coherence in all that we write. So, how do you go ahead with it? The best advice is to share your proposal with friends and family. Ask them to read it—and share their comments. Ask them to ask you questions. You may also quickly check with them what they understood from what you wrote.
This tells a lot about how we write. If a layperson cannot understand what we have written, you must ask yourself: Are there ways to write it any better? Can you write another less complex draft? Repeat the whole process all over again until you really can make it. Apart from that, approach others—peers and senior students who may help you gain coherence in your writing. Ask them for tips. It always helps to seek advice from others.
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