Advice for Preparing a PhD Research Proposal

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In a previous blog, I shared some practical advice before starting a PhD program in Theology from my experience teaching research methods for the ORU PhD Program. Preparing to enter a PhD program is a daunting task. But if your goal is to become an expert in the field who wants to contribute original research on a theological topic, then you must begin with preparing a PhD research proposal. Here is some practical information and tips for putting this together.

What is a Research Proposal?

The PhD degree is a research degree in which students demonstrate thier expertise in a field of study by offering original research on a topic in that field. Therefore, when applying to a PhD program, you will be asked to prepare a proposal outlining the topic that you wish to explore during your PhD research.

Most PhD programs assume the following before you enter: 1) you have a specific topic in a field, 2) you know the conversations in that field, 3) you can write about that topic in your coursework to help you begin to research for your dissertation. Your proposal provides to the PhD committee the information needed to evaluate if you are ready to join the program. If do not have enough information on your topic or do not yet have a preliminary idea of your thesis, then I would suggest you take some time to prepare by focusing on some of things in my previous blog.

The Research Proposal is an important tool that provides your potential program information about your research interests. A clear and coherent proposal shows that you have a general sense of where you are going and how you are going to get there.

  • It clearly proposes a basic thesis that will guide all of your research. You don’t yet know fully what your dissertation will prove, but by articulating your basic thesis, it will show that you know what you are looking for in your research.
  • It clearly articulates the specific research question/s you want to explore. Before you can have a thesis, you have to have a question that directs your research towards finding the answer to dilemma that exists in your field.
  • It demonstrates that you understand the body of literature on the topic well enough to accept that you are ready to build a thesis. As I mention in the previous blog, if you can’t articulate the major assumptions and arguments of the scholarly studies in your topic, you are not quite ready yet.

Begin with a Research Question

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If you are preparing to apply to a PhD program, the best place to begin is with a good research question. What is it you want to know? In the classic book The Craft of Research, the authors provide a helpful template for a good research question that I use with all my students. It is as follows:

My thesis will 1) explore the topic of … (general field and population studied), 2) because I want to find out (the specific research question guiding your research on this topic), 3) So that new light can be shed on… (original contribution to the field and implication, ie. why this needs to be written)

Here is an example I use from my thesis:

My my thesis will (1) explore the subject of Pentecostal eschatology, (2) because I want to find out how the Assemblies of God developed their eschatological doctrines and whether those doctrines are pneumatologically oriented, (3) in order to contribute to the conversations about the relationship between dispensational premillennialism and Pentecostal theology.

Remember, a PhD level question should be theoretical in nature. It should explore explanations and theories for why something is taking place or is understood a certain way. Some examples of these types of questions include the following:

  • Conceptual Questions: Seeking explanations for a question no one has attempted to give in order to develop new theories for the problem.
  • Theoretical Questions: Revisiting previously answered questions by exploring the topic with the new data available in order to create a new theory.
  • Observational Questions: Exploring social scientific questions that seek to explain phenomenon taking place within a contextual setting.

The process of developing a good question begins with reading widely to know the existing research on your topic so you can develop a question that hasn’t been addressed. This is why you must already know the major studies that already exist on the topic so that your question can be an informed question.

The Research Proposal, then, is your articulation of your topic, the issues that scholars have discussed related to your topic, and what you propose to explore that is unique and original.

Elements of a Proposal

Once you have a topic, the basic research question, and an understanding of the scholarly discussions on that topic, then you can put together your proposal. Schools differ in the elements that they ask for, but they are typically formatted with these considerations:

  • Written in academic narrative form, formatted like a paper with headings for each section.
  • Includes footnotes of sources and ideas that are covered in the narrative.
  • Varies in required length, but could be anywhere between 5-15 pages plus a bibliography.

Here are some of the important elements to outline in a proposal.

  1. Proposed Title: a Title Page with a working title that captures the focus of your thesis. At this point, do not give a stylistic title as you would find on a book, just a content-based title that portrays what you are studying. “Exploring the Epistemological and Hermeneutical Sources for Socially Prophetic Theology”
  2. Abstract: Provide a concise summary of the topic of research (approx. 150 words).
  3. Introduction: This section introduces your topic and provides the background for the field in which your study is addressing. This is basically #1 from your research question. Introduce the basic assumptions of this topic in the field of study. Include any cultural, social, political or historical information that clarifies the topic and population that you will be studying. Should be a page or two.
  4. Purpose and Statement of the Problem – This section should state the main research question or problem that the researcher will attempt to solve. This is basically #2 from your research question. It should explore the issues in the scholarly conversation that have led to this question. Focus on previous studies that your research will build on. It should also articulate the key questions that your research will attempt to address.  This should be the bulk of your page count (could be anywhere between 3-10 pages).
  5. Thesis/Hypothesis: This section should be a brief statement (3-5 sentences) that represents the thesis to be demonstrated. This is a hypothesis because you haven’t done the research fully to make a claim. But this is your working assumption about what your research will reveal about this topic.
  6. Significance: Describe the significance of this study. Why does this need to be written? What gap in knowledge does it fill? Who will benefit from this knowledge? This is basically #3 from your research question.
  7. Research Design and Methodology: Here the researcher should answer the question, “How am I going to do this?” Describe the method of study that will be conducted. Will this be exegetical, historical, theological, empirical, etc.? What types primary sources will you explore to do your original research ? If an empirical study, how will you collect and analyze data? 
  8. List of Potential Chapters: Provide a basic outline of 5-7 potential chapters including introduction and conclusion chapters.
  9. Bibliography: Provide a bibliography of the top 20 or so relevant sources on your topic, even if you didn’t cite them the proposal.

Final Thoughts

The Research Proposal is an incredibly important part of pursuing a PhD degree. It demonstrates that you know enough about your topic and the area you want to research that you are ready to join a program. If you are unsure what to put in your proposal, it may mean you need to take more time to read widely, discuss your interests with advisors or professors you trust, and meditate further on what it is God has called you to contribute to the academic community.

That said, the proposal you put together when applying is only a preliminary idea of what you want to study. Most programs will help you shape your topic along the way. You will usually take a research methods class, like the one I teach, in which you will revise and refine your proposal. Most programs also encourage you to explore your topic in the classes you take so you are gaining more knowledge on your topic that will further refine your proposal before you begin your dissertation phase. Finally, you will also have an advisor that will help you think through your topic and will suggest ways in which your research should be refined.

If you can begin with your PhD journey with a solid research proposal, it will help you be more prepared, focused, and confident on your path to becoming an expert in your field.

One thought on “Advice for Preparing a PhD Research Proposal

  1. Pingback: Practical Advice Before You Pursue a PhD | Daniel D. Isgrigg

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