How to prepare an Abstract for a Ph. D. Research Report.


Although one of the shortest sections in your research report, the abstract is also one of the most important sections.

The abstract is sometimes also called the synopsis or summary.

It is like an executive summary of a business reports.

The purpose of the abstract is to enable interested readers to grasp the salient elements of the report without having to read the whole report.

The abstract is a mandatory section of your research and should be short and informative.

It should cover the following:

  • The problem that was researched.
  • Your main argument or arguments.
  • The nature of the research.
  • The context of the research.
  • The research methods and procedures that you used.
  • Your main findings, conclusions and recommendations.

Some universities will require of you to cover everything in not more than 300 words – that is one A4 page.

Obviously, the abstract can only be written once you have completed your research and wrote your research report.

It should appear directly after the table of contents, authentication and acknowledgements.

The abstract should end with a list of not more than ten keywords.

Abstracts are often published in specialist journals.

Here is an example of the structure (headings that you can use in your abstract:

  1. Background to the study.
  2. Definition of the problem and research question.
  3. Research design.
  4. A title that is the same as or like the title of your research report.
  5. Conclusions.


The abstract should briefly explain the following:

  1. What you did – the topic of your research.
  2. How you did it – the methodology that you used.
  3. What you found out – the results of your research.
  4. What the significance of the research was – your conclusions and recommendations.
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The Table of Contents of your Ph.D. Research Report


I need to emphasize that the initial table of contents will be more a structure for a table of contents than a final one. You will probably have all the chapters that you must have, but you will have few lower level headings. Also, you might need to add a small number of chapters as you progress with your research.

The table of contents should follow directly after the authentication of your work.

Once you’ve written your research report, you will probably delete the provisional structure for a table of content and replace it with the chapters, headings and sub-headings of your final research report. Keep in mind that your table of contents may not differ from the chapters, headings and sub-headings in your research report.

At the end of your table of contents you should also have the references that you consulted, a list of figures and a list of tables.

Here is a list of the most basic headings that most universities will expect you to discuss in your research report:

  1. Title page.
  2. Confirmation of authenticity.
  3. Acknowledgements.
  4. Abstract.
  5. Chapter 1: Contextualising the Study.
  6. Chapter 2: Research Methodology.
  7. Chapter 3: Theoretical Background.
  8. Chapter 4: Data Collection and Analysis.
  9. Chapter 5: Synthesis and Evaluation of the Study.
  10. References.
  11. List of Figures.
  12. List of Tables.

The title page. Take note that the title page is not mentioned in the table of contents and that it is the cover page of your research report.

Confirmation of authenticity. You will be required by the university to confirm that the contents of your research report are your own. Most universities, if not all, use a standard format for such confirmation.

Here is an example:

“I, (your full names and surname) declare that (the title of your research report) is my own work and that all the sources that I have used or quoted have been indicated and acknowledged by means of complete references.

(Your signature)


Acknowledgements. Acknowledgements are a matter of choice.

However, it is only good manners to thank people who helped you with your research.

The acknowledgement has real value for your research, though, for example:

  1. It will show the readers of your report that you conducted your research in a systematic, ethical and disciplined manner.
  2. It shows that you understand that research should not be done by one person only.

Abstract. The abstract is a mandatory summary of your research report. It must be short – you will be required to summarise your research report in three or four pages.

Some readers, for example your sponsors, might read only the abstract. Therefore, you will need to ensure that you cover all the questions that they might have.

Chapter 1: Contextualising the Study. Researchers making use of technicist research methods often claim that their findings and the principles and concepts that they develop are timeless and that it applies independent of context.

Even they, however, need to define the range and scope of their research – they will not be able to include the entire world, let alone entire universe, in their research projects.

Chapter 2: Research Methodology. In this chapter you will probably discuss:

  1. The research approach that you will use.
  2. The research methods that you will use.
  3. The paradigmatic approach that you will follow.
  4. The data collection methods that you will use.
  5. How you will analyse the data that you collect.

Chapter 3: Theoretical Background. You will probably need to do literature study as a foundation for your research. It would be rather difficult to jump into data collection and the analysis of data if you do not know what you should be looking for.

Just for interest’s sake – this is a rationalist stance.

Chapter 4: Data Collection and Analysis. You already discussed the data collection and analysis methods that you will use in Chapter 2. Here you will need to discuss the actual processes of data collection and analysis. This is a critically important chapter and might even be broken down into two or three separate chapters. It is from the contents of this chapter that you will come to findings and conclusions from which your solution to the problem that you investigated will come.

Chapter 5: Synthesis and Evaluation of the Study. Chapter 5 will normally be your final chapter. This is where you will describe your solution. Depending on the purpose of your research and the research approach and methods that you used, you might develop a model, new knowledge, new methods to combat oil pollution at sea, new medication, and many more.

References. All sources that you consulted must be acknowledged in your research report.

Universities invariably have prescriptions in this regard, and you should abide by them.

List of Figures and List of Tables. The lists of figures and tables follow directly after the table of contents.

One can regard it as part of the table of contents.

The figure and table numbers in the lists must be the same as in the content of the research report.

Different universities have different requirements for the layout and format of the lists of figures and tables, although most are rather flexible in this respect.


Your provisional table of contents will probably be just a structure, consisting of chapters with no lower lever content.

Your actual and final table of contents must align exactly with the contents of your report.

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The Title (Cover Page) of your Ph.D. Research Report


The title page is the first thing that your promoter, also called your study leader, will see.

Obviously, it will be the first impression and you know as well as I that the first impression is important.

And yet it is alarming to see how many mistakes Ph.D. students make on their title pages. Then again, what some will regard as a mistake, others will see as correct, perhaps even creative.

Those who follow a relativist approach will probably regard most of the mistakes on title pages as not serious or simply irrelevant.

Structuralists will frown upon you if you don’t abide by the exact layout as prescribed by the university.

In my opinion you should pay as much attention to the wording of your title as possible and not overturn the applecart unnecessarily.

A first impression will probably not have much of an effect on your study leader or assistant study leader because by the time you submit your research report, they will already know you well.

They probably gave you advice on the wording of your title anyway.

The external examiners are a different story – all they will see is your final submission.

So, what are the requirements for a title page?

The title page should convey clearly and succinctly the topic being researched.

Avoid obscure and unnecessarily lengthy titles.

Some universities recommend that titles should not exceed 15 words.

Start off with a working title and revisit and reformulate it as you read for greater focus.

University requirements for the layout of a title page

Most universities have strict rules about the layout and appearance of a title page. Their policies in this regard will probably include the following:

  1. Use only one or two font types. More than two can be confusing and difficult to read.
  2. Use a clear font that is easy to read.
  3. Keep the title page simple. Too many words or pictures can have a distracting and confusing effect.
  4. The title page must contain the following information:
  5. The full name and surname of the student.
  6. The full title of the research report and the month, year and place that it was printed.
  7. The name of the university, faculty and department.
  8. The full names and surnames of the study leader and assistant study leader.
  9. The correct name of the learning programme.

Here is an example of a title page:

A Historical Perspective on the Cognitive Erosion of the Meaning of Otology versus Epistemology Since the Twentieth Century


Susan Anne Mitchell


Submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree

Doctor in Philosophiae (Ph. D.)

In the Faculty of Linguistic History

at the

University of Berne

Promoter: Prof Albert S. Baloye

Dr Ratchell South

November 2021


Your title page will create a good or bad impression in the minds of your readers, and that impression can decide if your submission will succeed or not.

Pay special attention to the wording of the title.

Read the university’s policies regarding the layout of a title page and abide by it.

Ask your study leader for one or two good examples of title pages and copy their format and layout.

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The Nature and Structure of a Ph.D. Research Report


Before we discuss the nature and structure of a Ph.D. research report, I need to point out that research on doctoral level is not about just writing an essay. It is hard and complex work, but the rewards are most certainly worth the effort.

Conducting research and writing a report is like the seafarers of old and the astronauts of today who, as the old space science movie used to begin, “venture where no one else has ventured before”.

You will enjoy interesting and exciting discoveries.

Sometimes you might weep because of what you discover.

At other times you will jump for joy.

It is, indeed, a roller coaster ride that I hope you will enjoy.

Let’s board the ship.

Characteristics of a research report for a Ph.D.

Here is a brief summary of the characteristics of a research report for a Ph. D.:

  1. The topic can be highly complex but need not be so.
  2. The content will be highly specialized in a highly complex area of expertise.
  3. The scope can be extensive or at least apply to a realistic community or geographical area.
  4. Analysis of data will require sophisticated analytical processes.
  5. Recognised research approaches, methods and paradigms should be used.
  6. The report should be 30,000 to 70,000 words in length.
  7. The bibliography can include generic and specific sources.
  8. More than 130 sources should be consulted.
  9. Marks are not awarded and the report should be worthy of distinction before it can be accepted as meeting the requirements.

The research design

You should design your research report in such a way that it will satisfy the purpose of your research.

Although the design will consist of several headings, or steps, it does not mean that you will follow a linear process. You will inevitably need to return to previous work, construct and reconstruct until you achieve an acceptable level of complexity, validity, authenticity and reliability.

The design is linear, but the research process is always a spiral.

Most of all, however, you will need to achieve the purpose of your research.

Your research design will probably move from underlying philosophical assumptions and theoretical knowledge to new knowledge and a solution to a problem.

Even though the basic structure of a research report is prescribed by universities, all of them will allow a measure of flexibility by allowing you to add chapters. Omitting chapters might be risky because you might leave out important steps in the writing of the report or in the research process.

Changes in the internal or external environment, new information, unforeseen obstacles and unexpected opportunities to improve your work can move, perhaps even force you to change the structure and layout of your research report.

Research is not just about collecting and interpreting data, it is also a process by means of which you would manage change. That is why your design should be flexible.

Never pad, i.e. never include data in your report that is not relevant to the purpose of your research.

Structure your report, including the chapters, sub-sections, paragraphs and even sentences in such a manner that they logically flow from the problem to the solution.

The design of your research report will depend on your research skills, the topic of the research and what the university prescribes.

The design of your research report should include which type of research you will conduct. your research can be exploratory, descriptive or explanatory.

Exploratory research would be research on a topic that you do not have much information about. You will, therefore, need to collect and analyse a substantial amount of data. Mostly a mixed approach.

Descriptive research would be research on a concept, people, situation, etc. that you are familiar with and that you wish to describe. Mostly a qualitative approach.

Explanatory research involves testing a hypothesis and coming to conclusions about the validity of the hypothesis. Mostly a quantitative approach.

The scale and scope determine the boundaries of the design.

The boundaries put the problem statement or hypothesis into perspective.

You will also need to acknowledge the limitations of your research process. Some universities will allow you to overcome limitations with assumptions. This, however, can damage the validity of your findings and the reliability of your recommendations.

Acknowledging that you are developing or deconstructing the findings of somebody else will lend validity and authenticity to your work.

Don’t underestimate the quality of research done by academics before you.

Be modest about your claims to the originality of your work.

Don’t regard quotations from the work of other researchers as a substitute for sound arguments by you.

Regard the work of others as corroboration of your own and use it as such.

Let’s look at the basic structure of a research report.

All research reports should have the following elements:

  1. The title page.
  2. The table of contents.
  3. A list of figures and tables.
  4. The abstract.
  5. Confirmation of authenticity.
  6. Acknowledgements.
  7. The preface or introduction.
  8. The chapters.
  9. Bibliography and references.
  10. Appendices.


Research design is the blueprint according to which you will conduct your research.

Accept that change will occur while you do your research. Accept this as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Consult as many sources of data as you can find, but guard against trying to include too many research methods, paradigms and data collection methods in your research.

The insights that you offer must be your own.

Remember that scrupulous honesty is as important in small matters as in large.

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The Relationship Between the Ph.D. Student and the Study Leader


Some universities will appoint a study leader for a prospective Ph.D. student only after the research proposal has been accepted.

The university will mostly appoint an academic who has specialised knowledge of the field in which you plan to do your research.

Appointing a professor who is an expert in the field of your study will not always be possible.

In practice, it often happens that a student approaches a professor for advice, which might include asking him or her to act as their study leader.

Regardless of how you and your study leader came together, the possibility of conflict always exists.

Some prospective students might not be aware of the challenges that they and their study leaders might face. We tend to be optimistic about new relationships and this is not limited to social relationships.

I need to emphasise, though, that the possibilities for conflict that I discuss in this post are exceptions.

Study leaders and their students are adults and most of them know how to interrelate and cooperate in a mature and objective manner.

It even happens that students and their study leaders become good friends.

Even so, you should be aware that things might go wrong and the better you are prepared for the possibility, the better will you be able to deal with it, should it happen.

What can go wrong?

Here are some examples of what can go wrong between you and your study leader:

  1. A study leader might decide early in the relationship that the student will not succeed just because they don’t like each other.
  2. A study leader might discriminate against the student based on race, gender, religion, gender orientation, appearance.
  3. Even if the study leader does not discriminate, the student might accuse the study leader of discrimination.
  4. It can happen that a study leader and student become emotionally or physically involved to the extent that it damages the quality of the research being done.
  5. A study leader might make unacceptable advances towards a student.
  6. A student can make advances at a study leader.

I don’t think “making advances” is necessarily a problem, but it is risky, especially if the attraction is not mutual.

  • Attempts at bribery and corruption are always possible.
  • Some of you might think of other possible obstacles.

Perhaps we should consider the duties and responsibilities of the parties to a Ph.D. relationship first before we discuss ways in which to avoid or manage conflict.

The duties of a study leader

The prospective study leader often arranges for the student to deliver a research proposal.

The study leader should act as an advisor on the structure and layout of your research report.

The study leader should also be able to assist you with the academic content of your research.

The study leader will also evaluate your work at intervals to which you will agree in advance.

The study leader will tell you when your dissertation or thesis is ready to be submitted.

Good study leaders make their expectations and rules for the project clear from the word go. Issues that you should agree on include:

  1. How regularly you will meet.
  2. The preferred method of communication. It will probably be a mixture of emails, phone calls, meeting at the study leader’s office.
  3. Mastery of methods and timelines for completing your research.
  4. Some universities require of doctoral students to do some lecturing. This needs to be cleared out with your study leader.
  5. The monitoring, evaluation and reporting of progress.

What you as the student are responsible for

  1. You need to focus on gaining new knowledge and skills and not just on obtaining a Ph.D. certificate to add to your Curriculum Vitae and hang on your office wall.
  2. The factual content, logical development of arguments and conclusions arrived at are your responsibility.
  3. You will need to plan your research timetable. Your study leader might help you with his.
  4. You will need to submit sections of your research report for evaluation in accordance with the timetable.
  5. Changes suggested by your or your study leader might sometimes need to be submitted to the Postgraduate Committee for approval. (Some universities call it the Higher Degree Committee.) This will, for example, be the case if the changes imply changes to the purpose of your research or any other changes that might impact on the grounds upon which your study proposal was accepted.
  6. You must show acceptable progress.
  7. Your research report must be entirely your own work. You will be required to submit a statement to this effect when your work is completed.
  8. You should discuss your progress, work and ideas with your study leader.
  9. Nobody else may revise your work or do it for you.
  10. Family and friends may help with proofreading.
  11. It is always a good idea to have your research report language edited once it is completed.
  12. Always ask your study leader for consent before you use external assistance with your research.
  13. Keep in mind that you are probably not the study leader’s only postgraduate student and they have other work as well.
  14. Don’t ignore the study leader’s recommendations without discussing it with him or her first.
  15. Permission must be obtained from the university before you may publish your research report or any part of it.

How to avoid, resolve or manage conflict

You and your study leader should have a set of shared expectations. That is why you need to get along well from the word go.

Both of you need to be aware of the constraints under which the other works and you should respect the fact that your study leader cannot spend too much time helping you.

The study leader should abide by the principles of adult learning. In brief that means that:

  1. Both the student and the study leader should accept responsibility for achieving success. (My study leader assured me from the word go that he would feel personally responsible if I do not successfully complete my doctoral studies.)
  2. The study leader should create a desire in the student to achieve success. There are many ways to motivate a student. (Story about the first chapter that I handed in for evaluation and the “bloodbath” feedback.)
  3. The study leader and the student should make the study process attractive and fun. (My study leader and I regularly met for breakfast.)
  4. Set the timeline against specific objectives to achieve before specific cut-off dates and manage it well.
  5. Arrange reading and discussion sessions – the study leader should become actively involved in the student’s work but must not do the work for him or her. The study leader must also know when to allow the student to fly solo. (Diligent students invariably reach a point where they know more about the research topic than the study leader.)
  6. The study leader should give guidance and support and must ensure that the student grows all the time.
  7. Communicate as often as is realistically possible.
  8. Students must accept responsibility for their own studies.
  9. Mutual respect and good leadership.
  10. Allow the students to decide when they are ready to be evaluated. The timetable is an important management tool but not cast in concrete.


In summary:

  1. Ph.D. students are adults and should be treated as such but also behave as such.
  2. The study leader may not do research or write any part of the research report for the student.
  3. The study leader and student need to cooperate and together accept responsibility for successfully completing the study project.
  4. If unavoidable it might become necessary for the student and study leader to sever their working relationship. The longer you take to take this radical step the more damage will it do to you and your study leader. Make sure that you know the policies and procedures of the university in this respect.
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Ah, the academics, they just can’t see eye to eye about the meaning of words.

Take goal, purpose and objective as an example. They often use them interchangeably.

Rather than to claim that I know the meaning of the words, I will just explain how I will use them in this post.

The goal is what you hope to achieve with your research.

The purpose is the reason why you want to achieve the goal.

You can develop objectives from both the goal and the purpose for your research.

What’s more, you can break objectives down even further into questions that you can use in a questionnaire or interview, should you plan on sending out questionnaires or hold interviews to gather data for your research.

The goal of your research

You need to explain what you hope to achieve with your research.

Try to stick to one goal only.

The more goals you have, the wider will your scope be and the more difficult it will become to come to valid conclusions and proposals.

The purpose of the research

The sponsor of your research will expect some value for their money. They will, therefore, provide you with the purpose of your research.

Sponsors can be industrialists, but they can also be taxpayers, communities, government, parents.

You can, of course, be your own sponsor”.

A professor can also suggest a research topic.

Typical purposes for research can be to add economic value, improved quality of life and improved professionalism.

As I already said, the purposes can be broken down further into objectives.

  • Added economic value can be achieved through improved production processes, more efficient work, higher productivity, etc.
  • Improved quality of life can be broken down into higher income, improved well-being, better health care, safety, social justice, the arts, leisure time utilization, freedom to interact in an enlightened, informed, responsible and constructive manner, etc.
  • Improved professionalism can be the availability of good quality learning institutions, improve skills, more research, etc.

It would be a good idea to consider the level of social, economic, technological, legislative and natural environmental development of your country or community when choosing a purpose for your research.

The reason for this is not just to be noble and kind to others.

Taking the external environment into consideration is in the interest of your own business. It has emotional, marketing, security and financial value, so do it.

For example, in a country with a high unemployment rate, research that would promote education, job creation and employment should be promoted.

Strategically speaking society should not only focus on solving current and short-term problems, but also position themselves, through research, to seize growth opportunities and to prepare for possible future threats.

Some radical comments on the purpose of research

  1. Intellectual research for its own sake does not exist. Time and energy spent on research are never wasted. What may be regarded as worthless knowledge now might turn out to be valuable in the future.
  2. Always see if you can gain practical value from your research. In my opinion universities focus too much on developing new theoretical knowledge rather than to solve real-life challenges. In this respect universities and the industry should co-operate.
  3. A research report that is not shared with others has no value.


In summary, you will need to formulate a goal, a purpose and some objectives for your research.

Sponsors of your research will often insist on the achievement of a goal that they can benefit from.

Also consider adding value to the community at large.

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Research is always done in a specific context.

Your contextual perspective is necessary to help the members of the Postgraduate Committee understand the background of your research.

You will need to explain the context for your research in your research report as well, because there are other stakeholders in your research who will also be interested in it at a later stage.

Other stakeholders can be sponsors, external assessors, leaders in industry, government officials and, of course, future students.

Context is expressed as the scope or limits of your research.

 It can be seen as the “playing field” on which you will conduct your research.

You can and should use the context for your research to create interest in your research and to show that you can do the research.

The context for your research can change when to do you research. You will need to check with your study leader that such change will be acceptable, because it can impact on the viability of your study.

Let’s look at how the context can impact on the topic for research.

I will discuss the elements in terms of the following, rather rough, topic for research:

“An investigation and analysis of the behavioural profiles of adults”.

You will see that you can also use the context for your research to refine your research topic and to formulate your research problem, research question or hypothesis.

The Elements of Context

The following can be elements of the context of your research:

  1. Geographical area. You can, for example, confirm the viability of your research by showing that you will investigate just one country rather than a whole continent or the world.
  2. Field of research
    1. Your field of research will decide the faculty where you will study. For example, Medical Science, Human Resources Management, Military Science, Arts and Culture, Marketing, and many more.
    1. The field of research can also decide the research method and the paradigmatic approach that you will use, but we will need to discuss these issues in a future post or posts.
  3. Target population. Your target population can be people, animals, insects, rocks, cloud formations, etc.
  4. Time. Your research can stretch over a period of time, focus on a specific point in time, compare one era (mostly in the past) with a different era (mostly the present), etc. Data seldom apply infinitely, although rationalists are of the opinion that some scientific principles do.
  5. Gender. You can conduct research on just one gender, all genders, compare the behavioural profiles of different genders, etc.
  6. Value systems. You can focus on just one value system, for example a comparison of how tourists would behave compared to how locals will behave. You can also investigate many behavioural patterns and link it to the profile elements of your target group.
  7. The level of your research. Research is mostly done on a micro or macro level. The field of research will have an impact on the level of your research.

You will need to explain why you chose the context that you did. Possible reasons for deciding on a context can be the nature of the problem that you would like to solve, the time and funds that you have available, viability in general, etc.

From the reason for your choice of context should follow the value that your research will add to the academia, the industry, the community, government, etc.


The context of your research explains the “what”, where”, “who” and the “when” of your research.

The context can include a geographical area, a value system, a religious group, a species of living organisms, artefacts, etc.

Context can be refined in terms of structures, stakeholders, social groups, etc.

You research problem or hypothesis can be deduced from the context for your research.

Do not over-complicate the context for your research. Just explain it in simple language.

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The table of contents is your first opportunity to impress upon the Postgraduate Committee and your study leader the importance and value of your planned research.

Especially experienced professors often claim that they can already see if your study proposal is viable or not by just looking at the table of contents.

Just to avoid confusion – you can have two tables of content in your research proposal. The first would be the table of contents for the proposal itself and the second can be the proposed table of contents for your research report.

In this post I will share with you hints on what you should write under each heading of your table of content to gain the approval of the Postgraduate Committee and your study leader.

The table of contents

To begin with, here is an example of a table of contents for a research proposal.

Table of Contents

                                                                                                Page no

1     Introduction                                                                          1

1.1  Introduction to the problem                                                1

1.2  The Primary Focus of the Study                                           2

1.3  The Importance of the Problem                                            2

1.4  Definition of the Problem                                                       3

1.5  Definition of Concepts                                                           3

1.6  The Motivation for the Study                                                 5

1.7  Current Knowledge of the Problem                                      5

1.8  Potential Benefits of the Research                                       6

2     Research Design                                                                 7

2.1  The Research Approach                                                        7

2.2  Research Methodology                                                          8

2.3  Data-collection Strategy                                                        9

2.4  Ethical Issues for Consideration                                           10

2.5  Proposed Chapter-outline and Deadline Dates                  11

3     References                                                                            12

4     Definitions                                                                             13

5     Quick Reference Manual                                                    14      

You will notice that the research proposal consists of three main sections, namely the introduction, the body and supplementary information.

In the introduction you should discuss the context and purpose of your planned research.

In the body you should discuss how you will approach and conduct the research.

Supplementary information should lend authenticity and validity to your proposal.

1     Introduction                                                                         

1.1  Introduction to the problem

See if you can here already impress upon the Postgraduate Committee the importance of the study by discussing your ideas in the context of you planned target group or target area.

Link your introduction to the environmental factors that you regard as wonting and show how your research can solve problems in that context.

Do not criticize if you do not have facts to substantiate your claims.

1.2  The Primary Focus of the Study

Keep in mind that your research proposal, like your eventual research report, should follow the so-called golden threat that runs through your study.

To achieve this, let the environment and context that you discussed in the introduction to the problem develop into you focus for the study.

After all, you should focus on the research problem if you are to solve it.

1.3  The Importance of the Problem

Again, link the importance of the problem with the previous issue, that is the focus of your study. Discuss why the problem is important and who will benefit if the problem is solved.

Do not claim over-emotional problems. Always reason in an objective and professional manner.

It is especially when you choose a critical paradigm, for example critical theory, critical race theory, or feminism that researches sometimes can ignore the facts to proof a point about which they feel strongly.

1.4  Definition of the Problem

Please do not now define a problem that has no relevance to what you discussed so far. Your problem statement, problem question or hypothesis should follow from what you already wrote.

The research approach that you will follow will largely decide if you will define a research problem, research question or hypothesis.

You will probably formulate a hypothesis if you intend using quantitative research.

You will probably formulate a research problem or research question if you intend using a qualitative approach.

You can have more than one research problem or question, but don’t list too many. I would suggest not more than three.

1.5  Definition of Concepts

The definition of concepts is a huge problem even in the policies and procedures for Ph.D. studies of universities and other research organisations.

That is why you will need to explain what you mean by key terms and concepts.

Once you have explained what you mean by such terms and concepts, you must apply the meanings consistently.

1.6  The Motivation for the Study

The motivation for the study links up with the importance of the study. The importance of the study is mostly also the motivation for the study.

I would use something like “It is important because my dad wants me to study for a Ph.D.” as a motivation for the study.

Your motivation for the study should reflect the needs of the community, a sponsor, the academic fraternity, even perhaps the entire world.

The potential value of your study should invite acceptance, validity and sincerity.

1.7  Current Knowledge of the Problem

It would be risky to choose a research topic about which you know nothing.

You will probably need to do some prior studying and you should provide evidence of such prior knowledge and, perhaps, experience.

You can also mention the profiles of the individuals or organisations who will be involved in your research if it is relevant.

Just keep in mind that they cannot do your research for you.

1.8  Potential Benefits of the Research

Your research must have theoretical value, practical value and scientific value.

Theoretical value would be the new knowledge that will result from your research.

Practical value would be what can be applied in the industry.

Scientific value can be to the benefit to a particular field of science.

Theoretical, practical and scientific value can form the basis for future research.

2     Research Design                                                                

2.1  The Research Approach

Mention if you will do quantitative or qualitative research.

Briefly explain why you chose the approach that you did.

You can also discuss the paradigmatic approach that you will follow here, or you can discuss it under a separate heading, also here.

2.2  Research Methodology

Make sure that the research methodology that you will use is reconcilable with the research approach that you chose.

2.3  Data-collection Strategy

Data collection strategies are often regarded as research methods.

I don’t think this is a serious problem because data collection strategies are, indeed, often also research methods.

Then again, not all data collection strategies go with all research methods or even research approaches.

This, however, is also not a serious problem because you will learn and come to realise that what you intended doing cannot be done once you get to the point where you need to do the research and collect the data.

2.4  Ethical Issues for Consideration

We will discuss this in much more detail in a future post, because ethics in Ph.D. are a mouthful. It includes issues such as being honest, protecting the identity of people involved in your research, not committing plagiarism, trust, deception, legality, professionalism and many more.

2.5  Proposed Chapter-outline and Deadline Dates

The proposed chapter outline can be a provisional table of contents for your research report.

You will also need to provide deadline dates for your research.

We will discuss the chapter-outline and deadline dates separately in future posts.

3     References

You can have a separate heading for literature study in which you list the references that you already consulted; and a list of references for your research proposal.

Don’t list references that you did not use. If you list references that you did not use yet in your literature study, you will need to point this out.

4     Definitions and a Quick Reference Manual

You might have separate headings for references and a quick reference manual, although some study leaders will frown upon this.

Definitions and the quick reference manual are mostly there to help you maintain consistency in your writing.

Summary and close

In summary:

  1. If your research proposal does not show that your research topic is important and that you can do the research, the Postgraduate Committee will probably not approve your application.
  2. Keep your research proposal sufficiently simple for you to understand everything that you write.
  3. Make sure that you know what the university will require of you to cover in your research proposal.
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In my previous post I shared with you eight points that you will need to discuss in your research proposal.

In this post I will share with you several hints on the title page for a Ph.D. research report.  

Just before we discuss the format of the title page – It is not possible to use terminology with which all universities will agree.

Here are some examples:

  1. Some call the report submitted for a Ph.D. a dissertation, others call it a thesis. It is also called a doctorate. I will mostly refer to it as a “research report” seeing that the context and level of my presentation will always be doctoral level.

I analyse and discuss this issue in more detail in my book on research methodology.

  • Some universities call the person who applies for doctoral studies a student or prospective student, others call him or her a candidate. In a relativist spirit I will just use what feels right.
  • The study leader is sometimes also called the promoter or the supervisor. In a more structuralist spirit, I will stick to study leader.

A title page for your research proposal

I deliberately decided to discuss the title page for a research proposal and not just the title, because the title page includes the title and there are several other issues of the title page that I would also like to bring to your attention.

The layout and wording of the title page for a research report might differ slightly from the title page for the research proposal. This is also something about which universities will not always agree, although the differences in layout are mostly subtle.

As I said in my previous post, members of the Postgraduate Committee might suggest a different title from the one that you suggest.

If you chose a study leader before applying, she or he will probably help you with the formulation of the title.

The title, once refined, can be the same as the one that you will use for your final research report.

Here is an example of a title page for a research proposal.

An Epistemological Explanation of the Migration of the Ontology of Functionalism that can be Attributed to the Erosion of the Epistemological Development of Society from a Foucauldian Perspective


Clarence Mompati

Research Proposal

Submitted in fulfilment of the requirements of the degree

Doctor of Philosophy (or Philosophiae Doctor and, perhaps Ph.D. in brackets)

In the subject

Philosophy of Human Behaviour

In the

Faculty of Human Resources Management

At the (University name)

Promoter: Dr Elizabeth Francis

14 July 2020

Please note that the title given here is in many ways flawed.

I deliberately did this so that we can use it as an example of how you should refine the title.

Let’s analyse and refine the title.

  1. To begin with, the title is way too long. We will need to shorten it.
  2. There are too many pompous words in the title.
  3. “Epistemological explanation” is a tautology. Epistemology ís the explanation of something. The student should omit either “epistemological” or “explanation” or rephase the sentence entirely.
  4. Even “migration” can probably be replaced by something like “change”.
  5. Using “epistemology” twice in the title makes it sound awkward. The student should lose the second “epistemology”.
  6. Ontology will probably be the right word to use if it is the student’s purpose to do research on the changed meaning of Functionalism as a paradigm over time. She or he could have explained this in the body of the proposal or could have used a simpler word, for example, the “original meaning”.
  7. Michel Foucault’s philosophy is said to be post-structuralist in nature, or perhaps even post-modernist. He, however, did not agree. It would be rather risky to use his philosophy as the foundation for your research title if you are not sure that his philosophy is even relevant to your study.
  8. Lastly, it would be difficult to come to conclusions and to suggest recommendations that would apply to the entire world. Different countries and even continents differ in terms of culture, geography, politics, levels of development, etc. It would, furthermore, be impossible to conduct research globally because of time, financial and physical constraints.

Here is a suggested title that would eliminate the flaws in the original one:

An analysis of the changes in the value system and structure of the Namibian society since independence.

Analysing the Namibian society would be much more realistic than to try to analyse the entire world. Also, Namibia gained independence in 1990. Therefore, the period of time to be analysed is much shorter and specified.

Some universities might require of you to use some more technical or scientific terms, perhaps just to lend some status to the title of your research.

In my opinion, however, the status of your research should come from the quality of your research and not from window-dressing.

Close and summary

In summary, check the requirements for a title page of the university where you study or plan to study.

Ask your study leader for examples of good title pages and copy their layout.

Keep the title of your research report short and simple, but also listen to the suggestions of the Postgraduate Committee and your study leader.

In my next post I will discuss the Table of Contents for a Research Proposal.

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How to Structure Your Research Proposal


In my previous post I shared with you some hints on how to write your research proposal and how to present it orally. I also discussed the purposes of the research proposal.

Here is a summary of purposes that I discussed:

  1. To convince the university that your study is viable.
  2. To serve as a structure for your thesis or dissertation.
  3. To clarify your mind.
  4. To show how you will approach the problem.
  5. To help you choose a research method.
  6. To decide what sources of information you should use.

In this post I will share with you some ideas on how to structure your research proposal so that the Research Committee will be convinced that your idea is a good one.

The structure of your research proposal

Most universities will require of you to cover the following in your research proposal (show the list on the screen):

  1. A title for your research report.
  2. Table of contents.
  3. The context of the research.
  4. The goals of your study.
  5. Research approaches and methods.
  6. The table of content for your research report.
  7. Bibliography.
  8. Endnotes and footnotes.

What you write and discuss under each of these eight points will determine if your application to study for a PhD will succeed or not.

Let’s look at the eight points.

A title for your research report

  1. The title should be brief and descriptive.
  2. Professors might suggest a different title.
  3. Can change at any time during your studies – check with your study leader.

Table of contents for your proposal. The table of contents should give an overview of all the topics that you will cover in your research proposal.

The context of the research

  1. The context can also serve as the scope or limits of your research.
  2. This will largely determine if your proposed study is viable.

The goals of your study

  1. This section should start with the purpose of your research followed by the goals that you hope to achieve.
  2. The goals and purpose of your study will determine the value of your study.

Research approaches and methods

  1. Your research approach can be quantitative, qualitative or mixed.
  2. Your choice will depend on your personal preference, research skills and the topic of your research.
  3. You will probably also indicate which paradigmatic approach or approaches you will follow here.

The table of contents for your research report

  1. The table of contents should provide an outline of your chapters.
  2. It can also serve as the scope for your research.


  1. Your bibliography cannot possibly be complete and final yet.
  2. List the sources that you already consulted or plan on consulting.
  3. You will probably need to consult more sources, most of which you are not aware of yet.

Endnotes and footnotes

  1. You will not have a heading for endnotes and footnotes.
  2. They are used to explain terminology, to make incidental comments or to amplify or corroborate a point of argument.

Close and summary

In summary, do not underestimate the importance of preparing for the oral presentation of your study proposal. What you write and present will determine if the university will allow you to study for a PhD.

You need to know what you should discuss, and you need to do it well. That is why I will share with you in future posts hints on how to write and present every issue that you need to cover in your study proposal.

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