ARTICLE 3: How to Structure your Research Proposal for a Ph. D.

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel, D. Com, D. Phil


In my previous post, I shared with you some hints on how to write your research proposal and how to present it orally.

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.

There is no synergy between universities about the meaning of a dissertation versus a thesis.

Most dictionaries call a research report on Ph. D. level a dissertation, and a research report on masters degree level a thesis.

These are the meanings that I will use in this and all my other posts on research methodology.

The structure of your research proposal

Most universities will require you to cover the following in your research proposal:

  • A title for your dissertation.
  • Table of contents.
  • The context of the research.
  • The goals of your study.
  • Research approaches and methods.
  • The table of content for your dissertation.
  • Bibliography.
  • Endnotes and footnotes.

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

I, therefore, will discuss each point separately in future posts.

For now, I will just mention a few salient issues to remember.

Let us look at the eight points.

A title for your dissertation

The title for your dissertation should be brief and descriptive.

Members of the Postgraduate Committee or your study leader, if you already have one, might suggest a different title.

The title can change at any time during your studies.

You will need to check if the title is still valid with your study leader from time to time.

Table of contents

The table of contents is an overview of all the topics that you will cover in your research proposal.

The context of the research

The context of your research should also be the scope or limits of your research.

Context is always relevant to postgraduate research and it will largely determine if your proposed study is viable.

The goals of your study

The goals and purpose of your study will determine the value of your research.

This section should start with the purpose of your research followed by the goals that you hope to achieve.

Research approaches and methods

Your research approach can be quantitative, qualitative or mixed.

Your choice of research approach and method will depend on your personal preference, research skills and the topic of your research.

You will probably also indicate which paradigmatic approach or approaches you will follow here.

The table of content for your dissertation

The table of contents should provide an outline of your chapters.

It can also serve as the scope for your research.


Your bibliography cannot be complete and final yet.

You will need to consult many more data sources when you start doing serious research.

You should list the sources that you already consulted and the sources that you believe you will consult.

Endnotes and footnotes

You will not have a heading for endnotes and footnotes.

They are used to explain terminology, to make incidental comments or to amplify or corroborate a point of argument.


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 Ph. D.

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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ARTICLE 2: The Research Proposal for a Ph. D.

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


I will discuss the content and format of a research proposal in this article.

It is unlikely that you will be expected to submit a research proposal for a master’s degree.

The purpose of a research proposal

I am not aware of a university that does not require prospective Ph. D. students to submit a research proposal.

And, furthermore, all of them will require of you to submit your proposal in writing or online as well as to do an oral presentation of your proposal.

The main purpose of the research proposal is to convince the Postgraduate Committee that your research project is viable.

You will also need to show that it has not been researched before, and that it will add value to the academic knowledge currently available.

For your research project to be viable, you will need to show that you can cover the topic in the time and with the funds at your disposal.

It is possible that somebody else already did research on a similar or perhaps even the same topic as the one that you are interested in.

Professors know this.

There are just too many people doing research all the time and you will not know who is studying what.

The Postgraduate Committee will, therefore, probably accept your proposal if they feel that it has merit.

You will be required to add value to the field of your research, the university and the community through your research.

This is especially important on the doctoral level.

Then again, the professors on the Postgraduate Committee know that you are probably just beginning to do research on such a high level.

Therefore, they might allow you to enrol for a Ph. D. if they see merit in the topic of your research and if you can convince them that you have good potential as a researcher.

You will need to show that you have some knowledge of the topic of your research.

And you will need to show that you have the potential to successfully complete your studies.

Doing an oral presentation on your research proposal will help to clarify your own thinking about your research topic.

Doing an oral presentation on your research proposal will also help you to form a point of reference for your research project. That is why it is a good idea to decide in advance what paradigmatic approach you will follow.

Remember, you will need to maintain consistency in your arguments and to focus on the topic of your study.

Your research proposal is also your plan of action for your further research.

Here are some hints on preparing your research proposal

Different universities have different requirements for the format and layout of a study proposal.

What I suggest is a generic format, but you will need to check it with the university where you plan to study.

The university will probably specify the number of words, font type and size, indents, use of capital letters, language, the numbering of pages, chapters, paragraphs, and the layout and wording of the title page.  

Ask your study leader for a copy or copies of other research proposals that he or she considers to be good.

You must have a clear idea of what the problem statement, problem question or hypothesis for your study is.

Academic research is not a linear process. It is a spiral.

Therefore, your research proposal is not cast in concrete.

I will discuss the structure of your research proposal with you in a future post.

For the time being, just remember that you will need to cover the following:

  • The reason why you think that your research topic is important.
    • The purpose of your research.
    • What you intend to achieve or prove.
    • The methodology that you will use.
    • Your paradigmatic approach.
    • How you will collect and process data.
    • Evidence that you have already done some prior research.

You must at least have done some literature study.

Here are some hints on presenting your study proposal

Keep in mind that some of the members of the Postgraduate Committee might not want to be there.

  • They often have lots of other work.
    • They might be studying themselves.
    • They probably will have other post-graduate students who are already studying whom they need to help.

Do not waste any time. Be brief and to the point.

Know your topic and show that you have some knowledge and, perhaps experience in the field.

Know the meaning of the terminology that you use.

Start with your research as early as possible before preparing your research proposal.

Keep in mind that your proposal is not a concept thesis or dissertation.

It is just the scope – the parameters of the problem or topic that you intend to explore.

You cannot come to conclusions about your research problem or hypothesis now already. This is something that you will do after having gathered much more data.


Your research proposal is the tool with which you can gain access to Ph. D. studies.

You need to prepare well.

This will require some research in advance.

You should prepare presentation tools and notes and rehearse your presentation.

Keep in mind that the Postgraduate Committee are people with their own perceptions and needs.

They will be experts in postgraduate research, but it is up to you to convince them that your research will be viable and valuable.

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ARTICLE 1: Why Would you Embark on Studies for a Master’s Degree or a Ph. D.?

Written by Dr. J.P. Nel, D. Com, D. Phil


It is always a good idea to establish a healthy relationship with your study leader, and you should approach him or her for assistance as often as you possibly can.

However, they always have lots of work and limited time.

That is where I am hoping to save you and your study leader time and energy through this series of articles on research methodology.

You can read the articles for free on my blog at

Or you can watch my videos at Access to videos will cost one US Dollar per video.

I will post more than a hundred videos on academic research.

You can enroll for a course in research methodology if you wish. This will cost some money, though.

Why would you embark on studies for a master’s degree or a Ph. D.?

I don’t think you would have even searched for a topic on Master’s or Ph. D. level if you were not the inquisitive type.

You don’t need to be a nerd to be a good academic researcher.

All you need is the “right” reason for embarking on post-graduate studies.

I guess what I am saying is that you need to be motivated to study.

Here are some reasons why one would study towards a masters degree or a Ph. D.:

To add value. In my opinion, the most important reason why you would embark on post-graduate studies should be to contribute.

On Ph. D. level, you will need to create something from which society or at least a section of society will benefit.

You might develop new knowledge, new procedures to do a job, new medicine, new ways in which to solve problems, a new philosophy, etc.

On masters degree level, you will need to demonstrate the ability to conduct research and to master knowledge, philosophies and concepts on a post-graduate level.

To pursue your interests. Do not try to do research on something that you know nothing or little about.

Also, do not embark on studies on a topic in which you are not interested.

It will be much easier and more fun to study something about which you already have expert knowledge and with which you already have ample experience.

Without knowing it you will have done a lot of research already and you will probably already be an expert on the topic of your research if it is something that you are interested in.

Then again, most academic wizards have a way of developing an interest in a problem or a topic once they have decided to study it.

Besides, after a year or two of intensive research, you might well know more about the topic of your research than your study leader.

Status value. Regardless of whether you are interested in the topic of your research or not, you will probably wish to obtain a masters degree or a Ph. D. because of its status value.

There is nothing wrong with this.

We all need a little recognition and we need people to like, respect, and envy us.

For the sake of others. You might wish to make your parents proud.

You might want to set a good example for your children and motivate them to also study hard.

You might want to impress your spouse or show him or her that you are not a loser after all.

To improve your self-image. Regardless of whether it was your intention, obtaining a masters degree or a Ph. D. will probably improve your self-image.

To improve your job situation. A masters degree or a Ph. D. can help you find the job of your dreams, to be promoted, to earn a higher salary.

For the piece of paper? Here is a word of caution – it is mostly not a good idea to embark on post-graduate studies for the sake of the piece of paper.

Then again, you might have good reasons why you need or would like to get the piece of paper.

Studying on any level should first and foremost be about gaining additional knowledge and skills, not about getting a certificate that you can frame and hang on your office wall.

If it is just the certificate that you are interested in, you can just as well buy your Ph. D. on the internet.

Focusing on the piece of paper rather than on the improvement of your knowledge and skills can backfire.

Your employer and colleagues at work will expect you to perform better once you have obtained your masters degree or Ph. D.

If you cannot, they will catch you out.

You might even be demoted or lose your job.

If you obtained a masters degree or Ph. D. illegally you might end up in jail.

There is only one safe way in which to obtain a masters degree or Ph. D. and that is through hard work.

It will not help to apply psychological pressure on your study leader, for example by accusing him or her of discrimination if they do not accept the work that you submit.

Study leaders who discriminate are the exception and they don’t last long at most universities.

In summary

You should do research on a topic that you are familiar with and you will need to focus on creating new knowledge, procedures, philosophy, etc.

There is, however, nothing wrong with improving your marketability, your image, your status and enjoying life.

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ARTICLE 23: The Interrelatedness of Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology in Post-graduate Research.

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


With what degree of probability can experimental physicists say that they know how the world and life on it were created?

Will social scientists agree with them?

We can gain insight into questions like these through epistemology, ontology and methodology.

The interrelatedness of ontology, epistemology and methodology is the topic of this article.


Ontology is concerned with the natural world.

It is the nature of reality.

It focuses on the core characteristics, origin and what we can observe.

The “what” question often leads to an ontology.

For example: “What exists?” “What is true?” “What is real?” “What is?”

Ontology deals with the nature of being. Such “being” is not necessarily checked for validity, although scientists often try.

You can already identify an event or phenomenon as true by making use of your senses.

The “origin of” or “the original meaning of” is given by ontology.

Phenomena are not explained but rather described or simply stated as fact.


Epistemology is the study and explanation of what knowledge is and the logic behind the knowledge.

It can also be the philosophy behind knowledge.

It focuses on explaining knowledge, how we can obtain knowledge and how we should reason about the nature and elements of knowledge.

Knowledge is often formulated and explained in terms of what an event or phenomenon looks like, why it is as it is and how models interact.

Epistemology is made up of the elements of the world in which we live.

Three such elements are popularly described.

The first element is a philosophical analysis of the nature of knowledge, which can include arguments, opinions and beliefs and how it relates to concepts such as the truth, validity, relevance and justification.

The second includes various issues of skepticism.

It asks if knowledge, arguments, opinions and beliefs are true, valid, relevant and justified.

The third is an explanation of the sources, criteria and scope of knowledge, arguments, opinions and beliefs.

For an epistemology understanding is more important than knowing and knowing is more important than to believe.

Even so, you can hardly develop an epistemology if you do not “know”.

Knowing is necessary to come to conclusions.

You will at least have an opinion or belief.

The epistemology of an event or phenomenon can be found through quantitative or qualitative research methods.

Your epistemological approach should be an effort to generate descriptions and explanations of the world, or at least the small part of the world that you do research on.

Your descriptions and explanations must, of course, be true, valid, relevant and justified.

Epistemology seeks to understand the how, origin, processes and limitations of observation.

Developing an epistemology requires operations such as drawing distinctions, establishing relations and creating constructs.

Epistemology includes a description of how knowledge impacts the target group for your research.

So, you can see that epistemology includes the research methods, data collection methods, and data analysis methods that we employ in our research.

Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

It implies the provision of evidence for your conclusions and inferences.


Methodology is the procedure that you will follow to identify and prove your argument, opinion or belief.

Some researchers differentiate between research methodology and research methods.

They argue that research methodologies are philosophical approaches while research methods are ways of doing things.

Philosophical approaches are also called paradigmatic approaches while research methods can include data collection methods.

I am just mentioning this for the sake of those who wish to differentiate between research methodologies and research methods.

Whatever stance you adopt will probably not influence the research work that you do.

Methodology is concerned with how you know something and go about obtaining the knowledge and understand that you need to solve a research problem.

It is the way in which you would discover knowledge in a systematic way.

The link between ontology, epistemology and methodology

Ontology is the belief upon which you base your research.

Ontology defines your research framework while epistemology determines the research questions that you will need to answer.

Ontology specifies the nature of something that we can sense and that we wish to investigate further if we are to know more about and understand an event or phenomenon.

Epistemology is the philosophy and knowledge behind the belief that you will investigate by making use of a research method, or methodology.

This is called your research premise, paradigm or interpretive framework.

Checking for validity is the bridge between ontology and epistemology.

If you manage to explain a fact, you will have crossed the bridge to epistemology.

Here is a simple example – your ontology can be that something tastes sweet. Your epistemology will be the reasons why it tastes sweet.

A century ago, most people would not have known what a computer is. They never saw one and, therefore, it is not included in their ontology.

Today almost all people will recognize a computer when they see one, but some will still not know how it works. It has not been explained to them and, therefore, it is not yet part of their epistemology.

Epistemology and methodology are driven by ontological beliefs and observations.


Ontology is “the science of being”.

The ontology is a statement of fact without explanation.

A statement of fact can also be just a belief.

Thinking, evaluating, studying and theorizing about an event or phenomenon within the framework of a predefined society can be your epistemology.

Epistemology asks: “how do we come to know?”

Epistemology is an explanation, not a label.

In doctoral research, you need to find evidence that your theoretical and philosophical claims are correct.

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge and the science of explanation.

Your initial epistemology is improved through the development of new knowledge and philosophy.

Methodology is driven by your ontological beliefs and based on your initial epistemological philosophy.

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ARTICLE 44: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Masters Degree Studies: Constructivism

Three young intercultural couples keeping social distance while sitting on dry grass in front of each other and talking during outdoor relax

Written by Dr Hannes Nel, D. Com, D. Phil


One certainty about post-graduate research is that there is no guarantee that you will succeed.

Many students do not even start because they are afraid that they might fail.

And the uncertainty coupled with the fear of failure after you have done a lot of work causes many students to not even start.

Constructivism is a simple paradigm with lots of promise of success.

Although there is still no guarantee, you can at least embark on your studies in the knowledge that you will have a fair chance to show what you are capable of.

What is more attractive to an intelligent and creative researcher than the opportunity to use his or her mind to develop new knowledge and understanding?

The work will still be a challenge, but thanks to constructivism, not an insurmountable one.


Constructivism is a rather liberal paradigm, that allows the researcher to create new knowledge and understanding through cognitive reasoning.

It claims that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.

We reconcile new observations and experiences with our previous ideas and experiences.

This might change our perceptions, or the new information and experiences might be discarded.

How we respond to new information and experiences depends on how we process the data in our minds.

This means that we create our own knowledge by asking questions and exploring things.

To compensate for the subjectivity of constructivism, you need to pay special attention to ethics.

The way in which you collect, and construct, data are prerequisites for the validity and accuracy of your analysis.

Also, the quality of data and the way in which it is analyzed determine how reality is interpreted.

Constructivism is mostly used with grounded theory methodology.

Human interests are important for research purposes.

Therefore, constructivism can also be used with several other research methods.

For example, action research, case study research, ethnography, etc.

A multitude of data collection methods can be used.

For example, interviews, participant observation, artifacts and almost any documents that are relevant to the field of study can be consulted.

The aim of research using constructivism is often to understand situations or phenomena, not only to create new knowledge.

Rich data is gathered from which ideas can be formed.

It involves a researcher collaborating with participants.

That is an emic approach.

For those who might not be familiar with the etic and emic approaches to research – an emic approach is where the researcher works with the target group for the research.

She or he can even become part of the target group.

In an etic approach, the researcher observes the target group from the outside.

The interaction of several people is researched in their context or setting.

It mostly involves the social problems of the target group for the research.

The accuracy of research findings is validated and creates an agenda for change or reform.

This entails a rather well-known sequence of steps that are followed in most qualitative research methodologies.

The following are typical steps:

  • Identify human interests.
  • Formulate the aim of the research.
  • Gather rich data.
  • Collaborate with participants.
  • Research target group interaction.
  • Validate the accuracy of the findings.
  • Create an agenda for change or reform.

Constructivism is associated with pragmatism, relativism, liberalism, interpretivism, symbolic interactionism and positivism.

For example, like positivism constructivism also uses observation to gather information.

Different from positivism, which argues that knowledge is generated in a scientific method, constructivism generates knowledge in an interpretive manner.

There are other differences between constructivism and positivism.

Constructivism prefers an emic approach while positivism is equally comfortable with an emic and an etic approach.

Constructivism prefers qualitative research while positivism prefers quantitative research.

Although some academics claim that constructivism can be positively associated with behaviorism, the link is rather weak and unconvincing.

Very well, behaviorism also uses observation to collect data, but behaviorism does not make use of reflection while constructivism does.

Then again, radical behaviorism makes use of reflection.

Constructivism rejects scientism and empiricism, also because of the lack of reflection.

Constructivism is widely criticized for its lack of value in education and its lack of balance when used as a philosophy in research.

In education, it can lead to group thinking when one or a few prominent educators propagate a process or concept as “the only truth”.

Constructivists sometimes place too much emphasis on sensory experience at the expense of reflection.

This means that constructivists sometimes focus strongly on the ontology, that is “what is” and neglect the epistemology, that is the “why” and the “how” of a phenomenon.

Because of this, knowledge is sometimes not sufficiently proven to be valid and accurate.

Some academics integrate constructivism with other paradigms.

Others regard such integration as robbing constructivism of its identity.

The third group of academics feels that integrating constructivism with other paradigms enhances the philosophical strength of the research process.


Constructivism requires intelligent cognitive reasoning.

People construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experience and reflection.

The aim of constructivism is to understand situations and phenomena.

Research often involves creating change or reform.

Ethics and human interests are important in constructivism.

Constructivism makes use of many data collection methods.

Constructivism is associated with pragmatism, relativism, liberalism, interpretivism, symbolic interactionism and positivism.

Constructivism rejects scientism and empiricism.

Constructivism is criticized for:

  • Not having much value in education.
  • Lack of balance.
  • Too much emphasis on sensory experiences.
  • New knowledge not always been proven as valid and accurate.
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ARTICLE 25: Research Methods for Ph. D. Studies: Case Studies

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


There is an increasing number of COVID-19 cases across the world without a defined chain of transmission.

It is easy to miss infected people who might have come into contact with the virus.

New cases increasingly crop up in unsuspected places.

There is still much uncertainty regarding how and where the virus is spreading.

Rumours abound, and scaremongering is becoming as serious a problem as the virus itself.

This is a perfect example of a problem that can be researched through case study research.

Case study research

Case study research can follow almost any research paradigm.

The exceptions can be technicist paradigms, especially scientism, rationalism, positivism and modernism.

Then again, I believe one can even use case studies to do research in natural science.

Case study means doing systematic research on contemporary phenomena or events.

Like action research, it is linked to a specific time, site and context.

Multiple sources of evidence can be used.

A case study strives towards a holistic and comprehensive understanding of how participants relate to and interact with each other in a specific situation.

Case study research looks for meaning in a situation or event.

It can be used across a variety of disciplines to answer epistemological questions.

Research questions can be answered by an individual, two people or a whole group.

Although answers are given by members of a target group, the focus is on a system of action rather than just the sample for the research.

Case study research can be selective, focusing on one or two issues that are fundamental to understanding the system being examined.

Case study research investigates behavior, but not just the behavior of the target group for the research.

It strives to identify the behavior of an entire system.

For example, the researcher might do research on how people react to those who might have come into contact with the COVID-19 virus by interviewing such people.

Or they can determine how people respond to such “almost infected” people by observing how family and friends react when they return home from where they could have come into contact with the virus.

The researcher will probably try to identify a pattern of behavior that can be regarded as generally applicable.

You will need to come to a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the situation before a behavioral pattern can be identified and described.

A strong point of the case study method is that almost any data collection method can be used.

For example, participant observation, interviews, audio-visual material, document surveys and even the collection of physical artifacts.

You should determine in advance what evidence to gather and what analysis techniques to use with the data that you collect.

Data collection will probably be mostly qualitative in nature, but it can also include quantitative data.

A second strong point of the case study method is that it deals directly with the individual case in its actual context.

Case studies get as close to the subject of interest as they possibly can.

This is achieved because direct observation in natural settings can be used.

Also, because you can have access to subjective factors, such as thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.

Surely you will ask people how they feel, how they experience the situation, etc. when you interview them.

The case itself is the focus of your research, not the variables.

You need to focus strongly on the purpose of your research.

The general purpose of case study research is to generate knowledge.

It can also be used for theoretical elaboration or analytical generalization.

Criticism of case study research is that it often depends on a single case.

That makes it difficult to have your findings apply generally.


Case study research is perfectly suited to finding solutions for social problems.

The current COVID-19 situation is a good example, where social scientists would investigate the psychological effect of the threat on people while natural scientists try to find a way in which to combat the virus.

Case study research can use most philosophical stances, or paradigms.

Epistemological questions are mostly investigated.

A good measure of generalization is sought for human behavior at a particular time and context.

You, as the researcher, will need to come to a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the situation before a behavioral pattern can be identified and described.

Case studies investigate a target group through direct observation in a natural setting.

The purpose of the research is critically important.

Case study research can be used to generate knowledge, for theoretical elaboration and analytical generalization.

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