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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