It’s been a while since I’ve written a blogpost for the Resources for Grads and ECRs section of my website and I was reminded by a chat with a current MSt student here in Oxford that a post on How to Write a PhD Proposal might be useful. So here it is!
I should start by saying that I applied for my own DPhil (Oxford’s word for PhD) many years ago now (and I don’t remember the proposal being as extensive as most programmes now require!). I also don’t assess PhD applications myself but I have read a number for students and twitter pals, and of course I’ve crowdsourced suggestions from the twitter hivemind (thank you all!).
So, where do I start?
It seems obvious but of course you should start by: researching the application process!
Make sure you check out the requirements of your particular programme (especially if you’re applying to non-UK universities. I’m writing this from a UK context, but if you have suggestions for US applications, for example, please tweet me or comment below!)
On the Oxford English Faculty website, for example, the advice is as follows:
For applicants to the DPhil, the research proposal should be an outline of your research plans (in English) of a maximum of 1,500 words. This will be assessed for the coherence and viability of the project, the originality of the project, the feasibility of its successful completion in the time available for the course (three or at most four years), evidence of understanding of appropriate research skills required for successful completion of the project, and of appropriate training at master’s level or equivalent to undertake the project.
(Note the word count to start with! You must follow the particular guidelines otherwise you’ll put the reader offside straightaway!)
I think the crucial points here are that the project has to be coherent and doable, particularly within the time frame (and indeed word count!) allowed, and you need to have some of the appropriate skills and experience to undertake it.
It needs to look like a PhD project in size and scope– so the research questions should be significant enough and broad enough to sustain a piece of work that is generally speaking book length (in Oxford, DPhils are 100,000 words). It shouldn’t, therefore, look like a proposal for four different articles roughly strung together on a shared theme! Equally, it shouldn’t be such a huge topic that there’s no way you could tackle it in three or four years- it needs to be precise and focused.
You also need a narrative about your work so far that shows why you are prepared to undertake the project- and I mean that in the sense that a) you already have relevant training (ie an MA/MSt programme) but also that b) you know the additional skills that you will need to gain while working on the project. (You can’t be fully prepared for every single aspect of a project, of course, but you do need to know where your gaps are. When I arrived in Oxford after my MA in Leeds, for example, I hadn’t done any palaeography or manuscript work- and that was fine, I just joined in with the palaeography classes with the MSt students in my first year when I was a probationary researcher. It’s good to know your own limitations – it’s no good proposing something for which you aren’t qualified, and can’t possibly become qualified in the time!).
On the question of ‘originality’, we often talk about there being a ‘gap’ in the research. Liesbeth Corens offered a really important caveat on twitter- it isn’t enough to say that ‘there is a gap’, you need to say ‘why it matters to fill that gap’, ‘what are the consequences of filling gap.’ That’s crucial because in some ways it can be easy to find a niche, unusual thing to research and go, aha! I’ve got it! But perhaps that thing hasn’t been researched because… it isn’t very interesting or important?! I’m being a bit flippant here but it needs to be clear why this topic matters- and after all, it needs to matter enough to you to work on it for three years!
As Miriam Gill commented on twitter, as well as showing that the proposal is doable in the time you need to show why it’s ‘worth doing’, that it ‘leads somewhere’, and that it is ‘rooted in honesty about what you want / are able to do’. A PhD is such a personal project in the humanities, so it’s really worth thinking about why it matters to you!
It can also be really useful to articulate this part of the project as research questions: what is it that you want to find out? And what are the possible answers to those questions that you can foresee and the potential impact those answers will have on the field as a whole. (Of course you won’t know all the answers at this stage but the ability to ask precise and focused research questions shows that you are thinking critically and like a PhD researcher!)
Questions to ask yourself:
Hester Lees-Jeffries and Daniel Sawyer both tweeted the following model that I think is really useful when thinking about PhD proposals:
WHY THIS, WHY ME, WHY HERE, WHY NOW
‘Why this’ has been partly covered in the discussion of originality and research gaps above. But you really want to sell your idea- if you can’t answer ‘why this’, you need to keep thinking!
‘Why me’ can be answered in relation to your expertise and your work so far. Think about your ‘journey’ to the PhD application and the narrative of your work (as Hester Lees-Jeffries commented, ‘what’s brought you to this’?).
For example, when I was an undergrad at Durham, I chose medieval options wherever I could and I did my dissertation on Middle English Romance- this demonstrated my commitment to the field. When I did my MA in Medieval Literature at Leeds, I did my dissertation on space in Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich and my PhD proposal arose directly from that work. One section of the dissertation was about the church in The Book of Margery Kempe and I realised that I wanted to pursue this further but to think in particular about sacred spaces and built environments.
(There’s a caveat here in that the PhD shouldn’t just be ‘a longer version of the MA thesis’ or the ‘MA thesis on different texts’- there needs to be more originality and drive there, but it is often the case that our MA research sparks off the curiosity to research a new-but-related area. As Hester Lees-Jeffries noted, you might have ‘unfinished business’ with a topic!).
The ‘why here’ question may be related to the supervisor that you want to work with, the department and its research environment, or the particular resources / archives / libraries / training programmes at the institution you have in mind. (More on supervisors below!). You should really think about why the department you have chosen is the right one for you and your project.
The ‘why now’ question is about the state of the field and timeliness of the project. How are you contributing to current scholarship in your area? Are you building on and developing a burgeoning critical interest? Are you examining neglected texts? Are you applying new theories to well-known materials?
For example, when I wrote my proposal (in 2004!), it coincided with the so-called ‘spatial turn’ in the humanities. Sarah Stanbury had written an excellent book called Seeing the Gawain Poet in 1991 that looked at space and sight as categories of analysis in literature. Christiania Whitehead had just published the wonderful Castles of the Mind: A Study of Medieval Architectural Allegory (2003). There was plenty of research going on around Margery Kempe but a number of critics had argued that Kempe was placed in an oppositional relationship with the church (constantly kicked out because she was annoying people!). In my proposal, I said that I would do what Whitehead had done for architectural allegory for ‘real world’ sacred spaces- in Kempe’s Book, her parish church of St Margaret’s and the sites she visited on pilgrimage; the depiction of St Paul’s cathedral in St Erkenwald, etc. I would build on Stanbury’s use of space as a mode of textual analysis but I would bring in French theorists to develop a sustained model of sacred space- Foucault’s heterotopia, Lefebvre’s Production of Space. I also wanted to write about a church foundation legend (about St Bartholomew the Great in London) that I found on the Early English Text Society shelf in Leeds’ Brotherton Library but couldn’t find anything about in any secondary reading! And I had an axe to grind about Margery Kempe’s relationship to the church that I wanted to address! (And have, in fact, since published as an article, many years later. See this post!)
In short, be specific about the key texts, critics, and approaches that you will engage with and how your research will add value to what’s gone before. (Your proposal should also have a bibliography of primary and secondary materials too).
Relatedly, you need to think about how you will undertake your research- what is your methodology? In my case, that resolved around putting modern spatial theory into conversation with medieval texts. I was also clear about the primary materials that I was using and how they would structure the thesis (I progressed from the foundation/consecration of a church to the restoration of a cathedral to an individual’s experiences with sacred space at home- parish church- and away- on pilgrimage, and the final chapter was going to expand the definition of sacred space to visionary engagements with the body of Christ. And yes, I changed that last chapter- see below!)
Your proposal needs to be a plan and you need to show that you have thought through how you plan out a project of this size! In the humanities, most of your PhD work will be done alone- you need to show that you can plan and manage your time and this project in a feasible way.
A note on titles: make the title of the project clear, indicative, and to the point! The reader should know immediately what you are planning to research (for example, mine was ‘Sacred Space in Late Middle English Religious Literature’- topic, check! Primary materials and date range, check!).
Daniel Sawyer also commented that anecdotally he has heard positive things about proposals which can give ‘detailed (but concise) examples of where the work would start’, showing that it’s ‘shovel-ready’. I really like this idea. The proposal needs to give a sense of the overall shape of the project but of course that can change over time, so it’s really useful to have a clear sense, in addition to that summary, of where you would start specifically, so that you can hit the ground running when you arrive.
It’s worth thinking about a research timetable more broadly. What would you hope to achieve in your first, second, third year of the research? (Subject to change of course, see below!). Again this shows that you have thought through the project in detail and in a way that is feasible and sensible.
(A side note on changing/adapting the project when you’re actually a PhD student and it’s underway- that’s perfectly normal! In my final year of the DPhil, having completed chapters 1-4 exactly as anticipated, I suddenly realised that while I could have written a chapter on Julian of Norwich, her Revelations weren’t, in fact, as relevant to the overarching argument as I had developed over the previous two years of research. So I told my supervisor that I’d be coming up with a new idea! Luckily she trusted that I knew what I was doing- and I did find something new and it turned out to be much more productive and, ultimately, generative for my long-in-the-future-monograph, so do trust your gut instincts!)
Something else that’s really worth important to think about is your potential supervisor. Claire Millington suggested that it’s worth meeting with your proposed supervisor to discuss your topic with them before you start. (This is especially relevant for the English system where you are applying to work primarily with a specific individual for your course). I’d certainly recommend dropping potential supervisors an email to see what they think about your idea (and indeed to see if there could be any potential roadblocks- ie they’ve got a big research grant for three years and aren’t taking on any PhD students at the moment etc!). I met my supervisor (when I had two offers in hand and was trying to decide between them!) and it was the best idea- we hit it off immediately and I felt very positive about her, so it really cemented my decision to come to Oxford. Now with video-calls, it should be easier to arrange a quick chat without having to travel across the country (or to a different country!)
So, you’ve got a draft- now what?
Show it to a friend/colleague/supportive tutor! I’d certainly recommend getting a friendly pair of eyes on the proposal- perhaps your current MA dissertation supervisor, if they have the time, or a kindly person on twitter! (Hit me up!)
But as Eleanor Baker commented on twitter, don’t send it to too many people as too much feedback can muddy the waters- send it to a couple of people that you trust! (When I wrote mine, I did also share it with a friend who wasn’t a medievalist- it was useful to get some feedback from a non-specialist. Had I convinced them that the project was worth doing and that I was the person to do it?)
Mary Flannery also suggested beginning by reading other people’s proposals– you may know some PhD students in your department (or on social media!) who you can ask nicely to share their proposals. It’s often very useful to have a look at a specific example to get you started. (Ditto for writing book proposals- see my post here!)
GJ Morgan on twitter also comment that it is worth being selective about how many proposals you send out in a first round of applications because proposals are a lot of work (especially if you need to tailor them to individual departments and universities). Make a shortlist of your top choices and start with them!
Do check out if there is any specific advice about the structure of your proposal on the website of the university that you are applying to. A quick google just now turned up lots of university webpages with proposal advice, some of which included possible structures (ie the Continuing Education Department in Oxford suggested the following: title, topic statement, research aims, literature review, theoretical orientation, research methods, tentative chapter outline, bibliography; the University of Sussex‘s advice included ‘research background’ and ‘research methods’ as areas of focus; the University of Exeter suggested starting with a clear title and set of keywords and then moving onto a ‘clear statement about what you want to work on and why it is important, interesting, and relevant’ and they had a set of questions to answer too). These are just ideas I noticed from a quick google- I haven’t read all the posts out there!- so do your own research and see what you find!
Don’t forget that your proposal is yours! This is your project so you should be confident in showing that you know how to go about it and why it matters!
Thanks to everyone who responded to my tweet on this topic! If you have any additional advice or comments, please let me know. And best of luck with your proposals!