Writing a PhD Proposal

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing my PhD proposal. Of course, when I say “writing,” I really mean staring at a blinking cursor on the screen and frantically reading pages and pages of notes. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I don’t know what I imagine my dissertation to look like, or that I don’t know the kinds of historical questions I aim to tackle, or even that I don’t know what sources to consult. That’s all the easy parts. The hard part? Actually writing the proposal.

Why? Because my department, like many others I imagine, does not provide a clear template or guideline as to what the proposal should include. I’ve asked several of my fellow grads, and all of them had different answers and advice to give. I’ve looked at several proposal examples and they range between 7 and 30 pages in length (double spaced!) with bibliographies.

Also, I know no matter how I write out my proposal, my committee will not accept the first draft. I’m already preparing myself for at least 6 revisions. After consulting my how-to manuals and informative websites, as well as reading examples, here’s what I concluded: A good proposal must

-have an introduction
-state the thesis right off the bat—either in the first or second paragraph
-raise questions and address ways to answer them
-examine where the dissertation fits into the scholarly literature
-outline the methodologies for research/archival research (a must for history proposals!)
-include a breakdown—even better, a chapter outline
-include a bibliography and/or a preliminary table of contents

So there you have it. Sounds simple, no? And yet it’s incredibly difficult for me to write this—it’s like the ultimate declaration, the next two or three years of my life summarized into a few pages. It’s overwhelming!

Also, I’m totally aware I can change my topic/questions down the line…So what about you? Do you have any tips/advice to share on writing a PhD Proposal?

EDIT: Silly me. I didn’t see the guidelines that my department has on their website (thanks, Aaron!–see his comment below). I’m so glad I have such an incredible department and fellow grads. I got to say, however, that the word count isn’t always accurate. I’ve seen proposals that were shorter or longer. I suppose it depends on the supervisor, committee, and graduate director.

You know what? Having written this post, chatting with a friend immediately after, and then replying to Aaron’s comment, I realize that there’s nothing to fear. At the end of the day, the proposal is essentially what YOU want to write, and how YOU plan to do it. If you’re confident enough in your research and take advantage of all the resources available for you, including your committee, friends, and online guidelines, you can map out your work. Or else do what a friend told me yesterday: don’t get started unless you can see the entire picture/story in your head!

4 thoughts on “Writing a PhD Proposal

  1. Hey Jai,
    have you seen this on the Institute website? (http://www.hps.utoronto.ca/phd.htm)

    Thesis proposals will be presented to the Graduate Coordinator. The thesis proposal should adhere to the following format and include the following information:

    * The proposal should have a logical structure and be written in clear, grammatical English.
    * It must not exceed 1,250 words (approximately 5 double-spaced pages).
    * It must include a title. (This title may be revised in the final version of the thesis).
    * The supervisor and members of the Thesis Advisory Committee must be indicated on the proposal.
    * The proposal should include a statement of the research problem and the approach the student will take in tackling that problem. This will include chronological, disciplinary, and geographical limits of the thesis. The research problem should be situated in the scholarly literature. The student should justify the need for this research and show how this work will be an original contribution to knowledge.
    * The student should comment on the sources, both archival and published, their location and accessibility, say whether additional foreign languages will be required, indicate how much travel and residence away from Toronto may be necessary, and demonstrate that the thesis is feasible in the time available for its completion (ideally 2.5 years, to a maximum of 4 years).

    1. Hi Aaron,

      No, I didn’t see this online–thanks for directing me to it. I actually saw a print out of some abstract guidelines last year in the office and remember thinking that it wasn’t helpful.


  2. Hey Jai! I’m glad to hear the proposal writing is going well (at last!), and that you found some helpful tips and guidelines.

    The last piece of advice someone gave you really struck me. I know we all work in very different ways, but I have to say if I waited till I had the entire picture or story in my head before starting any writing project, I would never start anything! It is in the process of attempting to write about a subject that I find out what it is I want to say on that subject. I never know in advance.

    If you are one of the folks who do, that’s great (and I’m insanely jealous :P). But if you don’t have the whole picture in your head at the beginning, yet you know this is the topic you want to pursue, don’t let a little haziness stop you from plunging right in.

    Hope this helps! 🙂

  3. Thanks, Keynyn!
    I suppose it’s the former fiction writer in me. I need, at the very least, a rough storyboard outline when I start. Otherwise I’ll never try to figure out how things (i.e. characters, plots, evidence…) fit together. The more I research and read on the subject at hand, the clearer the picture/story becomes in my head. Of course, at the beginning it’s all blurry, but I can’t start writing until at the very least, I have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Details and structure can change later, but yes, I’m one of those people who can’t write until the story is at least constructed!


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