How to propose a research

masters phd research Apr 17, 2023
Descriptive, 2 people planning on whiteboard

So you have a great idea for a PhD research and you are wondering how sell this idea to a university, the post-graduate research director, or a potential supervisor. You look at your Word document and you are drawing a blank.

Well, I would like you take your hands off your keyboard for a moment and take some time to think. Proposing a research to secure a PhD position is quite different from writing a research protocol or an ethics application. Proposing a research is not only about developing a methodologically strong research but also about striking a business deal with several parties. You have to know what your stakeholders want. Your stakeholders are people who have any part of influence in your research. They are your potential supervisors, director of postgraduate research, regulatory and professional bodies, funders, gatekeepers to the population of interest etc. It is more convincing to re-position every proposal to align with the interest of individual stakeholders than to send them a generic protocol document.
This post is not about how to write one, but about how to be more convincing when you sell your research ideas to others.


Step 1: Know who you are proposing it to

A simple way to do this poorly is to be lazy. Sending the same generic proposal to everyone or regurgitating the same rehearsed research proposal to the different stakeholders is a great way to show that you do not care enough about the needs of these stakeholders. I am not saying that you have to redo a proposal for every stakeholder, but they should be tailored subtly to address their unique concerns. Before you do that, you first need to identify who these stakeholders are and who you are proposing your research to.


Step 2: Know your stakeholders’ concerns

Different people have different concerns when it comes to offering funding, support, access or a PhD position. For example, a post graduate research director would be concerned about how you intend to fund your studies or how well your research fits in the wider school’s agenda. A gatekeeper to the population that you are interested in (could be a ward manager or a head teacher or whoever that grants you access to the people/thing you want to study) would be interested in how are you going to protect your participants, health and safety concerns, could you potentially hinder or affect their everyday work, how much support do you need from them. Supervisors on the other hand could be concerned about how you are going to manage yourself as a PhD student, are you motivated enough to push through 3 years of intense hard work, can they trust you as a person to collect data ethically etc.

This requires a great deal of research on its own. Talk to people in these positions to understand what they are concerned with when taking on a new PhD student. Imagine yourself in their shoes and think about what makes them panic. If you can assure them of what they are concerned with then that puts them in a comfortable position to start considering your research idea.

The main point of this step is establishing trust and gaining your stakeholder’s confidence. Funders will not fund students they don’t trust and supervisors will not support a student they think might drop out in the first 3 months. Your stakeholders want to know that they will not potentially be wasting their time and money when investing in your work. This is why proposing a research is not just about methodological rigor, it is also about convincing people that you are worthwhile.


Step 3: Know your stakeholders’ agenda

Their agenda is separate from their concerns. Agenda here refers to the key interests of the stakeholder. Every stakeholder has something they are working towards; universities, supervisors, funders all have their key interests. These are quite easy to figure out and the information is often made public on their websites or reports. Universities call these their research themes, supervisors call these their research interests or fields of expertise, funders call these their goals or aims. Even gatekeepers have their agenda, but this is often harder to figure out as it depends on who the gatekeepers are.
Now, you have figured out their agenda or goals, think about how your research fits their agenda. Are you researching the same fields as they are? How does your research help them achieve their aims? This is the act of selling your research idea. As much as they would like you to succeed in your research they are interested in how well you can help them achieve their goals.


Step 4: Know what you can offer

Right, it is great that your research is in line with their interest, now what else can you offer them? This consideration distinguishes you from other students because it is unique to your strengths and your proposed research. Some things that are attractive to stakeholders are: analysis reports (or white papers), publications (journal articles), public engagement activities, conference presentations etc. Another way to approach this is think about the impact of your research. Can it potentially change we way we think about certain things? Can you develop a step by step plan to solve the problem that you are researching? What is the impact (social, financial, physical, psychological etc.) of your research?
At this point, your stakeholders are thinking: why you and not someone else? Be reasonable and be realistic. It is easy to get carried away and claim that your research would win the Nobel prize or you will solve world suffering. Know what you can offer your stakeholders and show that your research is capable of making impact.


Step 5: Know your weaknesses and how you intend to overcome them

One question that was posed to me at my PhD interview was “What do you think you will need help with?”

Your stakeholders are interested in knowing that you are aware of your learning needs and you also know how to address them. Besides humility, this understanding about your abilities also build other people’s confidence in your work. While it may seem counter intuitive to discuss them, showing your awareness of your weaknesses also convinces people that you have genuinely dedicated thought into this and whatever you have proposed is actually manageable.

Proposing a research is not a straightforward task and in some ways it is trickier than applying to a PhD position with a set topic. You need to sell your research proposal well and this first requires you to know who you are selling to and what keeps them interested in your idea. It is like pitching a business idea. While these stakeholders are investing in your research products, they are also investing in you as a researcher. If you can show them that your work is indeed worth their time and money then you will be a competitive applicant.