sirlim
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Standing between me and my PhD application is my PhD proposal. I am facing sort of a conumdrum. On one hand, I am aware that I need to do some research to hand-in a PhD research proposal so that I can demonstrate to the admissions tutors that I have a reasonable grasp of the issues in the area I wish to do a 'full-blown' research on. But on the other hand, I find it difficult to tell whether I am doing 'too much' research to the point that the research I am doing should already be reserved for when I do the actual writing. In fact, a personal tutor who happens to be a key member of a prospective uni's PhD admissions team suspects I may be doing the latter.

The problem is that the proposals require me to give a provisional chapterisation, timeframe and all of that. At first glance this presumes the applicant knows a lot already about the topic.

Are there any strategies I can use to save time so that I can submit a proposal that balances quality without having to research too much?
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Carnationlilyrose
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(Original post by sirlim)
Standing between me and my PhD application is my PhD proposal. I am facing sort of a conumdrum. On one hand, I am aware that I need to do some research to hand-in a PhD research proposal so that I can demonstrate to the admissions tutors that I have a reasonable grasp of the issues in the area I wish to do a 'full-blown' research on. But on the other hand, I find it difficult to tell whether I am doing 'too much' research to the point that the research I am doing should already be reserved for when I do the actual writing. In fact, a personal tutor who happens to be a key member of a prospective uni's PhD admissions team suspects I may be doing the latter.

The problem is that the proposals require me to give a provisional chapterisation, timeframe and all of that. At first glance this presumes the applicant knows a lot already about the topic.

Are there any strategies I can use to save time so that I can submit a proposal that balances quality without having to research too much?
You will get a lot more help if you post in the postgraduate forum. This is mainly for people applying for undergraduate degrees.
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returnmigrant
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You aren't expected to have a totally thought out research project. All you need to show is that you are interested in that area and you have the ability to pursue research in whatever specific area it is. Your timeline doesnt need to be an elaborate week-by-week number - a 2 sentence description for each term/semester will suffice. And chapterisation can be approx 6 statements that show you understand the logical procedure of an research argument. If you are finding this very difficult to do succinctly, then contact the person offering the PhD and ask who long/how elaborate they want each each section to be.

I got into a panic when writing my (successful) PhD proposal and eventually emailed the relevant academic who gave me some brilliant advice -

Three parts to a PhD application :
1) Why this University (existing staff research interests, facilities etc)
2) Why this project/area of research (why does it need to be done?)
3) Why you (what makes you the only person who can do this research?)
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sirlim
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That's an interesting point. A classmate of mine who works in academia back in our home country said that we need to read 'everything that is to be read' to come-up with a spot on proposal and that it may take up to a year to do so. Though when I read a few others, even one uni's guide, they said we don't have to be an expert yet.

Having said that, is it fair to say that the the project proposal is more of an assessment of whether we have the very basic skills needed for PhD research (e.g. critical thinking) than a solid commitment to a topic?
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returnmigrant
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You spend your first year of a PhD 'reading what everybody else has written on this topic'. At application stage you are only expected to have a grasp of the main points and certainly to have read the recent writing in that area.
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katiegud
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Each of the unis I applied to had an outline on their websites for how to format your proposal. Look for that and follow it closely.

In my experience, they expected a much more detailed proposal than I thought I would be writing. I emailed some of my potential supervisors for guidance, and received excellent feedback, so that is something else you should consider. When I hit the interview stage though, I was shocked at what they expected me to know. I had already read about 30 papers on the subject, but they asked for more detail about a piece that I had not put much time into (only read one or two), so that blew my interview. I was also expected to know where I would find my translators for fieldwork (something I thought I could figure out once I got there).

Long story short, as long as you follow the format and stick to word limits, put in as much detail as you can!

(I was accepted to all but one university, so hopefully this is good advice!)
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sirlim
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Katiegud, to be honest it seems to be a bit intimidating. Because on one hand the PhD is supposed to help you develop or realise your proposal but on the other, you are expected to provide a solid basis for what you're proposing. As I said, my personal tutor may be worried I may be 'writing the thesis' already. At this point, when I checked, none of the unis require me (based on the website) to be interviewed. My question to you is how can we tell if we are reading already too much to the effect that we are doing the thesis?

Yes, I am contacting potential supervisors.

Good for you that despite your interview experience with them, you still manage to land that all important place (for the most part). Other than funding issues, that's all that matters, for the moment.

What I checked with the likes of Newcastle uni, their rationale of for requiring a proposal from applicants is slightly different. They want to assess it more on whether they have the resources (e.g. supervisors, literature, equipment) to adequately support a student's project. When I initially thought of applying for a PhD in Europe, I have to admit the issue on supervision is one thing I underestimated.
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Kalivha
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(Original post by sirlim)
What I checked with the likes of Newcastle uni, their rationale of for requiring a proposal from applicants is slightly different. They want to assess it more on whether they have the resources (e.g. supervisors, literature, equipment) to adequately support a student's project. When I initially thought of applying for a PhD in Europe, I have to admit the issue on supervision is one thing I underestimated.
How are you picking universities?

I ask because I've seen most people around me pick universities for PhD applications based on potential supervisors, i.e. people whose papers they'd read or people involved in the project they fancy working on. I guess the importance of this might vary by field.
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sirlim
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Initially I was picking universities by brand recall but now, I just go to any UK uni's page and the first thing I check is the staff listing. I read the staff profiles and if I find a member of staff who might potentially be a good supervisor, then I list him/her down and contact him/her later. I have a running list of staff names and their interests. For example, I wanted to apply at Manchester but that looks unlikely now because after reviewing its staff list, I am unable to find any supervisors for my topic.

Do you agree then that unlike an MSc, in applying for a PhD, it is not as important what institution you do it in but who you are going to do the project with?
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Kalivha
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(Original post by sirlim)
Do you agree then that unlike an MSc, in applying for a PhD, it is not as important what institution you do it in but who you are going to do the project with?
Definitely. Even for some MScs I'd argue the choice of supervisor becomes paramount, i.e. if there's a significant research component. I personally think it's worthwhile to consider a couple of other factors, too (like location!)

I don't know, the way I do it is that I have a sort of major project (code) I want to collaborate on, so I am applying to work with people who are already working on that specific code. It makes choices incredibly easy. Another girl in my lab is applying to PhD positions with people she cited a lot in her Master's literature review. That's similar, I guess.
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sirlim
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How do you typically complete the methodology section? It appears to be the most intimidating, and the 'boulder in the room' yet I may think it might be the most crucial thing the admissions tutors will be looking at. In the applications I submitted, I felt confused in filling this part. In order to get the best results in answering this section, what is expected for me to do that?
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rosiejm
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Hello.
I am not sure I am really qualified to advise, but I know when I am asking for help I appreciate as many replies as possible so heres my tuppence worth!
I have been accepted to do Soc. Anthropology at Cambridge - not sure how relevant my advice will be if you are not doing soc anth.
I put most effort and most word space into the rationale section. My dissertation from undergrad. covered a lot of the relevant readings, so even through I didn't end up mentioning that many in a name dropping sort of way, I think I could come from a fairly informed position (I hope!!)
My methodology was pretty vague, I simply mentioned the type of data I would be collecting and some ideas of the strategies I could use. Timescale was very vague - one sentence per year not per semester/term.

My problem, as always, is making things too long and complicated, and I really struggled to get it within a word count that I thought was acceptable. The overview, research questions and rationale were just too ambitious - my problem is I could see about a hundred ways to play with this project idea and couldnt bare to leave one out incase it was the one that would have turned the committee on. Eventually though, I got real and understood that it has to be clear and concise before anything else so I sacrificed a lot of stuff.
I got it down to about 3000 words for Cambridge application, and have since needed to shorten it for funding applications - currently struggling to get it down to under 1000 words.

My references cover about a page, single line spacings.

As I say, I can only talk from my own experience which is, ahem, limited but I hope this might help you think it through!

Rosie
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sirlim
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Congratulations Rosie on getting offered a place to Cambridge - despite those points in your proposal. I wish to ask you more about how you got offered at Cam but I'll reserve that for another thread. Is it also safe to say that unis use proposals for different reasons? Some for example may want to use it to see if one has the basic skills for PhD whilst others will use it more to survey who can supervise. Would any of you think so as well?
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sirlim
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I did get various feedback depending on the uni on my proposal. Some say that my proposal needs more work or specificity; others may agree with that but they think I am on the right track and may indeed be willing to supervise my project anyway. A third prospective supervisor believes that my proposal looks fine and may have suggested even a few more points to consider once the actual research is underway.

The first one though gives me the impression that they presume that you have been reading all along. To some extent that is understandable but my problem with these is that you may sometimes be stepping foot already into "doing the thesis" rather than just the proposal (which is what the third prospective supervisor believes I am doing). A friend of mine said (and he might have been referring to the context of our universities in the Philippines) that a thesis proposal may take up to a year to develop depending on how much you have actually read.

Just to clarify, from the moment you picked-up a book/article (to base your research on) to the time your proposal is ready for submission, how long does it take?
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rosiejm
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I think the best thing to do is to follow the advice of the supervisor you want to work with and develop each proposal to their taste/needs.
Different unis and different courses seem to want quite different things in terms of length/depth/specificity.

My research proposal probably took me 30 hours initially, and then an hour or two to rewrite it for different purposes, but that might be because I was reading around the subject anyway _ I certainly haven't included anywhere near the amount of reading that I did in the actual proposal.

Good luck
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sirlim
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(Original post by katiegud)
Each of the unis I applied to had an outline on their websites for how to format your proposal. Look for that and follow it closely.

In my experience, they expected a much more detailed proposal than I thought I would be writing. I emailed some of my potential supervisors for guidance, and received excellent feedback, so that is something else you should consider. When I hit the interview stage though, I was shocked at what they expected me to know. I had already read about 30 papers on the subject, but they asked for more detail about a piece that I had not put much time into (only read one or two), so that blew my interview. I was also expected to know where I would find my translators for fieldwork (something I thought I could figure out once I got there).

Long story short, as long as you follow the format and stick to word limits, put in as much detail as you can!

(I was accepted to all but one university, so hopefully this is good advice!)
Would you also say that each uni has a different standard as to how 'high-quality' your proposal ought to be or how well-versed it should be? Because some (e.g. Bristol, York, Swansea, Strathclyde) have offered me a place on the basis of my proposal but others said that it was quite poor (e.g. Durham, Edinburgh, Birmingham) hence a denial from the latter group.
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katiegud
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(Original post by sirlim)
Would you also say that each uni has a different standard as to how 'high-quality' your proposal ought to be or how well-versed it should be? Because some (e.g. Bristol, York, Swansea, Strathclyde) have offered me a place on the basis of my proposal but others said that it was quite poor (e.g. Durham, Edinburgh, Birmingham) hence a denial from the latter group.
They definitely have different standards. They also have different plans for research, which you may not know ahead of time. I emailed back and forth with a prospective supervisor from Edinburgh when I was applying. He liked my proposal, gave me helpful feedback, and then I was rejected because my research plan didn't fit into their department. Kent accepted me, but wanted a LOT of detail in the methodology section. They ended up getting a very different proposal than Manchester, who was looking more for department fit than methods.

No one said the proposal was poor per se, but they definitely wanted different things, and that really isn't something you can know without asking. The websites often have good information, but I think my best advice came from prospective supervisors and admin people from the departments.

Are you planning to attend one of the unis that accepted you?
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chazwomaq
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(Original post by returnmigrant)
You spend your first year of a PhD 'reading what everybody else has written on this topic'. At application stage you are only expected to have a grasp of the main points and certainly to have read the recent writing in that area.
In the sciences at least, the days of this are long gone. You should be collecting data pretty early on. If a student of mine has not started data collection within 6 months, that would be a danger sign for failure IMO.

(Original post by sirlim)
Do you agree then that unlike an MSc, in applying for a PhD, it is not as important what institution you do it in but who you are going to do the project with?
Yes, 100%. Your supervisor is the most important thing in your PhD (after you). Try and get a really good of their research through their publications, and as good a feel for them as a person as you can from meeting them if possible, e-mails, and talking to current or previous students. You should be doing some in depth interaction with potential supervisors, developing proposals together.

(Original post by sirlim)
Because some (e.g. Bristol, York, Swansea, Strathclyde) have offered me a place on the basis of my proposal but others said that it was quite poor (e.g. Durham, Edinburgh, Birmingham) hence a denial from the latter group.
You've got 4 PhD offers! What's the problem?

(Original post by sirlim)
I find it difficult to tell whether I am doing 'too much' research to the point that the research I am doing should already be reserved for when I do the actual writing...
Are there any strategies I can use to save time so that I can submit a proposal that balances quality without having to research too much?
There is no such thing as too much research! If a department gets two applications, and one demonstrates more knowledge than the other, which is going to be looked upon more favourably? If you are trying to avoid doing too much research at the expense of quality, perhaps you are misunderstanding the idea of a PhD.

It would also help to know your particular subject area (in the sciences I presume).
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Klix88
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(Original post by sirlim)
Would you also say that each uni has a different standard as to how 'high-quality' your proposal ought to be or how well-versed it should be? Because some (e.g. Bristol, York, Swansea, Strathclyde) have offered me a place on the basis of my proposal but others said that it was quite poor (e.g. Durham, Edinburgh, Birmingham) hence a denial from the latter group.
They're probably just looking for different levels of detail in different parts of the proposal or maybe the subject is outside the department's direct interests. I've found differences in expectations even within my current department (which made the first attempt at a Transfer viva somewhat sticky!)

The split in responses suggests that the unis which made you offers are better suited to the way you think and work. Maybe the ones which rejected you, didn't consider your topic a comfortable fit with them. Plainly if your proposal was inherently "poor" then you wouldn't have had any offers at all.

I wouldn't dwell on where you think you've failed. You have four offers from good universities, so you just need to concentrate on deciding between those.
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Klix88
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(Original post by chazwomaq)
In the sciences at least, the days of this are long gone. You should be collecting data pretty early on. If a student of mine has not started data collection within 6 months, that would be a danger sign for failure IMO.
Expectations can differ wildly. When I attended my uni's internal day school on preparing for a PhD Transfer, we were told that no research data should be gathered until after the Transfer, as that is the point at which our Methodology would be formally ratified. The lecturer giving the talk was from a STEM department. It was proposed that the first 12-18 months should be spent preparing the first draft of the Lit Review. I'll grant you that just made my supervisors snigger a bit, but not every uni/department/supervisor sings from the same hymn sheet.
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