August 18, 2011

Dear Aunt Rex: I'm writing a proposal

Aunt Rex,

I am a prospective PhD student and would like some advice about how to write a winning proposal. I have already contacted my potential supervisor with my topic of interest and he has given me the go-ahead to write the proposal. Any tips you could give or possibly a link that would help? I intend to join next year (2012). I need to give it my best because I am sourcing for funding.

- Thank you.

Dear Prospective,

The best of luck to you! Having a supervisor on board and a topic you know you want to write about is a great place to be at, so that's half the battle won already. Funding is tight, as you know, but there's a great deal you can do to make sure your application stands the best possible chance of succeeding. Here are Aunt Rex's top five tips:


When you're writing a proposal before you've started your research, you're unlikely to know exactly what direction your studies will take you in. As most people will be in this situation, you can give yourself the edge by being as specific as possible. Outline your field of interest and the major works that have prompted your proposal. Show that you're up to date, and that you've got questions you can begin working on immediately. Then leave space for the project to take its own shape, but outline your hopes and ambitions for the finished product.


Warwick has several sources of postgraduate funding - see There are also research councils and subject-specific funding bodies. Your department will have a member of staff allocated to support research funding bids, so find out who they are and talk to them. Make sure you read the website of the funding body carefully. They will usually have a list of tips and recommendations, and will explain the format that a funding proposal should take. Make sure you're doing what they ask for, as incomplete applications won't usually get a reading.


Talk about your achievements, your strengths and your interests. Funding bodies want to give money to someone who is reliable and intelligent, so emphasise your ability to get the work done within a reasonable amount of time. The Graduate School has a useful list of tips. Show your readers why you're exceptional. It goes without saying, too, that your spelling and grammar should be perfect. Don't give your readers any reason to disapprove.


The Research Exchange has a number of articles on talking about your research, which you can find here. Be ambitious with it - it's important and revolutionary, so say so! Do some basic literature searches (see the guides) and identify the gaps, then talk about how important these gaps are to fill. If you've already identified a supervisor, then make sure you're aware of their interests too, as these may help you shape the initial areas you're interested in investigating


For better or worse, many funding bodies are all about "impact" at the moment. This won't apply to every doctoral project, but if yours has an aspect that will benefit a wider community, emphasise this in your proposal. Perhaps it will result in a performance, or contribute to a non-scholarly book? Maybe it feeds into hot socio-political issues, or has direct implications for the development of a new technology. Show why your research matters. "Interdisciplinarity" is also important to many research bodies. Again, if your project touches on a number of disciplines, emphasise this.

Finally, good luck! Don't be disheartened if funding doesn't come up first time round. Many PhD students are successful in getting funding once their project is underway, and there are always additional pots to apply for. Once your supervisor has agreed to take on the project, too, he or she may be able to help you look for further support.

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