Thoughts and insight from Dr Benjamin Halligan
Dr Ben Halligan
Writing a PhD proposal can be a challenge. On the one hand, you’re expressing an academic interest in an area, and indicating how you’re open and receptive to the ways in which the proposed research will allow you to mount an investigation. And one of the reasons for that investigation is that you’re setting out into uncharted territory: no-one else has looked at this proposed area, or looked at it in quite this way, and so the research holds the potential for the generation of new knowledge. Consequently, flexibility is the key – to indicate that you’re able to change or modify or nuance the direction of your research as discoveries are made. And, of course, you don’t yet fully know what you will discover. In a way, then, you’re really presenting a series of questions in your proposal, so that the proposed research is understood to be the process which will deliver the answers.
On the other hand, however, a university will typically expect you to articulate a fairly advanced grasp of the direction of research to come. Since you’ll be seeking to prove A, you’ll follow investigative path B. And if you deliver proof of A – which is a theory or thesis that you suspect to be true, for reasons you’re then going to outline – then the research will be complete. So, in this respect, you’re presenting a series of speculative answers to questions – answers which you then intend to verify. Indeed, you may even be submitting a detailed timeline of the proposed PhD too, structured around the verification of these speculative answers: which six month blocks will be devoted to which activities, from the start date to the end of the study.
So the PhD applicant ends up needing to say that they know, at present, little in fine detail about the specifics of the proposal… and yet they know enough to be able to express with confidence what they intend to do, and why, and how, and what will probably result. And that is the challenge.
We have plenty of guidance available on our website about what we expect in our “Expression of Interest” form, from a PhD applicant. And we provide formative feedback at all stages and we’re always happy to meet up and discuss a developing proposal. But I wanted, for this blog post, to talk about our side of this process. And I hope that this might shed some light on the challenge that I’ve identified above.
When academics look at PhD applications, they’re often looking for elements of reassurance and familiarity. This is not to say that we don’t want to also read about your personal interest in the subject, and to find out about you and your intellectual history, and to encounter the promise of fresh thinking in your research area, or how this proposed work can help society at large. But we do need to know that the PhD is do-able. This might be a matter of considering the area under investigation itself: will that area support PhD research? Is there sufficient scope? Do we have a good body of academic writing already in, or parallel to, this area, that can be drawn on? Is the hypothesis provable? Are the resources available and accessible? What are the potential dangers to the progress of the research if things don’t turn out as expected? Can we assemble a framework for ethical assurance of the research? And this thinking might also include a consideration of your preparedness for study. I don’t want to suggest that the application is some sort of test, with a pass/fail outcome on the other side. Rather, I’m noting that there can be an ethical dilemma for us.
As much as we want to be welcoming and supportive, if we feel that the proposed PhD cannot be done then it is best for us to let you know this at the outset. (And, typically, we’ll do this with some formative feedback, and suggestions for alterations, so that we can accept it). Otherwise, we would be setting applicants up for a bumpy ride – and this would be in no-one’s interest.
So academics face a challenge too. On the one hand we understand that it is vital to regenerate areas of our research via new thinking, new approaches, new data, and breaking into new territories of investigation and analysis. We need to grow the next generations of thinkers and scientists, engineers and artists. And we cannot expect the fledging PhD applicant to necessarily grasp all the particulars of the areas of research with which they want to engage – after all, that engagement is the task for you and your supervisors, across a number of years. But, on the other hand, we need to match any romantic thinking with some pragmatic thinking. We need to know that we’re welcoming people to research with us who are on a path to PhD success, and with certain plans to overcome whatever surprises and revelations that we anticipate (and hope!) the PhD research will throw at them.