Undertaking a PhD is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences within the academic world. It is likely to take a minimum of 3 years (full-time) or 6 years (part-time). It is quite unlike doing a taught course and requires a high degree of self-motivation, good organization, resilience and determination on the part of the student. Though we pride ourselves at Queen’s on the supportive research environment we offer, at the end of the day the onus is on the individual student to undertake the work and see it through to completion. We advise you to think very carefully before you apply to undertake a PhD degree and find out as much as you can about what it is like to do research at doctoral level. Talk to others who have done a PhD. Read some of the available literature about doing a PhD (see reading list below). Consider your own motivations carefully and talk to others who know you well about whether you have the capacity to do this. Even if you are academically able and have the requisite qualifications, doing a PhD may not be the best course of action for you.
Applying for a PhD is more like applying for a job than signing up for a taught course. You need to convince the Queen’s Research Degrees Committee that you have a sound, original and strong proposal and that you have the ability to complete the research. Whereas you might put in an application for a taught course in a few hours, submitting a research application is much more likely to take weeks or even months. In effect, you need to do a fair amount of research in order to produce a good PhD proposal. If you are serious about doing a PhD, it is worth investing the time, energy and study at this point, as you are unlikely to be offered a place on the basis of a hastily thrown together proposal. All the work you do at this point in the process will pay dividends later on, and will save you a great deal of time that might otherwise be wasted.
- What makes for a good PhD proposal?
It is not enough to have the relevant academic qualifications, an interest in a topic and a broad sense of what you want to do. The proposal needs to demonstrate that you have the ability as a researcher to undertake a well-defined, clearly designed and original piece of research that will make a significant contribution to your chosen field.
In your proposal, you need to show that you have:
- a good grasp of the field (or fields if it is an inter-disciplinary topic) in which your research is situated
- a working knowledge of at least some of the most relevant literature (ensuring that this is recent and up to date)
- a grasp of the key methodological choices available to you and a rationale for choosing one method over another (or several methods)
- a realistic sense of what the work will entail and some sense of the timescale of how the research will be achieved
- the ability to communicate your ideas clearly and concisely
- an awareness of any particular difficulties or challenges presented by your particular research project
- a sense of why the research is important to you and/or your community
Above all, it is essential that you have the capacity to make an original, significant contribution to knowledge in your chosen field/s, as this is a fundamental criterion of a successful PhD.
- Can you recommend any resources to help me write my research proposal?
Any of the books below would be well worth investing in, as they contain a great deal of helpful information and guidance about doing post-graduate research.
- Helen Cameron & Catherine Duce, Researching Practice in Ministry and Mission: A Companion (SCM, 2013), chapters 1 & 3
- Pat Cryer, The Research Student’s Guide to Success (Open University, 3rd ed. 2006), chapter 4
- Estelle M Phillips & Derek S Pugh, How to Get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors (Open University, 5th
ed., 2010) – although this does not have specific guidance on producing your proposal, it is invaluable for its discussion of many aspects of the life of a postgraduate researcher, and will help you think realistically about whether this is for you or not. Gina Wisker, The Postgraduate Research Handbook (Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd ed., 2008), chapter 9 (but lots of good material in other chapters too)
You will also find a wealth of useful information and guidance on writing research proposals on the web. Be discriminating in what you use, but there are many helpful guidelines from reputable British (and other) universities. Some of the guidance is generic, but you will also find some material specific to theological proposals.
Writing the research proposal itself
The following guidance should help you in writing your research proposal, which is Part 5 of the Application form, which can be downloaded on this page.
- The (working) title
This should be as clear and concise as possible, stating the research topic and your approach to it in no more than 12-15 words. Your title should not only indicate the topic of enquiry but should also summarise your methodological approach. For example, ‘A rhetorical approach to the Book of Malachi’ or ‘A qualitative study of women’s practices of silence’.
- The research question or hypothesis
This should state as clearly and briefly as possible the main issue, dilemma or question with which your research seeks to engage. Your research question or hypothesis should be
- Answerable – it must be possible to know that and when a question has been answered
- Specific – with clear boundaries about what is being studied and investigated
- Analytic – going beyond the descriptive (likely to include more than a ‘what’ element, for example a ‘why’ or ‘how’ approach)
- Realistic and doable – taking into account the time and other constraints of your situation
- Significant – with the capacity to make a creative and original contribution to the field.[i]
[i] From Paul Trowler, Writing Doctoral Project Proposals (amazon.co.uk, 2014): 7 (adapted).
- The context out of which your research arises and to which it is addressed
What you write here will depend to some extent on your topic, but is likely to include
- some discussion of the particular social/cultural/historical/ecclesial context from which the study is being conducted (particularly if it is a practical or contextual theology topic), and
- discussion of the theological and literary context in which your question is rooted (reference to key texts, ideas, events and conversation partners that have shaped the research question). You may have one clear theologian or theoretician whose work you are addressing, but very often you will need to call on a range of literature, especially if your topic admits of interdisciplinary study. This needs to be clearly acknowledged in your proposal.
- Your proposed methodology
Here, you are invited to address the question of how you are intending to address and answer your research question. This is likely to include:
- some discussion of your overarching theological methodology – your understanding of how to do theology and what makes your research a coherent theological project (this might include any underlying methodological or philosophical presuppositions you bring to the task);
- discussion of any other methodologies you intend to draw upon, such as social scientific, historical, literary or other disciplinary approaches;
- an outline of specific research methods that pertain to your study (for example, particular linguistic or hermeneutical methods in the analysis of biblical texts, specific social scientific methods such as interviews, focus groups, ethnography, etc.).
Although we do not expect you to have your methodology and methods fully worked out at this stage, we do expect you to have given some thought to these questions and to be able to offer some initial thoughts about your approach.
- Ethical Clearance
Research involving human participants or documentary or data sources not yet in the public domain will be subject to an ethical clearance process. Please highlight here any research methods you intend to use that will require ethical clearance.
- A statement concerning the originality of your research
One of the key criteria for a PhD is that it must make an original contribution to knowledge. This can be understood in a variety of ways. It is very unlikely that you will come up with a topic that has never been researched before, although there are still under-researched areas within theological study, perhaps particularly within practical and contextual theology. Nevertheless, it is more likely that originality will lie in a novel perspective upon your topic of research, rather than the topic itself; perhaps by bringing together ideas, writers or approaches that have not previously been brought into dialogue with each other, or using a new theoretical approach to an old question.
- A timetable or schedule for the completion of the research
In order to assess how realistic your proposal is, you need to think carefully about the different stages of the research that will get you from start point to completion within the desired timeframe. Please include a brief outline (this can be in tabular form) mapping out the different stages of the research.
- A brief bibliography of key texts (between 20-30 titles)
Your bibliography should demonstrate familiarity with the field(s) of literature that are central to your topic. If it is an interdisciplinary topic, you need to show awareness of the literature in each of the relevant fields. If there is very little literature directly on your topic, you need to consider what broader areas of literature might inform the study and enable you to create the theoretical framework for the research.
Texts included in your bibliography should be:
- At the appropriate level (scholarly and specialist texts rather than basic, undergraduate texts)
- Up-to-date and recent (unless you are drawing on ancient or historical primary texts)
- Organised in such a way as to indicate their use in your research (for example, you could distinguish between primary and secondary literature, or organize the literature into different categories).
Checklist before submitting your proposal
- Have I explained clearly and concisely what my research is about?
- Does the title, research question, proposed methodology and rationale all cohere?
- Have I shown why I want to research this topic and how/why it is significant?
- Have I identified potential theoretical or practical contributions my research will make to the field and/or context?
- Have I shown how my proposal relates to existing research in the field and attempts to fill a gap in the field or correct previous research or develop ideas in new ways?
- Have I shown how I plan to carry out this research?
- Have I demonstrated that I have the necessary skills to undertake this research or, if not, that I have the capacity to acquire them?
- Have I checked to see whether there are likely supervisors at Queen’s and VU whose interests overlap with my research proposal?
- Have I provided all the relevant information required by the form?
- Have I kept the proposal to within the 1000 word limit? (if the proposal is seriously over-limit, it will be returned to you and you will be asked to resubmit it)
- Have I proofread my proposal to ensure it is free from typographical and grammatical errors?
- Have I proofread my proposal to ensure the formatting is correct – consistent fonts and paragraph breaks?