Art of writing Doctoral (Ph.D.) Research proposal to Universities

Universities require Ph.D. applicants to submit a research proposal  before accepting a candidate for a Ph.D. admission. A research proposal is a comprehensive document of around 4000-5000  words, giving a broad overview of the the research  that a research scholar is willing to pursue.

A research proposal will help a research scholar  to give a shape to his innovative  ideas  and prepare an  outline that he  would like to follow during his Ph.D. studies. In a research proposal, the candidate needs to provide details on what motivated the candidate to take up research in the specified domain, which research papers support his research problem under consideration, what objectives can be achieved within the time frame defined by the university,  how will he go about research, including approach and methodology, timeline and feasibility as well as any other considerations that must be made to progress the research, such as computing and machinery resources. Many universities provide guidelines on writing research proposals that will help a research scholar  to structure his ideas and meet the requirements of a specific university. Regardless of university-specific requirements, most of the research proposals usually include:

1. Research Title

Research Title is a crucial decisive factor in getting approval for your research paper.

I. Language Point of View

Following  points should be considered  from language point of view, while assigning the Title for a research proposal.

  1. As a general guideline, try to keep your Title between 50 and 150 characters so that it can be easily remembered.

  2. Avoid redundant phrasing, such as, “A Study of,”,” An Analysis of”, “A Study to Investigate the…,” or “A Review of the….” or similar constructions.

  3. Capitalize all nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs that appear between the first and last words of the Title.[e.g.“Design of New and Efficient Algorithms for Robot Path Planning”].

  4. Rarely use abbreviations or acronyms unless they are commonly known. [e.g.: “Addressing HIV Issues Through Community Counselling” can be one of the Titles as HIV is an abbreviation well known. Where as “Application of NN in  Solving Pathological Issues in Pomegranate Plant” Here NN (Neural Network) is not known to many, which may lead to ambiguity.

II. Domain Point of View

A researcher begins his research voyage by selecting the research domain –  the area in which he intends to carryout his research.  The research domain can be i) Simply the core technology domain such as Cloud Computing, Big Data Analytics, or Image Processing where the researcher intends to add or improve framework or algorithms for the domain itself, or ii)  Multi disciplinary domain such as Cloud Computing in Agriculture; Image Processing in Health Care or Data Analytics for E-Commerce, etc.  The researcher may work in specific sub-domains such as Pathology in Agriculture, PAAS architecture in  in Cloud, Liver Cancer in Health care etc. While selecting the Title of the research proposal,  the domains and sub-domains of the research proposal should be clearly part of the Title as it makes the things more clear  for the adjudication panel  about the topic of research proposal.

The following points should also be considered from a research domain point of view while assigning the Research Title

  1. Titles should describe what the research is about – they should give the reader a clear idea as to what the paper is about.

  2. The initial aim of a title is to capture the reader’s attention and to highlight to the research problem under investigation.

  3. Ensure that your Title includes keywords and terms which are commonly used within your research discipline.[e.g. “ Development of Machine Learning Algorithms for  Grape Leaf Image Analysis ”]

2. Abstract

An abstract should usually be no longer than half a page, and provide a brief summary of what you are going to cover in your research proposal. Now how to fit the critical points from the entire proposal— why the research will be carried out, what the objectives are, how these will be addressed with different methodologies and what are the expected outcomes—into a paragraph of just 200-300 words. It’s not an easy task, but here’s a 08-step guide that should make it easier:

i. Start writing the abstract only after completing the proposal write up.

ii. Explain the domain, sub domain and  the  historical development in the sub domain  in 20-40 word.

iii. List the major challenges identified ( from  research gap of the survey  section) in 20-40 words.

iv. Explain the objectives you have set for the research in 20-40 words.

v. Describe the Methodology you will be used to solve the problem in  30-50 words.

vi. Explain how the results will be compared and analyzed.

vii. Make sure that the  abstract does not contain  new information, undefined abbreviations or group names or a discussion of previous literature or reference citations.

viii. There  must be consistency between the information presented in the abstract and in the proposal.

  For more details you can visit my blog post on writing abstract.

3. Introduction

The introduction gives an overview of the research project you propose to carry out. It explains the background of the work, focusing briefly on the major issues of its knowledge domain and clarifying why these issues are worthy of attention. It then proceeds with the concise presentation of the research statement. The research statement should capture both the essence of the proposal and its delimiting boundaries, and should be followed by a clarification of the extent to which you expect its outcomes to represent an advance in the knowledge domain you have described. It should cite all relevant references pertaining to the major issues described, and it should close with a brief description of each one of the sections that follow.

The reader, by the end of the introduction, should know exactly what research issue you are trying to solve with your proposal. State the intent of your study, including the research question and your unique methodology to solve the problem. Describe important results that you have found or hope to find. The introduction leads the reader from a general research issue or problem to your specific area of research. For more details you can visit my blog post on Introduction.


Start your introduction with short history There can be two possibilities to start an introduction. One way  is to tell your readers was there a seminal paper, research funding, special event, invention of an algorithm which spurred the development of the field under investigation.  For example: The introduction of Big Data  gave a new impetus to  storage and analysis of huge data sets. Other option can be; the first paragraphs of your introduction should be  a historical narrative, from the very first research in the field to the current day with key statistics describing the development of the field. Here in both the cases introduce the key words of the field and  describe what the various keywords mean.

Literature Review

The literature review demonstrates the applicant’s knowledge of the main research achievements in the area of study. You should pay attention to providing some of the key references in your area of research which requires doing extensive research on your part.

Provide an overview of existing thinking about and/or research into your research problem. Identify a gap, problems or unresolved issues in the existing knowledge/research that your research can fill or identify a research focus that will be useful.  Here your citations  are crucial.  Try to survey the papers in which the authors are authoritative in the domain of your research.

The  challenge here  is to pick representative papers from within the research area and summarize them concisely. There can be vast amount of papers available and  survey has limited space to capture the key work in the field. The papers selected  should be a mix of papers including the base paper in the selected domain to the most recently published paper. The author  needs to  go through  abstracts and conclusions for a relatively large number of papers and select a subset that covers selected topic area for detailed reading and presentation in survey. Identifying the papers having higher citations and which are published  in conferences and journals of high reputation will have to be given higher priority for selection. Each survey should have its own  analysis on the significance of the approach and the results presented in each paper.  For more details  on literature review you can visit my blog post on how to write survey paper.

4. Research Problem and  Objectives:

The maiden task in writing a research proposal is to identify the “Research problem” that will be solved during the course of research. Basically a research problem identifies  a gap/flaw/deviation   in the existing system which needs further study/experimentation/analysis.   The statement of the problem briefly addresses the question: What is the problem that the research will address? The ultimate goal of a statement of the problem is to transform a generalized problem (something that bothers you; a perceived lack) into a targeted, well-defined problem; one that can be resolved through focused research and careful decision-making.

Research objectives divide the problem statements in to set of sub problems. Each sub-problem forms a separate research objective.  It is advisable to have  minimum 03 and maximum 04 objectives can  be set for the  PhD proposal. Each objective must be defined in such a way that the solution for the objective can be achievable with in span of 4-6 months.

Example: Problem Statement

The main objective of this work is to design novel and efficient algorithms for a visually guided wheeled autonomous Robot that can explore an unknown or partially known 3D environment, construct navigation maps, identify objects of interest and plan paths. It is also aimed at reducing the uncertainties of real-life situations that can cause problems for Robot navigation. This problem involves four main objectives:

1. Efficient representation of the navigational environment to handle environmental uncertainties.

2. An appropriate mechanism to identify objects of interest from the sensors with quick response time.

3. Predicting the motion of moving objects within the navigational environment.

4. Design of a control scheme for Robot navigation.

It must be emphasized that these tasks are in no way independent of each other. The design of a Robot controller is dependent on the nature of the available knowledge of the Robot’s immediate surroundings as well as the large-scale structure of the environment. The richer and more accurate this knowledge is, the easier it becomes to and a suitable control algorithm. Acquiring this knowledge, from sensory data is a challenging problem as it involves uncertainty. The prediction of future position and trajectory of a moving object is dependent on how well the objects in the environment are sensed by the Robot. The navigation system developed here is applicable to any indoor environment consisting of rooms, corridors and doorways, which are accessible by a wheeled platform. This behavior is mainly, but is not limited to personal and Service Robots.

5. Method Section

The method section of a research proposal represents the technical steps involved in conducting the research. Details about the methods focus on characterizing and defining them, explaining your chosen techniques, and providing a full account of the procedures used for selecting, collecting and analyzing the data. The methods section of a research proposal should fully explain the reasons for choosing a specific methodology or technique. Also, it’s essential that the researcher describes the specific research methods of data collection  he is going  to use, whether they are primary or secondary data collection. The methods the researcher  chooses should have a clear connection with the overall research approach and he  needs to explain the reasons for choosing the research techniques in your study, and how they help you towards understanding his study’s purpose.

You can refer to my post on,  writing methodology section for more details.

6. Activity Chart

 It is possible to build a detailed description of what the researcher plans to do (literature to explore in-depth, principles or theorems to formulate and prove, experiments to carry out, sub-systems to build, systems integrations to perform, tests to accomplish) and desirable, to establish specific milestones and timelines and a Gantt diagram.

Example: The sample Gantt chart below shows a set of activities planned for the first 12 months for the Research Proposal. This can be extended to any length. This chart helps the adjudicators to know how well the researcher has planned the research activities.

7. Preliminary Work

This section of the research proposal gives a concise outline of the work carried out so far and the progress made towards the objectives of the project. Here the researcher has to showcase  his passion towards the research proposal he has selected through some preliminary work carried out so far. Preliminary work can be  gathering data regarding infrastructure/software requirements, collection of standard data sets, implementation  of the existing algorithms for the proposed work  etc.  If the researcher  has  already got some preliminary results then he  should provide them in a  simplified manner that helps supporting the rest of the proposal. If the researcher has submitted/presented some survey paper or work paper, then that should be highlighted. This  section should concentrate on the parts that contribute specifically to the goals of the proposal, avoiding detailed descriptions.

 8. Conclusion

The Conclusion briefly restate the objectives of the research proposal, recap the research approach the researcher plans to follow, and clarify in a few words what he is  expecting to find out, why it is scientifically  valuable , and  how he is going to validate the results.

Example: The control loop for motion planning comprising of sensing, planning and acting has not yet been closed for mobile Robots in dynamic environments. Researchers have put lots of efforts on this topic and a number of algorithms have been developed. Based on the literature survey, it is felt that the Area-based disparity matching in Stereovision and dynamic path planning algorithms deserve more investigation. The proposed work intends to apply machine learning techniques for these algorithms. Further research in these areas using could bring better results for motion planning and overcome the existing problems.

9. References

In this section you should list all the references you have made throughout the research proposal, making sure that you comply with the referencing conventions or citation styles that have been established for your specific field.

For more details, you can refer my previous blog on writing references.

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