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How to write an effective PhD Prospectus

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How to write an effective PhD Prospectus

The PhD prospectus is an academic deliverable (document) usually demanded in American university systems. It is mostly associated with PhD programmes, but longer Master’s courses might also require one.

Importance of a PhD prospectus

Essentially, the prospectus is an extended, developed or significantly changed version of the initial research proposal. Usually around 5,000 words in length (institutions would specify exact requirements), a prospectus commonly involves considerable research and background reading. The PhD applicant will be expected to submit, and then defend, the prospectus in front of their PhD committee. Failure can lead to the need for resubmission. If, after that, the candidate fails again, they may face being dismissed from the programme. 

Stage at which to write the PhD prospectus

At the beginning of the PhD process, an applicant to a doctoral programme will initially put together an application package including a research proposal, statement of purpose, transcripts of grades, a CV and a number of references. Once accepted for a PhD course of study, students at American universities then spend their first year on further courses, often concentrating on methodology. At the end of the first year, students may be required to submit a prospectus. 

Writing the PhD prospectus

The prospectus is like other proposals in that it will ‘situate the suggested research’. There is no specified structure, although different institutions may stipulate what they are looking for. A longer prospectus should have some form of executive summary.

Here are some pointers for writing the ideal prospectus:

  • It should usually start with why the topic area is of importance and why further research is warranted. It will need to review the research related to the topic and identify a specific gap or problem that needs to be addressed. 
  • It should then suggest one or two specific main research questions and maybe further sub-questions that the research plans to address. 
  • It will need to specify the probable direction that the research will take. Some disciplines may demand a thesis statement, or hypothesis, before the prospectus goes on to present the proposed methodology and variables if appropriate, and to justify why the approach suggested will be the most suited to the nature of the research proposed. 
  • It should acknowledge possible challenges that the research might encounter and tentatively outline the solutions the researcher(s) intend to use to address them.
  • It might offer a research plan for the following years that covers components of the research such as:
    • What exactly will be done for the research
    • When data will be collected
    • When writing will start
    • What is planned to be completed within what time frame and other relevant deadlines
    • Possible travel and other requirements
  • It could finish by stating what the research ultimately delivers and what impact it might have.
  • Like all academic work, it should include a comprehensive bibliography, which could be organised thematically. This may also include a broader range of known or relevant literature rather than just the references mentioned in the prospectus and point to both primary and secondary sources.

Note: Some institutions might also demand an outline of the proposed structure of the thesis/dissertation.

Evaluation of the PhD prospectus

The PhD committee is made up of a number of professors from your discipline, but they may have quite disparate interests and very different levels of knowledge on the topic being presented. Here, we discuss the implications of this broader audience and what the committee is most interested in.

  • Your prospectus should be written for this broader but academic audience, aiming to explain to them why the research is merited, and why the gap or problem is best approached in the way you suggested. You will need to gauge how specific your explanations need to be for this audience.
  • You will need to address the committee’s main concerns, which will be:
    • Whether they believe the research question(s) can be answered in the way you suggest
    • Whether they believe the data is suitable, available, sufficient etc.
    • Whether the project is feasible and appropriate for the demanded level
  • The prospectus is ultimately an academic document, and you will be judged on the quality of the written presentation.

End notes

The prospectus represents an important stage in the research process of an early career researcher.

  • The feedback you receive on the proposed research will play a major role in helping you to tailor and fine-tune your research further, making the next stages that much more focused and therefore more productive.
  • Acceptance of the prospectus is a sign of confidence from academic experts in your discipline.


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