Writing a PhD proposal

I often get emails asking to me to supervise a potential PhD project from prospective students. I love supervising PhD students, it is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. However, I am often frustrated with these emails, and often I do not reach my goal of recruiting one new PhD student each year.

The emails often start with a something like “I am really impressed with your research profile from your website. I see you focus on supply chain management and would like to part of your research team”, and I read the attached PhD proposal with great interest. But, most likely, I end up disappointed and I have been wondering why? What would a great PhD proposal look like? Here’s my thoughts.

Topic/title: Too many proposal have titles like, “Investigation of some supply chain issues in a particular industry in a far off land”. OK, I am a expert in supply chains (it is a big field) but maybe I know nothing about that specific issue, maybe I know nothing about the industry, and maybe I have never been to the far off land. A good topic goes like this… “Application of some method to a interesting, generic and novel situation”. Now I can quickly get an idea about what will be studied - the situation - and how it will be accomplished - the method.

Literature review: Of course, the literature review should identify a research gap to be filled. But it should also highlight your understanding of the research your potential supervisor has written in that area. If your potential supervisor has not been publishing in your specific area he/she will probably not be a suitable supervisor.

Research question: The research gap identified in your literature review should lead to a set of research questions (RQs) or some research aims and objectives. Make sure they are related to the proposed PhD title. Remember, over the course of your PhD your research questions/aims and objectives will change as you learn more about the topic. This may trick you into specifying broad RQs. However, try to pick a small problem to study, so that you have the time and capacity to go into a deep dive of the topic; to get a PhD you have to make a new contribution to knowledge after all. If we need to change the RQs later, we will do so.

Method: Be sure to draw attention to how you are going to answer your research questions/aims and objectives; highlight the methods, tools, and techniques you will be using. Are they appropriate methods for your research questions? No one is expecting you to know the answers to your research question at this stage, but you should be able to demonstrate how you will do the investigation. Look for a potential supervisor who has been using those methods. If he/she has no experience of using those methods, why do you think he/she would be good at advising you? Be sure to evidence your training and expertise in the proposed method.

Project plan: Include a realistic project plan and a Gantt Chart. Don’t just list the chapters in the PhD starting with Write Introduction in month 1 and ending in Write Conclusions in month 36. Link it to the actual work that will be done: Reading literature, doing maths, visiting case companies, writing up, interviewing executives, etc. Make sure your plan reflects the requirements of the host institution. My school, for example, offers all PhD students the possibility to do an MRes in Management in the first 12 months before they move on to study for their PhD proper. Schedule that into the plan if you wish to do that program. Identify the risks involved in your PhD project. Are you relying on gaining access to people to interview? Do you need to get a large survey response? Or access to real-life case data? Do you require access to a super computer? Or what happens if the mathematics required to solve your problem is impossible?

References: Make sure your bibliography is properly formatted and complete. If you do not reference your potential supervisor, is he/she really an expert in the field of your research? You want the supervisor who is the established expert in your topic or method; your supervisor wants a student who knows what they signed up for.

Funding and visas: Is your PhD study being funded by someone? Are you looking for funding? Is money going to be a constraint for you? Be honest about your situation. Putting yourself in financial hardship and having to pull out later is in no one’s interest. Do you require a visa? Is there enough time to apply for one? Visas for PhD study often require higher IELTS/TOFEL scores if your first language is not English. Have you obtained the required language qualifications? As a PhD student you will be integrated into your school much more than a regular UG or PG student. You will be expected to contribute to the academic community of your school. Having the ability and confidence to express your ideas and opinions is important and expected.

Proof reading: Proof read your proposal and email. Saying you want to be part of my research team in some other university does not portray you as someone with an eye for detail! Spelling mistakes, incorrect tense, inconsistent fonts, sloppy referencing, badly drawn figures, and poorly formatted equations do not help your cause.

My skills and areas of interest: I am an empirically inspired mathematical modeler. I do empirical case work, I collect data and work with companies to understand their real problems, issues, and settings. I am proficient at computer simulation (mainly in Excel, Mathematica, and R), control theory (esp. the Laplace transform, Fourier transform and the z-transform), difference and differential equations, and stochastic processes (esp. ARIMA models). I study topics such as the Bullwhip effect, Inventory control, Production planning, Forecasting, and Supply chain dynamics. These are the topics and methods I am interested, and capable of, supervising PhD students in.

Applying for a PhD position: More information about how to apply for the PhD at the University of Exeter Business School can be found here. My last tip… follow the University’s application procedures!

Stephen Disney
Stephen Disney

My research interests involve the application of control theory and statistical techniques to operations management and supply chain scenarios to investigate their dynamic, stochastic, and economic performance.