Guidelines for writing a research proposal for a PhD in the Department of Political and Social Sciences
THE “IDEAL” RESEARCH PROPOSAL
A proposal should be as general as possible in order for it to be reviewed by (and capture the attention of) any social scientist, but it should also be as specific as possible in order to trigger the interest of the faculty member(s) who could potentially become your supervisor(s).
Try to make clear which parts of your project are conventional wisdom, and which are innovative.
Highlighting paradoxes and unexpected results can also be a powerful tool to motivate readers whose research interests are far from yours.
Try to keep the spotlight on the main idea(s) of your project along the whole text while clearly spelling out your concrete plans.
Be especially alert when choosing the title and abstract of your proposal. These serve as an entry point to capture the reader’s attention. The 100-word abstract will be included in the summary of your dossier separately from the research proposal, and most faculty members will make a first pre-selection of the proposals they want to read more carefully on the basis of the abstract. Try to focus there on your research question and to explain why it is an innovative and interesting question to ask.
The presentation is also very important. Proposals should be in either good English or French (proofreading is always a good strategy), well-structured with suitable headings, and be clear and legible.
The introduction (why?)
Begin the proposal by clearly stating either the central problem or puzzle which the dissertation will address, be this empirical, theoretical or both.
Another good way to begin a proposal is by stating, where possible, your central point, idea, or claim.
Keep in mind that most social scientists are interested in causal explanations. This means that purely descriptive proposals should be avoided, however interesting and useful they are.
Tell the reader why you want to study what you are studying, and why it is worth doing so.
If your topic (or theory or method) has been very widely discussed in your field, you should highlight the novelty (theoretical, empirical or both) that your project represents with respect to previous works.
The feasibility of the project is not an issue in many proposals, but could become a potential concern in some of them. If you think that this might be the case, you might say a few words about it.
This is also probably a good moment to make explicit any caveats and limitations of your project. You should not, however, attempt to explain either the whole (history of the) world or one single and particular small case. Try to achieve a balance between feasibility and ambition.
The state of the field
Present and discuss the answers that the available literature offers the research question addressed in the proposal succinctly.
- Describe any key conceptual issues that have already been addressed by work on the question.
- Explain the central arguments/debates in the literature on the question, and show an awareness of alternative points of view by highlighting the combination of literatures.
- Describe thorny methodological issues that might hinder work on the question.
- Offer criticisms and/or suggest pathways for future research.
- In sum, make clear: first, what we already know and what we do not yet know about your research question; second, how your work will build on previous research.
The project description (what?)
- Formulate a theory (in more conceptual work) or a series of hypotheses subject to falsification (in empirical studies). This is essentially your general answer to the above-mentioned puzzle. There is nothing wrong with using a “hunch” as your starting point, as long as you argue and use the relevant literature appropriately to justify it. You will have time within the next four years to refine, amend or completely change your hypothesis if necessary.
- Define key terms. You should avoid using highly abstract and complicated terms in your conceptualization. Try to employ some concept that everyone in your discipline uses and seems to agree on with regard to its meaning or justify why you are not using it and provide your own definition. Use a consistent conceptualization throughout the whole text.
- Operationalize key terms by defining them in terms that can be measured or observed. Good (maybe not ideal) indicators are those available, close to the concept you want to measure, and widely accepted. The more indicators you have, the more solid your proposal will be.
- Make explicit the causal mechanism (i.e. the micro-foundation) that links the explanans and explanandum.
- If possible, offer a list of “control variables” (i.e. all the other possible factors that might influence the phenomenon you want to explain) in order to avoid setting up any spurious relations.
- We would also strongly recommend that you explicitly specify the existence of any intervening conditions that - at the very least - change the production of the expected effects and - at most - need to be present for the hypothesized relations to hold.
The research design (how, where and when?)
List the research operations you will conduct, and justify why these are the best solutions to tackle your research question.
If you choose to examine only one case, you should provide a careful indication of the relevance of your case and its potential for generalization. Case studies are fine as long as you demonstrate a good command of the case, and strongly argue the non-triviality of its analysis. Explain what kind of case it is and provide some theoretical reasons for looking at it (N.B. not just because it has been in the news recently, or because this particular case has not yet been covered in academic research. Remember that a research gap is not yet a research puzzle that is worth answering).
The comparison of units is particularly appreciated in our department, be it sub-national or cross-national.
If you intend to examine more than one case, you will also be asked to justify the selection of your geographical and temporal span, even though you can do this more briefly when they have chosen a “large N” design.
Elaborate on the logic and strategy behind case selection and comment on the inherent disadvantages (if any).
With regard to methodology, mixed approaches that combine both quantitative and qualitative methods are particularly welcome in our department.
Do not hesitate to include as many details as you can with regard to the datasets, the respondents, or the techniques of analysis you are planning to employ. Being precise about how you think you will develop your research is always welcome and helpful.
Statement of fit (why the SPS Department at the EUI?)
Explain how your background and life experiences (including social, economic, cultural, familial, educational), or other opportunities and challenges motivated your decision to pursue a PhD in political and social sciences at the SPS Department of the EUI.
Make sure you include an explanation of why you believe the SPS Department is a good fit for your professional aims and research interests, as well as with which of its faculty members you might wish to work.
Avoid sending a purely generic statement of purpose that fails to identify why the EUI is a good fit for your training.
Discuss any research skills such as language training or methods/data familiarity that could be useful in the completion of your thesis.
If you have already begun your doctoral study, it is important that you give some indication of the work you have undertaken to date.
A well-composed proposal usually finishes by alluding to the original research question, reminding the reader about the main theoretical claim (in normative works)/falsifiable hypothesis (in empirical ones), and speculating on the final product of the thesis: what kind of impact could your research have if it is successful?
This should be focused and updated but sufficiently comprehensive and grounded in classics.
For the disciplines covered by our department, you can use annual reviews, field-oriented handbooks or on-line databases.
We also recommend looking for personal web pages of leading scholars on your research question.
We advise you to use any reference management software package to cope with bibliographies and references when writing the proposal.