What is a PhD?

A PhD is an independent piece of research and writing that presents an original contribution to existing knowledge of politics. It is between 75 and 100,000 words long and is typically conducted over three years full-time (or five years part-time.)

The defining feature of a PhD is that it is yours. The topic, planning, motivation, and thinking will usually come from you, unless you are working on a predefined topic attached to funding. Even then, you will take ownership of the theme and make it your own.

You will be assigned two supervisors who will support your progress along the way.

The PhD will likely be the most challenging type of academic work you have ever done; it should also be the most rewarding.

The Research Proposal – an Outline

The research proposal constitutes the main way in which the department of Urban Studies and Planning evaluates the potential quality of your proposed PhD. Your proposal should be approximately 1,500 words in length and include:

  • A title
  • An overview of the topic and the main research aim
  • A brief literature review of relevant research in the field (including the key academic and theoretical debates) and how your research would relate to this literature
  • The specific research questions to be answered in the thesis
  • suggested research methods; and
  • the expected contribution to knowledge and to society beyond academia (i.e. its social and/or economic impact).

Let’s look at each in a little more detail.

1. The Title

The title indicates the ‘headline’ character of the PhD. It should include any key concepts, empirical focus, or lines of inquiry that you aim to pursue. For example: ‘The environmental and social impacts of mass housing in Latin American countries’, or ‘Using water efficiently: understanding the impact of expanding middle class demand on city water systems’. You can negotiate changes in the title with your supervisor should you be successful but it is important to devise a title that describes what you aspire to research – and which looks original and exciting.

2. Overview and aim

You need a clear aim, sometime framed as a question, to drive the research forward. This needs to be set in a brief overview, explaining why this aim matters: you need to convince the reader that your research is both original and important. Originality means that it needs to be something that has not been addressed before – either looking at a topic which hasn’t been explored, or it might mean taking a fresh approach to an existing topic or issue. For instance, while much is known about housing finance in the UK, very little is known about the financial aspects of how informal settlements are built in the global South – so that would be an original topic. You would need to explain in a few sentences why it matters as well: in this case it might be an argument that says that most of the world’s population growth will take place in cities in the global South, much of it will be informal, and we (policy makers and planners) need to understand this if we are to help people.

You should give enough background to the context you are planning to work in to make the research aim seem credible and worthwhile; you do not need to give a great deal of factual detail.

3. Literature review

A short note of key existing literature situates and justifies the PhD with respect to existing research. Literature reviews are not simply descriptive mapping exercises at PhD level (i.e. ‘X said this, Y said that’.) Rather you should identify a small number of key texts and say something about how these are important for your research – how they motivate it, and how your work might support, extend, or challenge existing work.

4. Research questions

You should give your aim more content by setting out a short list of questions (3-6 is normal) which your research will answer. These should be achievable both in terms of the resources available (typically just you, for maybe a year of field work) and answerable – questions which begin what/how/why are typically fine, but‘what is the best way to…?’and ‘how can…?’ questions are trickier to answer. You might want to have an overall aim which is ‘how can…be achieved?’ but the research questions need to be looking at the real world, in which things have been achieved.

5. Methods

This is where you can say something about how you will answer your questions. It is relatively easy to ask a new question; it is more challenging to set out how you might come up with a convincing answer! ‘Methods’ does not only mean empirical methods such as semi-structured interviews or surveys and statistical interpretation; it also might involve a statement on the kind of theoretical framework you will employ, such as a certain kind of approach to organisations or a way to understand ideas.

As a department we welcome applications from a very broad range of methodological and philosophical backgrounds: quantitative and qualitative, text-based and mapping big data, interpretive and positivist and realist, and many more.

The value of the PhD follows closely from the aims: think about how the ways it might improve our political thinking: a new perspective, the generation of new evidence… And, to whom might the PhD be interesting: scholars looking at a particular issue, communities within specific institutions, certain groups of people?

6. Expected contribution to knowledge

Here you should set out briefly the kind of conclusions you expect to draw, and why they matter. Obviously at this point this can only be speculative, but you should identify what kind of knowledge you might develop, and who it might be of interest to, and why. If you have ideas about how you might disseminate this knowledge, and have impact on the non-academic world, then put them in here.

Three more important points:

  • Try to be concise. Do not write too much – be as specific as you can but not wordy. It is a difficult balance to strike.
  • Bear in mind that the proposal is only a starting point. If you are registered to read for a PhD you will be able to work the proposal through with your supervisor in more detail in the early months, leading up to as full proposal presented to the department after 9 months or so...
  • Take a look at the Department’s staff profiles and the PhDs they’d like to supervise. Can you identify possible supervisors and intellectual support networks within the Department? The better able the Department is to support your research, the better it will be for your proposal.