Things you should avoid when writing your PhD research proposal

Most PhD candidates are shocked by the competition they face when it comes to submitting their research proposals. According to Stanford University, the National Science Foundation received nearly 50,000 research proposals in 2013, and only 22% were accepted and funded. The National Institutes of Health were even stricter, accepting only 17% of the submitted proposals.

If you’re writing a PhD research proposal and want to stand out from the thousands of applicants, take caution. Avoid these four common mistakes, which can cost you the acceptance of your proposal and delay the start of a successful and lucrative research career.

Mistake #1: Not Proofreading or Editing

This is one of the first things that a research team will notice while reviewing your proposal. We’re not talking about typos, which a basic spell check will catch.

We’re talking about the nuances of academic writing: Do you understand how to define acronyms or when to use numerals versus words? Can you recognize the right verb tenses to use and what constitutes appropriate academic language and structure?

Although your word processor’s spell check will help your case, professional proofreading and editing is one step you won’t want to skimp out on, especially after you’ve invested so much time, sweat and tears in your research and writing. Savvy PhD candidates know it’s in their best interest to hire grammar editors and thesis experts to review their work and correct common language and academic style mistakes. At this final step, it would be a shame to let small but significant errors leave the PhD review team with a poor first impression of your work.

Mistake #2: An Overly Broad Research Question

A PhD thesis indicates how well you’ll do as a researcher one day. Schools and foundations want to feel confident in your research capabilities and your in-depth knowledge of the subject at hand. If you select an overly broad research question, you give the impression that you lack both familiarity with the research area and scientific literature and an understanding of what’s required in a PhD thesis. When you think you have a research question, narrow it again and again until you’ve honed in on a very specific topic or subject.

In your thesis, you should make it clear that your research idea is feasible. You should communicate your plan to accomplish this research and achieve your research goals. You should also demonstrate that you are familiar with the prior research and that your proposed research can add a new angle or perspective on the subject you’ve chosen.

Finally, once you’ve narrowed your proposal’s research question, make sure to outline how your research will contribute to the literature and advance the field.

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Mistake #3: Plagiarism (Accidental or Otherwise)

Plagiarism is an instant death knell for your academic career. It will get your paper rejected, blacklist you at all schools and haunt you for years or even decades, even if you aren’t caught right away.

Few PhD candidates set out to purposefully plagiarize. However, after spending many sleepless nights fine-tuning and adding content to your paper, it’s easy to accidentally forget a citation or quote another paper too extensively.

To avoid plagiarism, use tools like the Ephorus plagiarism software, which is what most colleges and universities use to check for plagiarism.

Mistake #4: Making It Too Complicated

You might think you’ll get bonus points if your paper sounds very technical or complex. You might be tempted to use scientific language, insert jargon or make references to industry leaders.

However, keep in mind that adjudication committees are multidisciplinary. At every level of the review process, your proposal will be evaluated by experts outside of your field. If you want to impress these committees, use simple, clear language and avoid extremely technical terms and phrases. The simpler and more direct your writing, the greater the chance your proposal will appeal to all the committee reviewers.

By avoiding these four very common missteps, you can ensure your proposal has the best shot at impressing the adjudication committees. Dodge these mistakes so the reviewers can focus on your ideas and questions, instead of getting distracted by these errors.

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Amber Massey

Amber Massey is a wordsmith and communications enthusiast with over 10 years of experience. Editing is her passion. New media is her medium. She is currently the CEO of Mellel, a powerful app redefining word processing for Mac.

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