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Applying for a Research Degree - When there’s potential, but it’s not clearly articulated

By Caroline Khene

Reviewing PhD or Masters (full research) applications are not a simple process. As a former Masters and Doctoral Coordinator, part of my role included reviewing applications, and aligning them with research interests of academics and research staff in the department or research institute. I have gone through numerous applications, some really good, some showing potential, and some just not there yet. Part of why I started NurtureID8, was because I observed that many applicants were really trying to articulate themselves in the application research proposal, but lacked guidance on how to effectively communicate their research potential. Despite the gaps in their application proposal, further communicating and interviewing these students certainly echoed the enthusiasm and potential of these students – they deserved a chance. A badly written proposal, does not always imply a lack of potential. One needs to engage with applicants in a way that best enables them to portray their potential. The university is international in its own sense, and attracts diverse students from different countries and education systems, that shape their understanding of knowledge. Sometimes existing knowledge needs to be enhanced or supported for practical application in their research, and sometimes existing knowledge actually needs to be unlearned (where it suppresses embedded creativity and thinking), so as to enable a student to emancipate themselves from the boundaries placed on them from their previous learning experience.

In this article, I mainly want to communicate to potential PhD students, and the main aspects to consider or avoid in your application research proposal:

  1. Demonstrate you know your chosen topic: A PhD application is not a wishy-washy affair – throw the dice in and hope for the best! You need to convince the university or supervisor you are applying to that you have done some reading and made some initial observations to identify a relevant topic. This is not only essential to your application evaluation, but provides a good initial steppingstone to engage early with your supervisor in shaping your research journey. Building autonomy is important in the early stages of your research process – avoid starting with a blank slate.

  2. Be specific: Many application proposals I have observed tend to be too broad, and not specific. You want to study E-Health in rural clinics…ok…so what? What kind of health, is it from the patient’s or health staff perspective or both, what opportunity/opportunities or issue/s are you looking at, what kind of technology is the focus, what ‘about’ that technology are you interested in (the technical or social or both; then again what specifically about that), etc. The point I am trying to bring across is that you need to keep asking yourself questions over and over again, to determine whether you really are specific enough. At times it helps you to immerse yourself and engage in the context to identify specific emergent topics. Show you also understand its relevance in industry or society.

  3. Structure is key: There are certain things we always look for when evaluating or reviewing an application proposal. Those very things provide structure to your proposal. Bare minimum, you should at least have a research background (literature review), research question/s, and methodology. If you want to show a bit of muscle, delve into theory and philosophy that may help you understand your proposed study. I have a template that you may use for structure as a start, however, keep in mind that some universities have specific templates they would like you to use.

  4. Understand how to write a Research Question: This is a COMMON problem in proposals – applicants struggle to write a research question. The question/s may be too broad, to long, or too many questions have been listed for the research study. As an application research proposal question, have 1-2 questions as a start – less is more, and assists in focus. It is understandable that this is challenging for novel researchers, as you will probably learn to write a research question, during your research degree. However, writing a preliminary question or two, presents a convincing proposal, and sets the ground to build your conversations with your supervisor. What are the key elements of a research question – there are many good resources out there. You could start by looking at a paper (targeted at clinical students but still relevant generally) by Karen Mattick, Jenny Johnson and Anne de la Croix titled ‘How to…write a good research question’. They emphasise that questions should encompass relevance, originality, and rigour.

  5. Know a thing or two about methodology: Most applications I have reviewed tend to indicate the research approach only – i.e., whether the study is qualitative or quantitative. There is more to methodology than the approach. During your research degree, you may be introduced to methodology in more detail – however, start demonstrating your understanding of this very topic. There are different ways you can approach this, but for an application proposal, provide a general holistic view as a start. The details will unravel, as the research degree progresses. Many supervisors tend to point students to Saunders et al.’s Research Onion – which isn’t perfect, but a good start. The Grad Coach explains it well in their article: ‘Saunders’ Research Onion: Explained Simply’. Ideally, in an application research proposal, at least indicate your research strategy, approach, and data collection techniques.

  6. You are applying for a Doctor of Philosophy, soo… start exploring theory and philosophy: Theory and philosophy is still a daunting topic for many potential and existing students. Philosophy and theory enable a process of discovery in research. Establishing a bit of groundwork on it, before applying for or starting a research degree equip you with designing and understanding the steps you will take shaping and answering your research questions. As a start in understanding the Philosophy of Science, also relevant when we study the implications and transformation of science, is a book by Thomas S. Kuhn, titled ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ – for a shorter read that summarises his work, you could read the article by The Guardian titled ‘Thomas Kuhn: the man who changed the way the world looked at science’

  7. AVOID long proposals! PLEASE! Your ability to be succinct, and strategically so, demonstrates your potential as a research student. For an application proposal, try to keep it 2-3 pages in Length. Keep in mind that your proposal may sit among 100 other applicants, especially applications that include a scholarship or bursary. Having structure will assist you, but take time to develop versions of your proposal that eventually land you at 2-3 pages in length. Ask a friend, colleague, academic or tutor to assist you in framing your proposal – because being able to be succinct is a challenging journey. It will be good practice for when you have to write academic articles in future.

I will end my article here. I started a YouTube channel, where at times I upload a video on various topics to support students – video content creation is new to me, so bear with my imperfections :-D.

Nonetheless, I hope you find value in watching my two videos on ‘How to choose a research topic’, and ‘The Application Research Proposal’.

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