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Proposal Guidance

Lock-Keeper's Cottage

Writing Your PhD Proposal

How long should my proposal be?

1500 words (maximum, excluding timescale and bibliography)

What should the proposal include?

The proposal should include any information that an academic reader with no prior knowledge of the project would need in order to assess its potential to make an original contribution to performance research. At minimum, the proposal should include:

  • A concise description of the project. What is the topic you propose to investigate?
  • Research context. What scholarship is relevant to your inquiry and how do you situate your own project in relation to it?
  • Research questions. What are the key research questions your inquiry aims to address?
  • Research methods. How do you intend to address your research questions (e.g. ethnography, materialist approaches, practice-based research)? What is your rationale for using these methods?
  • Scope. What is the repertoire of core material — artistic, critical, historical, or otherwise — which you intend to examine in the thesis? What is the rationale for the selection of this material? How do you envisage structuring the thesis?
  • Timescale (not included in the word count). How will you plan the project such that it is completed within 3 years of full-time study or 5 years of part-time study? (College maximums are 4 years of full-time study and 7 years of part-time study). Note: a full-time studentship covers a three-year period.
  • Bibliography (not included in the word count). Identify texts, performances, resources, archives etc. that are central to your investigation.

Will you look at a draft proposal?

Yes, but it is important that the proposal be the result of your own independent work — the ability to conceive a thesis project and articulate the proposal clearly is a central part of the PhD application process. You are welcome to send a single, complete draft of your proposal for our review (ideally well in advance of submitting the final application).

Do you have any other advice?

Yes. Persuasive PhD proposals may be articulated in any number of ways, but effective proposals tend to demonstrate the following qualities:

  • They are specific. This may seem obvious, but be as specific as possible throughout the entire proposal. PhD proposals can be let down by imprecise terminology or taken-for-granted assumptions that might seem self-evident to you but are not immediately apparent to others.
  • The topic is clearly identified. Refine your topic so that its parameters are broad enough to permit consideration of a healthy breadth of material, but focused enough that the boundaries of your inquiry are clear.
  • The research questions are clear and well framed. Core questions should be limited in number — avoid long lists as this can look as though you are unsure which questions are most important. Try to formulate questions in such a way as to permit complex responses. Don’t try to anticipate findings at the proposal stage — these will come much later in the research process.
  • The research context in which the project intervenes is clear. Name key critics and bodies of scholarship that are relevant to your project and position your own inquiry in relation to them. How does your project engage existing bodies of work? How does your project seek to do something different?
  • Case studies are explicitly identified. Referring to, say, “a range of contemporary performance” is not persuasive. Tell the reader what key examples (e.g. artists, companies, individual performances, cultural practices) you intend to engage. You don’t have to identify every potential case study at this point, but the core material you will consider should be clear.
  • The scale of the inquiry is appropriate for a PhD. Is this a project that should take 3-4 years of full-time research (or up to 7 years of part-time research) to complete?
  • If practice-based research is proposed, that it's clear what you mean by this. Students may wish to carry out practice-based research to generate material for one or more case studies, leading to the submission of a written thesis (60,000 words maximum for an MPhil thesis; 100,000 words maximum for a PhD thesis). Alternatively, students may wish to submit practice as part of the thesis submission (the balance between the written and practical components is determined by the needs of the project). Students who submit a combination of a written thesis and practice do so on the understanding that the material is submitted concurrently and examined as an integrated whole. Practice must be submitted using a form of retainable documentation.
  • The role of practice in research depends on each individual project and its critical aims. If you intend to pursue your project through practice, please ensure that the research imperatives driving this practice are clear. Reflection on one’s own practice usually achieves greater critical efficacy when it accounts for a broader repertoire of related practice as well. If you intend to include your own performance work among your case studies, how would you situate it in the context of other bodies of performance work? Finally, identify any material requirements your practice would involve (e.g. space, technical equipment, access to particular people).
  • For a number of our PhD students, their past and ongoing bodies of performance practice inform their thesis research very productively. In most cases, though, this practice is neither the main case study within the thesis nor the mode through which research is conducted and findings articulated.
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