Some of the PhD positions I'm applying for (all in Europe, mostly UK, Germany, and Switzerland), require a research proposal as a mandatory part of the application. I'm confused about what exactly they are asking for because the guidelines are quite vague.

I've seen this question and this one, but there are two things that are different in my case: First, the proposal for some of these programs is actually a mandatory requirement for the formal application (not for the first contact with the potential advisor), and second, unlike the former of those two questions, my field is mathematical and computational science, not Social Science (not sure if that makes a significant difference). I've also seen this question, but the question and the answers are not about how detailed the proposal should be.

My broader research interests, including a somewhat narrow area of interest for my PhD thesis (but not as narrow as a research topic), are already stated in both my statement letter (for formal application) and my contact with the potential advisor. That makes me think the proposal they expect to receive shouldn't be just my research interests, at least for those programs where, according to the guideline, it is recommended to cite related literature in my proposal. On the other hand, I really can't state a question that would be a suitable driving question for a PhD project on my own without enough help from a professor at this stage, and even if I could, I highly doubt that would be something my prospective advisor would want me to work on. So, it seems to me that writing a proper research proposal, without a substantial contribution from the advisor is impractical. (In fact, I can't even imagine how I could write about "the methodology" at this stage, considering finding the appropriate methodology in this field is often actually a very substantial part of the project.)

I'd appreciate if you could share your knowledge and experience about writing a PhD proposal as a part of the application. It would be very helpful to know what admission committees expect to see in a research proposal at the application stage, and how broad could the proposal be without turning into an SOP.

  • This sounds like a question that would be best answered by your prospective supervisor(s). Sep 19, 2018 at 7:17
  • @astronat So you're saying there is no standard expectation for application stage research proposal? I thought there should be some standard when I saw this requirement in a few programs, not one. Or are you suggesting that I ask the potential advisor to help me with preparing the proposal?
    – nara
    Sep 19, 2018 at 19:46
  • 1
    yes, you should ask them as a) they know the research area well and b) they know the expected format/standard of their department/ university. Sep 19, 2018 at 21:40

1 Answer 1


Yes indeed, I think it is expected that you would first contact the prospective advisor more informally and at minimum get an idea about the potential topics they would be interested in and that would fit with their existing research and the plans they have for the future. It's nearly impossible to guess this as an outsider.

In my case, in Germany and in CS, I had to write this for applying to the funding rather than the PhD position per se (which can be given out with almost no process by the prof). I first sat down with the prof and we talked things over and he agreed to take me on if I could acquire funding. Together with my prospective advisor and the post-doc who would be supervising me on the daily, I then wrote about 10 pages, with a detailed plan of the work I would be doing, including a gantt chart of tasks etc. Definitely not the kind of thing I would've been able to produce on my own.

I also went partway through an application process for a British university, where I had two skype interviews with the prof discussing his research before he told me to sit down and write a draft for the research plan for the formal application and send it to him for comments before submitting. (I ended up accepting another offer before I finished the draft, so I don't know what precisely they would have been looking for there.)

  • I want to reinforce talking to the prof before the application. This is the time to be clear and explicit. For example, be sure to ask very openly if the prof is indeed willing to take you on as a student, and if this general topic is of interest. Otherwise you may waste your time and annoy the prof by applying for something he is uninterested in.
    – user94256
    Sep 19, 2018 at 14:33
  • I'm certainly contacting the potential advisor long before the application deadline. But shouldn't the professor first accept to take me as a student to be willing to spend that effort? Also, based on what you're suggesting, is it safe to say the professor doesn't expect me to be able to prepare the proposal on my own?! Because I'm starting to think maybe if I can't write the proposal on my own, I might be actually unprepared for starting the program, if the applicants are expected to prepare a proposal.
    – nara
    Sep 19, 2018 at 19:51
  • The professor should at least be willing to invest some time into your application, even if they may not want to accept you outright. If you're not getting the kind of support you need to be able to write the proposal, that's a sign that it's unlikely to work out (either the prof is not interested enough to bother, or you don't work well together, or they expect you to be more independent than you are). Profs vary in how much help they expect you to need, whereas the administration is one-size-fits-all, so I would say don't draw conclusions from the forms they make you fill out.
    – nengel
    Sep 20, 2018 at 10:46

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