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Question Description

This is the game-plan for what thestudent wants to do for three years full-time or five years part-time. It should be adocument of perhaps five or six pages that includes the following parts.


A brief (e.g. two-paragraph) introduction to the specific topic you wish to study. Do notmake it an introduction to disasters or people’s behaviour in extreme circumstances,as those matters are too general. If you wanted to do research on evacuation indisasters, you would need c. 20 lines of introduction on precisely that, and not on otheraspects of the disasters problem. Be specific: this proposal is about what you want todo, not what you already know.

Research question

What exactly do you want to spend three years doing? Let us take the topic–forexample, evacuation in disasters–and see what facets it has:

  • the logistics of moving people (technical and operational)
  • the relationship between warning and evacuation (technical, scientific,organisational)
  • message dissemination (from technical to psychological)
  • social reactions such as verification of warning messages, social reactions toevacuation orders
  • emergency planning (technical to social)
  • management of evacuation processes
  • mapping and spatial dynamics of evacuation.The research question may be related to one or more of these facets, but probably notvery many of them. You would need to do a small amount of research on the basicliterature, but concentrate selectively on those works that relate most closely to thechosen aspect or aspects of the topic that you wish to study.It is important to start small and build up the research, rather than start with a grandioseproject and try to reduce its scope, which is a much harder task. If the project is notlarge enough–i.e., if it seems too humble–one can always add another study site, orincrease the size of the questionnaire, or something like that. Experienced proposalreaders can easily spot a proposal that is too grandiose and therefore not viable.A typical research question will seek to establish or verify a relationship between onephenomenon and another, almost certainly a causal relationship. It will enquire intothe causes.


The section of the proposal that poses the research question shouldinclude, or end with, the statement of a hypothesis. Exceptionally, more than onehypothesis can be stated (i.e. multiple working hypotheses, which must be stronglyrelated to each other). Generally, only one hypothesis is needed to start off theresearch. For example, the hypothesis could be “individual reaction to a tsunamiwarning is differentiated by a person’s gender.” A hypothesis is a proposition to betested. In the thesis, if not in the proposal, you would have to go on to explain how youthink the postulated relationship might be. In the proposal, as in the research, it paysto be as concrete and as specific as possible. If you end up doing something [slightly]different, then that will simply be an indication of how the project is evolving as it iscarried out.

Research questions are not quite the same as hypotheses. They are not propositionsor postulates, but things you might ask of your data set. It is important to think of boththe research questions and hypothesis in terms of data you may collect (qualitative,quantitative, semi-quantitative, a mixture, whatever). If you are unsure about what toask, try thinking backwards from an envisaged data collection campaign to theresearch questions and hypothesis derived from the data.

The research question section might be something like three paragraphs long, withanother paragraph dedicated to presenting the hypothesis.

Literature review

This section can come either before the research question/hypothesis section or afterit. The choice depends on whether you think you need to discuss the literature in orderto explain why or how you chose your research question, or whether you think theliterature should be used to explain what we already know about your researchquestion. In either case, there is a golden rule: keep the literature review short andonly discuss a limited number of key works that are those of greatest direct relevanceto your research question.

The literature review should not define the term disaster or, indeed, do anything sogeneral. Its purpose is briefly to explain where you are coming from–i.e., what yourstarting point is. You are saying, “this is the existing state of knowledge, to which I willcontribute.” That can and should be done in no more than one page, possibly less. Inboth the proposal and the dissertation, the literature review should answer thequestions “what do we already know about my research problem and therefore whatis my starting point in doing this research?”

At the end of the proposal you should include any references that you have cited,professionally listed (in Harvard citation style, or whichever). There should not be morethan about a dozen of them. You have no need whatsoever in a proposal todemonstrate how much you have read. You can demonstrate your familiarity with therelevant literature by your selectiveness in what you refer to; i.e. by ensuring that youmention only the most relevant citations.


This is a very important section indeed. You should use it to explain, as clearly andcomprehensively as possible, what you are going to do in your three years of study forthe PhD. What methods are you going to use to collect and analyse your data?

The successful applicant is one who has a good idea about this, which demonstratesrealism, clear thinking and operability. You can divide your work plan into phases andinclude a Gantt chart of months 1-36, which shows how you will manage the phases.

You don’t have to follow the proposal exactly in the PhD, but you do need the proposalto show a clear, confident sense of direction.

In a proposal you are not expected to know everything about your work over the nextthree years, but instead to have some clear ideas about how you might proceed.

The proposal, which should be 3-6 pages long, should round off with a Gantt chart ofthe timed phases of the project.

Your key words: Select those with topical, geographical and methodologicalrelevance.

Lastly, make sure the proposal is written in correct English and is professionallyformatted. Keep it simple and remember it is a means of communication. You areusing it to sell your ideas.