A PhD concept paper is a paper written by a PhD aspirant to summarize the research project for the benefit of the dissertation committee that examines the validity of the project across at least four dimensions. They are:
- Does the candidate present his research aims and objectives clearly?
- Has the candidate shown his or her proficiency in understanding the theoretical aspect of the research area?
- Does the candidate show a clear understanding of the research methodology which is selected to answer the research questions formulated in the concept paper?
- Is the contribution original? Does it make a relevant contribution to the larger field of research?
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Understanding the ‘concept’ behind a concept paper
A concept paper is like a proposal which is submitted to the PhD committee in order to seek its approval for starting the research project. A candidate must be able to convince the committee through its concept paper that:
- He or she is capable of handling the research project
- He or she has a good command over all the theoretical and practical aspects of the research to be undertaken
- He or she willread the relevant secondary literature on the subject and is cognizant of the debates in his or her area of specialization
- Finally the research will make an original contribution to the field of study.
Timeline for a PhD concept paper
Each country has its own set of rules for PhD. For instance, in the US, a PhD takes anywhere between 5 to 7 years of study. This includes one to two years of coursework or graduate study along with independent research for the rest of the time period under the supervision of a professor. However, this set of rules is applicable only for science and humanities subjects. For MBA and law, separate set of rules is followed. The time limit for a PhD project in management and law is typically shorter.
A PhD concept paper is usually submitted at the end of the coursework and before the beginning of the independent research work. By that time, the student must have a clear idea about the research topic, the research question he is going to undertake and the research methodology he is going to follow.
Components of a PhD concept paper
A concept paper must contain all the major components of a proposal. The major parts include:
Introduction or exposition is the most crucial property of your concept paper. It introduces the topic of research and narrates an introductory account of your research. There are few tips you must keep in mind while writing a concept paper:
- Never make an introduction lengthy
- Avoid writing convoluted sentences which can confuse your readers
- After making few general comments, come straight to the point
- Try to avoid errors (proofing or factual) since they create a negative impression on your readers
- Try not to make any ambitious claims while writing your introduction. Keep your aims and objectives realistic.
2. Research aims or objectives:
Next, we come to the research aim. A research aim is a statement which justifies the very purpose of conducting the research. Research aim should be clear and unambiguous. It is best not to make any grandiloquent statement which defies the purpose of carrying the research. Here are a couple of things which you must keep in mind:
- Research aim should be clear to you. If you are not convinced about your own project no one else will be either
- The written statement should reflect your personal conviction
- You should be able to justify the validity of the project and let your committee know why conducting a research work on the mentioned subject is so important.
3. Research question:
A research question must contain the gist of your argument. It can either be framed as a question or may be formulated as a statement. Here is the way forward:
- Try framing a question that summarizes the whole project in one or two lines
- The research question or statement (if you prefer to call it that) must not contain the details of your research. Those may come later
- Finally, the research question must contain the essence of the project.
4. Research methodology:
Methodology refers to the method or the set of methods which you would be using while writing your PhD dissertation. They are the tools which you would be using in order to conduct your research. A variety of tools are now available. You can choose from the following list:
- Interviews - Interviews are usually preferred tools of research in subjects like psychology, marketing, sociology, anthropology etc. They reveal the insights into the psychological aspects of human behaviour.
- Questionnaires - This method is preferred when a behavioral pattern is to be noted among a number of respondents. This method is preferred in subjects like psychoanalysis which analyses various patterns of human behavior.
- Surveys - When quantitative data is preferred from a large number of respondents (typically a large sample group), then surveys are used. Sample surveys are preferred in marketing, statistics, demography etc.
- Theoretical analysis – It is preferred in subjects like philosophy, languages, comparative literature and cultural studies. Theoretical analysis tries to grapple with a problem by using a set of existing theories.
- Lab based experiments - Almost all science based subjects prefer laboratory experiments. Scientific hypotheses are established on the basis of direct inference on the basis of the findings of a lab based research.
- Archival research - An archive is a place where old historical documents are kept. Historical research often requires analysis on the basis of a thorough exploration of the archive.
5. Chapter structure:
Your concept proposal must contain the skeleton of all the proposed chapters and the major points of research you are about to undertake in that chapter. Here is a list of things you might consider while preparing the chapter summaries:
- No details are required since the chief aim is to give an idea about what the research is all about
- Chapters summaries should be brief and to the point
- Each chapter summary must contain its own research question that it seeks to answer.
6. Bibliography and References:
Although concept paper does not require a detailed list of works consulted or to be consulted, a small bibliography appended to the paper cannot hurt. If anything, it is sure to impress your committee. Beware of certain things though:
- Never mention books which you have not read or do not plan to read. You would be asked questions on them
- Always mention the primary reference texts which are essential for your research
- Secondary reference works or works which are not directly related may be mentioned briefly
- Try to stick to the standard referencing styles. You may choose from the following:
- Harvard referencing style which incorporates the name of the author along with the publication date within the text
- Chicago style which includes the reference details as foot notes or endnotes
- MLA style which includes just names and page numbers within the text.
Writing a concept paper
Now that you are well aware of how to write a paper, here is how you should proceed.
- Think of a research topic. You may come up with an original idea or can come up with the same by consulting your supervisor
- Read the primary and secondary texts to have an idea of the subject
- Set a time table of preparing a concept paper
- After you have written the first draft, show it to your supervisor to make necessary changes
- Incorporate the changes in your paper
- Give it a thorough reading for detecting possible proofing errors
- Submit and wait for your interview.
- Your committee will go through the copy and make useful suggestions. Once they are done, they give the green signal to the project.
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