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Write Like a Chemist: A Guide and Resource

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35911 Overview of the Research Proposal

  • Published: August 2008
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In this module, we focus on writing a research proposal, a document written to request financial support for an ongoing or newly conceived research project. Like the journal article (module 1), the proposal is one of the most important and most utilized writing genres in chemistry. Chemists employed in a wide range of disciplines including teaching (high school through university), research and technology, the health professions, and industry all face the challenge of writing proposals to support and sustain their scholarly activities. Before we begin, we remind you that there are many different ways to write a successful proposal”far too many to include in this textbook. Our goal is not to illustrate all the various approaches, but rather to focus on a few basic writing skills that are common to many successful proposals. These basics will get you started, and with practice, you can adapt them to suit your individual needs. After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following: ◾ Describe different types of funding and funding agencies ◾ Explain the purpose of a Request for Proposals (RFP) ◾ Understand the importance of addressing need, intellectual merit, and broader impacts in a research proposal ◾ Identify the major sections of a research proposal ◾ Identify the main sections of the Project Description Toward the end of the chapter, as part of the Writing on Your Own task, you will identify a topic for the research proposal that you will write as you work through this module. Consistent with the read-analyze-write approach to writing used throughout this textbook, this chapter begins with an excerpt from a research proposal for you to read and analyze. Excerpt 11A is taken from a proposal that competed successfully for a graduate fellowship offered by the Division of Analytical Chemistry of the American Chemical Society (ACS). As is true for nearly all successful proposals, the principal investigator (PI) wrote this proposal in response to a set of instructions. We have included the instructions with the excerpt so that you can see for yourself how closely she followed the proposal guidelines.

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Chemical Engineering Communication Lab

Written Thesis Proposal


The goal of this article is to help you to streamline your writing process and help convey your ideas in a concise, coherent, and clear way. The purpose of your proposal is to introduce, motivate, and justify the need for your research contributions. You want to communicate to your audience what your research will do ( vision ), why it is needed ( motivation ), how you will do it ( feasibility ).

Return to ToC

Before you start writing your proposal

A thesis proposal is different than most documents you have written. In a journal article, your narrative can be post-constructed based on your final data, whereas in a thesis proposal, you are envisioning a scientific story and anticipating your impact and results. Because of this, it requires a different approach to unravel your narration. Before you begin your actual writing process, it is a good idea to have (a) a perspective of the background and significance of your research, (b) a set of aims that you want to explore, and (c) a plan to approach your aims. However, the formation of your thesis proposal is often a nonlinear process. Going back and forth to revise your ideas and plans is not uncommon. In fact, this is a segue to approaching your very own thesis proposal, although a lot of time it feels quite the opposite.

Refer to “Where do I begin” article when in doubt. If you have a vague or little idea of the purpose and motivation of your work, one way is to remind yourself the aspects of the project that got you excited initially. You could refer to the “Where do I begin?” article to explore other ways of identifying the significance of your project.

Begin with an outline. It might be daunting to think about finishing a complete and coherent thesis proposal. Alternatively, if you choose to start with an outline first, you are going to have a stronger strategic perspective of the structure and content of your thesis proposal. An outline can serve as the skeleton of your proposal, where you can express the vision of your work, goals that you set for yourself to accomplish your thesis, your current status, and your future plan to explore the rest. If you don’t like the idea of an outline, you could remind yourself what strategy worked best for you in the past and adapt it to fit your needs.

Structure Diagram

Structure Diagram

Structure your thesis proposal

While some variation is acceptable, don’t stray too far from the following structure (supported by the Graduate Student Handbook). See also the Structure Diagram above.

  • Cover Page. The cover page contains any relevant contact information for the committee and your project title. Try to make it look clean and professional.
  • Specific Aims . The specific aims are the overview of the problem(s) that you plan to solve. Consider this as your one-minute elevator pitch on your vision for your research. It should succinctly (< 1 page) state your vision (the What), emphasize the purpose of your work (the Why), and provide a high-level summary of your research plans (the How).
  • You don’t need to review everything! The point of the background is not to educate your audience, but rather to provide them with the tools needed to understand your proposal. A common pitfall is to explain all the research that you did to understand your topic and to demonstrate that you really know your information. Instead, provide enough evidence to show that you have done your reading. Cut out extraneous information. Be succinct.
  • Start by motivating your project. Your background begins by addressing the motivation for your project. If you are having a hard time brainstorming the beginning of your background, try to organize your thoughts by writing down a list of bullet points about your research visions and the gap between current literature and your vision. They do not need to be in any order as they only serve to your needs. If you are unsure of how to motivate your audience, you can refer to the introductions of the key literatures where your proposal is based on, and see how your proposal fits in or extends their envisioned pictures. Another exercise to consider is to imagine: “What might happen if your work is successful?”  This will motivate your audience to understand your intent. Specifically, detailed contributions to help advance your field more manageable to undertake than vague high-level outcomes. For example, “Development of the proposed model will enable high-fidelity simulation of shear-induced crystallization” is a more specific and convincing motivation, compared to, “The field of crystallization modeling must be revolutionized in order to move forward.”

Hourglass Model

  • Break down aims into tractable goals. The goal of your research plan is to explain your plans to approach the problem that you have identified. Here, you are extending your specific aims into a set of actionable plans. You can break down your aims into smaller, more tractable goals whose union can answer the lager scientific question you proposed. These smaller aims, or sub-aims, can appear in the form of individual sub-sections under each of your research aims.
  • Reiterate your motivations. While you have already explained the purpose of your work in previous sections, it is still a good practice to reiterate them in the context of each sub-aim that you are proposing. This will inform your audience the motivation of each sub-aim and help them stay engaged.
  • Describe a timely, actionable plan. Sometimes you might be tempted to write down every area that needs improvement. It is great to identify them; at the same time, you also need to decide on what set of tasks can you complete timely to make a measurable impact during your PhD. A timely plan now can save a lot of work a few years down the road.  Plan some specific reflection points when you’ll revisit the scope of your project and evaluate if changes are needed.  Some pre-determined “off-ramps” and “retooling” ideas will be very helpful as well, e.g., “Development of the model will rely on the experimental data of Reynold’s, however, modifications of existing correlations based on the validated data of von Karman can be useful as well.”
  • Point your data to your plans. The preliminary data you have, data that others in your lab have collected, or even literature data can serve as initial steps you have taken. Your committee should not judge you based on how much or how perfect your data is. More important is to relate how your data have informed you to decide on your plans. Decide upon what data to include and point them towards your future plans.
  • Name your backup plans. Make sure to consider back-up plans if everything doesn’t go as planned, because often it won’t. Try to consider which part of your plans are likely to fail and its consequence on the project trajectory. In addition, think about what alternative plans you can consider to “retune” your project. It is unlikely to predict exactly what hurdles you will encounter; however, thinking about alternatives early on will help you feel much better when you do.
  • Safety. Provide a description of any relevant safety concerns with your project and how you will address them. This can include general and project-specific lab safety, PPE, and even workspace ergonomics and staying physical healthy if you are spending long days sitting at a desk or bending your back for a long time at your experimental workbench.
  • Create the details of your timeline. The timeline can be broken down in the units of semester. Think about your plans to distribute your time in each sub-aims, and balance your research with classes, TA, and practice school. A common way to construct a timeline is called the Gantt Chart. There are templates that are available online where you can tailor them to fit your needs.
  • References. This is a standard section listing references in the appropriate format, such as ACS format. The reference tool management software (e.g., Zotero, Endnote, Mendeley) that you are using should have prebuilt templates to convert any document you are citing to styles like ACS. If you do not already have a software tool, now is a good time to start.

Authentic, annotated, examples (AAEs)

These thesis proposals enabled the authors to successfully pass the qualifying exam during the 2017-2018 academic year.

Resources and Annotated Examples

Thesis proposal example 1, thesis proposal example 2.

how to write a research proposal for phd in chemistry

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how to write a research proposal for phd in chemistry

Chemistry Research Proposal: A Way to Your Desired Academic Heights

Open the easy way to your PhD in Chemistry with the help of our experts.

how to write a research proposal for phd in chemistry

Break New Ground on Your PhD Journey With Chemistry Research Proposal

The highest degree in organic chemistry opens up horizons of opportunities for those who have reached the top of a career in science. To climb to a PhD in chemistry degree is almost like the northern slopes of Everest since it requires a certain preparation and the ability to concentrate on achieving an important goal without losing sight of other aspects. However, this work is your entry fee and a decisive part of your PhD application.

phd in chemistry

Writing a research proposal in chemistry is mandatory on the way to the top of the PhD, which is of paramount importance, being an entry point. In addition, such a proposal in organic chemistry and in any other science-related field is a request document, the basis for the possibility of receiving a grant for any scientific study. This work is a grant application, funding for a project that you consider important and can change the current understanding of science.

Research Proposal in Chemistry: In-Depth Exploration Preparedness

It is essential to be aware that developing a proposal requires specific training in chemistry and to recognize that this work has its own requirements. Its purpose is to showcase your readiness and abilities to conduct profound investigation at an advanced level and your capacity to think in a structured and coherent manner. Your journey to research proposal writing services pages in search of answers on how to approach composing academic work, an essential background for your future PhD degree, is not a coincidence.

To become acquainted with how to write a chemistry research paper, use the template we provided below. However, it’s essential to understand that the goal of academic writing in chemistry isn’t to find a single correct answer, as in an equation. The pivotal aspect here is your ability to precisely define the problematic areas and your skill in identifying effective avenues to their resolution. Your proficiency in clearly and eloquently describing these paths and methods is crucial in successfully preparing a proposal for your PhD.

sample research proposal for phd in organic chemistry

Structure and Key Stages of Research Proposal for PhD in Chemistry

The structure of a research proposal may differ depending on your institution and specific program requirements. However, every research proposal organic chemistry for a PhD comprises some essential sections that stay the same as they aid in organizing your paper and substantiating its significance.

  • Introduction, where you need to define the research areas in chemistry you intend to work with and state a specific study issue to describe in your chemistry proposal. It also includes the main goals of your research and what you plan to achieve.
  • The literature review includes a review of existing investigations and literature related to your chemistry topic to demonstrate your comprehension of the subject area and key trends, identify gaps in existing knowledge, and justify the importance of your PhD research.
  • Objectives and research questions express the aims of your PhD work clearly and distinctly. Here, you must formulate and describe specific study questions you will address within the scope of the study.
  • Methodology to explain the PhD chemistry project methods you plan to use to address the set investigation questions and substantiate your choice of the topic.
  • Expected results and research significance is the part where you talk about the results you expect to achieve and how these results can affect organic chemistry science.
  • Resources and budget with a clear indication of the necessary resources required for the successful execution of your project. It may involve laboratory equipment, materials, and other tools. Also, here, you need to give a rough estimate of the costs.
  • The bibliography lists all the sources you reference in your research proposal in organic chemistry. Keep the list accurate and current.

The essence of this work is to highlight the essentials of your project and reveal its value. As you progress through the project and your questions evolve, the answers will gradually take shape. As a result of your work, you will create a research structure that revolves around the goal, confirming your ability to organize and develop this process competently. In addition, comparable methods and structures find application in biology research proposal writing since the same basic principles underlie scientific investigation covering different areas.

PhD in Organic Chemistry: a Plan, Strategy, Tactics, and Achievements

Approaching the pursuit of a PhD in organic chemistry with a well-crafted strategy and accepted proposal will lead to a clear roadmap in your scientific journey in organic chemistry. This plan will encompass the research itself and the subsequent structure of your dissertation on the given subject. The video we posted here provides practical advice on all the nuances you need to consider when preparing and conducting a scientific study. We recommend watching it.

In order to provide a robust research proposal in chemistry, you need to create it in stages, gradually climbing to each new level, adding part after part. Pay attention to issues such as the method of your future investigations. Make sure to study the existing literature and research methods already conducted on your topic.

Key Aspects of Research Proposal Chemistry Writing

It’s worth noting that any research proposal follows specific stylistic guidelines and features commonly associated with academic institutions and research centers. We can break down the main elements of the writing style within this context into the following key aspects:

  • The writing style should maintain a formal and scholarly tone. Employ precise terminology and technical language aligning with the field of organic chemistry.
  • State the essence clearly and clearly, avoiding unnecessary words and phrases. In the research proposal chemistry, focusing on conveying the key information is crucial.
  • Refrain from utilizing first-person (I) or second-person (you) pronouns. Adopting a third-person perspective (researcher, author, etc.) fosters objectivity and professionalism in your writing. This is to underline the research’s value and avoid personal viewpoints at the same time.
  • Adhere to an academic structure with well-defined sections: introduction, literature review, objectives and inquiries, methodology, expected outcomes, and bibliography.

We’re not addressing grammar here, as it should be an inherent feature. Considering the aforementioned stylistic nuances, you’ll be capable of formulating a chemistry research proposal that conforms to the requisites of the scientific community and the educational curriculum. A specified writing style will facilitate clear and precise communication of your academic assignment concepts and their significance.

Best Online PhD Chemistry Help to Keep Your Work-Life Balance

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PhDresearchproposal.org is not only just a writing service but a place where you can get qualified support from the best experts in their fields. Due to our advanced assignment process, you have access to top subject-matter writers with proven qualifications and years of experience in making research proposals, leading to achieving the desired results. Contact us now and get the opportunity to maintain a work-life balance, leaving yourself time for your current life and, at the same time, continue your scientific career in organic chemistry.

how to write a research proposal for phd in chemistry

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Information regarding Organic Research Proposals

An original research proposal is required of Ph. D. candidates in organic chemistry. Recognition and development of original and meaningful research problems is an important aspect of the work of a Ph.D. scientist. This requirement is intended to help you develop your skills in selecting a research problem and writing a research proposal. The proposal will be your property and should represent the best independent research idea that you have had to date. For this reason, to be acceptable, your proposal must not be closely related to, or an obvious extension of, current work at Wisconsin.

When and How to Submit Proposals

You should submit a proposal in the Fall semester of your third year of graduate work. Third-year students cannot delay submission of their proposal until the Spring semester without the consent of their major professor. Discuss this with your major professor.

A one-page summary providing the context for the scientific problem and the specific aims of the research is due two Mondays before Thanksgiving. The organic faculty will evaluate these summaries for approval.  If a revised written proposal is required, this may be submitted after these deadlines.  When your specific aims (Summary) have been accepted, you must provide a complete written proposal, which is due the Monday of exam week.   You may prepare and submit your proposal in advance of the deadlines to allow time for revision or replacement .

Completion of the Research Proposal is required for advancement to candidacy (the other requirements are the Research Preliminary Exam and 6 semesters in residence). It is therefore important to submit a proposal as early as possible. This will maximize your chances of successfully completing the proposal in time to qualify for candidacy and pay lower fees at the earliest possible time.

After review by the faculty, your proposal will either be accepted, returned for revision, or rejected. If your proposal is acceptable, it will be approved for oral defense. If it is returned for revision, your major professor will provide a summary of critical comments to help you in preparing a satisfactory version. If it is rejected, you will have to develop a new proposal. If there is time, corrected or new proposals may be submitted for the current round of oral exams, or they may be submitted for a subsequent round.Students who do not pass this requirement in the fall semester will have a second opportunity in the spring semester.  Timelines for spring:  deadline for the summary of three Mondays prior to the last week of classes; final due date for the written proposal on the Monday of the last week of classes.

Proposal Revision

A proposal revision must be accompanied by the letter you received from your advisor outlining the issues you need to consider, and a covering letter describing the changes that you have made in the write up and how you addressed the comments you received. A good format is to copy the comments into your letter, and describe your revisions below each comment. For example:

--> Criticism : "The synthesis of compound 4 in the original proposal is likely to fail because the proposed aryl bromide 7 contains an ester group that is unlikely to survive formation of a Grignard reagent."

Response : In the revised proposal a new synthesis of 4 is presented that avoids the problem pointed out in the review of the original proposal. In the revised synthesis, the Grignard reagent is formed from an aryl bromide that contains a protected primary alcohol. After the Grignard reaction, the primary alcohol is deprotected, oxidized to the acid and esterified.

--------------- Criticism : "The key proposed experiments require that nucleic acid analogues such as 9 form duplexes with natural DNA strands. How can we be confident that such hetero-duplexes will form?"

Response : The revised proposal contains references to the work of Jones et al. (refs. 4-6), who have shown that nucleic acid analogues very similar to 9 do indeed form duplexes with complementary DNA strands.

The Oral Examination

Only approved proposals may be defended orally in the first weeks of January. The examining committee consists of several faculty members including your major professor as an observer. The oral exam is typically 45 minutes and you should plan to present the essential aspects of your proposal in about 15-20 minutes, with only minimal background and introductory material. An informal chalkboard presentation is strongly preferred, although complicated structures or apparati can be presented in hard copy handouts or molecular models.

Research proposals are graded on a Pass/Conditional Pass/Fail basis. Conditional Pass requires additional work, specified by the examining committee, which may involve a written report or a repeat the oral examination at a later date.

Evaluation of Proposals

All faculty members will receive a copy of your proposal for evaluation in four categories as listed below.

Criteria for Evaluation:

   1. Presentation: Is the proposal understandable, does it comply with the required format in explicitly stating the Specific Aims and Hypotheses, does it clearly describe the significance of the problem and the proposed solution, does it include pertinent references to the literature?

   2. Scientific Merit: Is the proposal worth doing, does it lead to new and nontrivial results, does it overlap excessively with work under way at Wisconsin?

   3. Practicality: Does the proposal constitute a research problem (desirable) or a research program (undesirable); would an advanced student or postdoctoral fellow be expected to make substantial progress in a reasonable amount of time?

   4. Technical Competence: Will it work? Are theoretical arguments sound, will the experiments lead to conclusive and observable results, has the student overlooked reasonable alternatives, will synthetic steps work, are the analogies appropriate?

Proposals Involving Asymmetric Synthesis

Proposals involving asymmetric synthesis often contain no testable hypothesis - either the reaction works or it doesn't. The entire proposal boils down to a question of estimating small energy differences between diastereomeric transition states. One can speculate about the geometries and energies of the transition states, but, fundamentally, there is no hypothesis to be tested.

Developing asymmetric reactions often involves an Edisonian approach of trial and error. The ultimate goal is extremely important, but the pathway to achieving that goal involves a series of successes and failures that can only be rationalized after the fact. Even though the results of the proposal would be publishable if the project was successful, the lack of a compelling scientific hypothesis makes the proposal a poor subject for an oral exam.

If you wish to submit a proposal involving asymmetric synthesis, you should first discuss the matter with your research advisor.

Format of the Proposal

Formulate your proposal using the following outline.

A. Specific Aims

  • Specific Research . State the specific research that the proposal is intended to accomplish. (This should require only a couple of sentences, not a paragraph.)
  • Ask clear specific questions
  • If more than one hypothesis, state each hypothesis individually

Understand the difference between

  • broad, long-term objectives e.g., "understand factors governing protein folding" (hard to quantify progress in achieving this objective)
  • specific aims e.g., "study the influence of intramolecular hydrogen bonding on the solution conformation of diamide X " (easy to quantify progress in achieving this objective). The specific aims comprise a list of items needed to pursue the broad, long-term objectives.

B. Background and Significance

  • BRIEFLY sketch the BACKGROUND for the proposal
  • Critically EVALUATE the existing knowledge
  • Specifically identify the GAPS the project is intended to fill
  • State CONCISELY the importance of the research by RELATING the Specific Aims to the Broad, Long-Term Objectives.
  • Use this section of the research proposal to demonstrate your understanding of the subject and justify the need for the proposed research. State clearly why the information to be obtained is useful; that is, what you can do with the information after you get it.
  • Background discussions should avoid fanning the flames of scientific controversies. Be strictly scientific and unbiased and let the data speak for you.

C. Experimental Design and Methods

In this section, you should outline the experimental design and procedures you will use to accomplish the Specific Aims of the project. The experimental approach should be outlined clearly and in sufficient detail that the plan can be evaluated by the reviewers (faculty members).

  • Number the experimental designs and methods in this section to correspond to the numbers in Specific Aims, item A. Use sub-numbering within this section when describing several methods applicable to the same Specific Aim.
  • Show reaction sequence diagrams for syntheses of unknown compounds.
  • Provide precedent for new synthetic transformations by citing the closest analogy in the literature. Justify why the new reaction is better than existing methods.
  • Explain how the data are to be collected , analyzed , and interpreted .
  • Discuss potential difficulties and limitations of the proposed procedures and alternative approaches to achieve the aims.
  • Mathematical derivations, theoretical principles, history of the problem, unusual techniques, and esoteric instruments should not be discussed, but leading references should be provided.

The Experimental Design and Methods section is an important part of the Research Plan. You have said in the Specific Aims what you propose to do; now you are telling the reviewers how you propose to do it. Explain why the particular approach that you describe was chosen to attack the problem that you plan to research. Convince the reviewers that you can do what you propose.

Try to convince the reviewer that you have not merely gone to the library but that you really understand and know how to carry out the research and are familiar with the techniques and their shortcomings.

D. Notes and References

Be thorough, relevant, and current.

Use JACS format followed by the title of the article.

Choose wisely what you will include. Your choice of citations tells the reviewer about your quality as a scientist - your ability to evaluate the work of others and to distinguish the important from the mundane.

  • Your research proposal, including all schemes and figures, must not exceed 5 pages. .
  • Font size must be at least 10 pt, graphics figure must be large enough to be legible.
  • Number all pages and compounds.
  • In synthetic schemes, place reagents over reaction arrows, rather than in footnotes to the scheme. This makes the schemes easier to read, and avoids footnote numbering errors.

Planning the Research Proposal

Before you begin to write your research proposal, you should be able to write down satisfactory answers to the following questions:

  • What is to be done? What is the hypothesis to be tested or question(s) to be answered?
  • Is the work original?
  • Why is the work worth doing ? (Significance)
  • What is the long-range goal?
  • What are the specific objectives?
  • Do the specific objectives lead toward accomplishment of the long-range goal?
  • Is the methodology "state of the art"?
  • What are the expected results?

Writing the Research Proposal

Here are some questions the reviewers will be asking as they read your proposal:

  • Do you show originality of thought?
  • Do you plan ahead - and do so with ingenuity?
  • Do you think logically and clearly?
  • Are you up to date in all matters relevant to your project?
  • Do you have good analytical skills?
  • Do you recognize limitations, pitfalls?
  • What are your contingency plans in case you hit a "snag"?
  • How meticulous are you? How much care do you give to detail?


Be Accurate

  • Provide correct information to maintain your credibility
  • Convey correctly the information you provide
  • Don't use words incorrectly
  • Don't call something a fact unless it is a fact

Be Clear: Use a logical sequence of presentation.

  • The reviewer should be able to understand easily what you wrote, and perceive easily how you moved from point A to point B
  • Don't use JARGON. Terminology limited to a specific field may be unfamiliar - and irritating - to a reviewer who is not in that field
  • Start each paragraph with an informative TOPIC SENTENCE.
  • Avoid irrelevant information - you may confuse the reader
  • Think about what the reader needs (wants) to know in relation to this section of this proposal about this subject (project)

Be Consistent

  • Number all pages and compounds
  • Text should agree with information given in Schemes and Figures
  • Terminology and abbreviations should be the same throughout. Do not use different words for the same thing just for literary reasons. Use of different terms for the same thing may create ambiguities. Ambiguities slow the reader down.
  • Verb tenses should be uniform throughout the document.

Be Brief (Concise but Complete). In expository writing, the reader wants the maximum information in the minimum number of words. AVOID REDUNDANCY AND UNNECESSARY WORDS.

  • They waste your space (you have a page limitation).
  • They waste the reviewer's precious time.
  • They may irritate or confuse the reviewer.

Think About Style and Tone

  • Use simple words, short direct sentences, and short paragraphs that begin with informative topic sentences . Don't begin a paragraph with unimportant words. (This will maximize the IMPACT of your paragraph.)
  • Avoid modifiers that do not add to the critical essence of what you want to say.
  • Replace "opinion" modifiers with quantitative modifiers (e.g. replace " most or many " with "68-70%")
  • Don't overstate your case. Avoid superlatives unless you are sure "it" really is the " first " or " best ". Otherwise, you sacrifice your objectivity and credibility.
  • Try to be positive (mood and tone are "contagious")

For further tips on writing research proposals and grant applications, see:

  • L. Reif-Lehrer Writing a Successful Grant Application , Jones and Bartlett: Boston, 1989 (much of the information contained in this handout was taken from Reif-Lehrer's book, as modified for our specific application)
  • ACS Style Guide , 2 nd edition, Janet S. Dodd, Editor; American Chemical Society: Washington DC, 1997.
  • William Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style , 3 rd edition, MacMillan: New York, 1979.
  • Robert Schoenfeld, The Chemist's English , 2 nd edition, VCH Press: Weinheim, 1986.

Checklist for Research Proposals

  • Cover page giving name, title, submission date and research advisor.
  • Pages numbered
  • No more than 5 pages long (excluding references)
  • Compounds numbered and compound cross references checked
  • Titles of papers cited
  • Graphics and text font size reasonable (>= 10 pt)
  • Minimal use of R, L, M, X and Y groups

Rev: 8/2014

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The Third Meeting of the ACC is the defense of an original research proposal based on the literature rather than on the student's own research. It provides the student with an opportunity to demonstrate understanding and originality in a field selected by the student to suit his or her own interests and abilities.

The Third Meeting of the ACC should take place before the end of the student’s fourth year in the program.

7.1. Role of the ACC

The student’s ACC will give the student advice on the preparation of a proposal, and is charged with judging the proposal and informing the Department of the results.

7.2. Components of the 3rd Meeting Report

The student must provide the ACC with:

  • an original research proposal, prepared according to the guidelines in Section 7.3.
  • a research report describing progress thus far toward the dissertation. The student should consult with the advisor and ACC Chair for guidance on format and level of detail for this report.
  • a brief exit plan (typically 1 page), developed in consultation with their research advisor, describing what additional work is planned for the dissertation with dates for their completion.

7.3. Proposal Guidelines

  • The proposal should be prepared in a format typical for a funding agency in your research area. Consult your ACC on an appropriate format and length.
  • You may get some idea of the scope expected in proposals by examining proposals shared by senior students, but feel free to exhibit your own judgment as to how much you have to say to demonstrate the value, originality, and creativity in the research you propose.
  • The proposal as a whole is to be developed by you independently, but you may seek help from faculty or students when you have specific technical problems.
  • If you need advice as to whether a problem is suitable as a basis for a proposal, consult with the Chair of your ACC or ask the ACC Chair to schedule a meeting of the ACC to discuss these matters with you.
  • Your proposal, research progress report, and exit plan should be sent to your ACC at least one week before the date of the Third Meeting. You should ask each member of your ACC if they would prefer an electronic or hard copy of the proposal.
  • The problem dealt with in the proposal must be specific, but the importance of the problem in a general context should be made clear. Explain clearly why the proposed research is worth pursuing.
  • Your statement of the problem must be precise and unambiguous; there should be no room for doubt as to what you mean.
  • The literature pertaining to the problem should be well documented. Use a consistent set of bibliographic conventions, preferably those used in one of the journals that is important in the area of your proposition. Include URL or doi information for references where it is available.
  • The method of attack should be described fully, including the feasibility of each step in the process you propose for solving the problem.
  • Map out the possible results of the proposed research and the conclusions which would follow from each.
  • Assumptions and uncertainties should be dealt with explicitly and as completely as possible.
  • An estimate of the time required to carry out the problem should be made on the basis that you would yourself conduct the research. If there are substantial costs for equipment, computer time, and especially expensive materials, you should try to estimate these as well.
  • Students should consult the guidelines for proposal preparation published by a funding agency (NSF, NIH, DOE, DOD, etc.) appropriate for the problem they are proposing to address.

7.4. Schedule and Notification

The student will schedule the proposal defense and notify the GPC of the time, place, and topic. The Third Meeting should take place before the end of the student's fourth year in the program.

7.5. ACC Action

The ACC will deliberate in private at the conclusion of the proposal defense and the student will be informed of the results directly by the ACC Chair at the conclusion of its deliberation. A written report will be presented to the GPC with a copy to the student. The ACC may require a student to revise the research proposal, to repeat the Third Meeting all or in part, and/or to modify the exit plan or research progress report.

7.6. Faculty Review

The faculty may review the progress of any student at any time, at the request of the student, research advisor, or ACC. At this time, the student's ACC as well as the Research Advisor may be called on for comment in cases which seem to require attention.

  • Ch 1: Introduction
  • Ch 2: Professional Conduct
  • Ch 3: Safety
  • Ch 4: Teaching Responsibilities and Evaluation
  • Ch 5: Starting the PhD Program (pre-candidacy)
  • Ch 6: Qualification and Advancement to Candidacy
  • Ch 7: Third Meeting and Proposal Defense
  • Ch 8: Course Requirements
  • Ch 9: Seminars
  • Ch 10: Dissertation
  • Ch 11: Financial Support
  • Ch 12: Good Standing
  • Ch 13: Academic Honesty
  • Ch 14: Appeals

How to write a research proposal

What is a research proposal.

A research proposal should present your idea or question and expected outcomes with clarity and definition – the what.

It should also make a case for why your question is significant and what value it will bring to your discipline – the why. 

What it shouldn't do is answer the question – that's what your research will do.

Why is it important?

Research proposals are significant because Another reason why it formally outlines your intended research. Which means you need to provide details on how you will go about your research, including:

  • your approach and methodology
  • timeline and feasibility
  • all other considerations needed to progress your research, such as resources.

Think of it as a tool that will help you clarify your idea and make conducting your research easier.

How long should it be?

Usually no more than 2000 words, but check the requirements of your degree, and your supervisor or research coordinator.

Presenting your idea clearly and concisely demonstrates that you can write this way – an attribute of a potential research candidate that is valued by assessors.

What should it include?

Project title.

Your title should clearly indicate what your proposed research is about.

Research supervisor

State the name, department and faculty or school of the academic who has agreed to supervise you. Rest assured, your research supervisor will work with you to refine your research proposal ahead of submission to ensure it meets the needs of your discipline.

Proposed mode of research

Describe your proposed mode of research. Which may be closely linked to your discipline, and is where you will describe the style or format of your research, e.g. data, field research, composition, written work, social performance and mixed media etc. 

This is not required for research in the sciences, but your research supervisor will be able to guide you on discipline-specific requirements.

Aims and objectives

What are you trying to achieve with your research? What is the purpose? This section should reference why you're applying for a research degree. Are you addressing a gap in the current research? Do you want to look at a theory more closely and test it out? Is there something you're trying to prove or disprove? To help you clarify this, think about the potential outcome of your research if you were successful – that is your aim. Make sure that this is a focused statement.

Your objectives will be your aim broken down – the steps to achieving the intended outcome. They are the smaller proof points that will underpin your research's purpose. Be logical in the order of how you present these so that each succeeds the previous, i.e. if you need to achieve 'a' before 'b' before 'c', then make sure you order your objectives a, b, c.

A concise summary of what your research is about. It outlines the key aspects of what you will investigate as well as the expected outcomes. It briefly covers the what, why and how of your research. 

A good way to evaluate if you have written a strong synopsis, is to get somebody to read it without reading the rest of your research proposal. Would they know what your research is about?

Now that you have your question clarified, it is time to explain the why. Here, you need to demonstrate an understanding of the current research climate in your area of interest.

Providing context around your research topic through a literature review will show the assessor that you understand current dialogue around your research, and what is published.

Demonstrate you have a strong understanding of the key topics, significant studies and notable researchers in your area of research and how these have contributed to the current landscape.

Expected research contribution

In this section, you should consider the following:

  • Why is your research question or hypothesis worth asking?
  • How is the current research lacking or falling short?
  • What impact will your research have on the discipline?
  • Will you be extending an area of knowledge, applying it to new contexts, solving a problem, testing a theory, or challenging an existing one?
  • Establish why your research is important by convincing your audience there is a gap.
  • What will be the outcome of your research contribution?
  • Demonstrate both your current level of knowledge and how the pursuit of your question or hypothesis will create a new understanding and generate new information.
  • Show how your research is innovative and original.

Draw links between your research and the faculty or school you are applying at, and explain why you have chosen your supervisor, and what research have they or their school done to reinforce and support your own work. Cite these reasons to demonstrate how your research will benefit and contribute to the current body of knowledge.

Proposed methodology

Provide an overview of the methodology and techniques you will use to conduct your research. Cover what materials and equipment you will use, what theoretical frameworks will you draw on, and how will you collect data.

Highlight why you have chosen this particular methodology, but also why others may not have been as suitable. You need to demonstrate that you have put thought into your approach and why it's the most appropriate way to carry out your research. 

It should also highlight potential limitations you anticipate, feasibility within time and other constraints, ethical considerations and how you will address these, as well as general resources.

A work plan is a critical component of your research proposal because it indicates the feasibility of completion within the timeframe and supports you in achieving your objectives throughout your degree.

Consider the milestones you aim to achieve at each stage of your research. A PhD or master's degree by research can take two to four years of full-time study to complete. It might be helpful to offer year one in detail and the following years in broader terms. Ultimately you have to show that your research is likely to be both original and finished – and that you understand the time involved.

Provide details of the resources you will need to carry out your research project. Consider equipment, fieldwork expenses, travel and a proposed budget, to indicate how realistic your research proposal is in terms of financial requirements and whether any adjustments are needed.


Provide a list of references that you've made throughout your research proposal. 

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Original Research Proposal – Inorganic

As part of the written requirement for the Ph.D. degree, students will propose, write, and defend an original research proposal in their third year of graduate studies.

Scope of the Proposal

The proposal should describe a research idea that directly addresses a gap in knowledge. The topic area of your proposal should be outside the scope of your Ph.D. and undergraduate research areas. Proposals that explore a field or topic far from your current research are encouraged. If you have any questions about the scope of your proposal, please contact your advisor or a divisional representative.

Proposal Timeline:

December: Proposal abstracts due, with the goal of returning faculty feedback before the December holiday break. Faculty will red, green, or yellow light abstracts with written comments to aid in improving or guiding the trajectory of topic for development into a full proposal. In cases of a red light, a new topic may be requested.

January: Full proposal due to the inorganic faculty

February: Scheduled oral presentation and defense.

Possible Outcomes:

  • Pass: no additional work required
  • Partial Pass: deficiencies noted in the written or oral presentation and additional written or oral material may be required
  • Unsatisfactory: students are required to repeat the proposal process during their 4th year with a new topic

Guidelines for Proposal Abstract

Students will submit a two-page abstract that the faculty will evaluate for feasibility as a topic for a full proposal. The abstract should succinctly describe the gap in knowledge, outline the proposed research to fill the gap, and describe the impact of the proposed work. Graphical content is encouraged. Refrain from including technical details, these will be developed as part of the full proposal.

A number of questions often come up with regards to the goal and structure of the proposal abstract. Here are a few comments designed to help you find the right balance…

  • 1 page is often too short/3 pages is too long. Aim for 2 pages with a few embedded figures and/or schemes to help convey the key concepts you intend to explore. Make it visually appealing and easy to read so that your reader is more apt to actually read it.
  • This is not a review article. Give enough background to convince your reader that this isn’t a nothing-burger, but make focus the text on your idea, your hypothesis, and your really cool way of tackling the problem.
  • Pick a topic that excites you, one that you want to spend time exploring. Don’t worry if it doesn’t sound “inorganic enough”, as long as we can cover the topic adequately it’s all good. You’ll know if the topic is too close to what you are currently doing.
  • Most strong proposals, even interdisciplinary ones, have a core “chemistry question” that can be highlighted. It can be helpful to start thinking about what variables can be tuned and what those variations will teach you.

Guidelines for a Full Proposal

1. project summary.

1 page limit. This is a self-contained, third-person description of objectives, methods, significance. Reviewers will use the abstract as a tool to construct their review, so it needs to be carefully written with that in mind. You want them to know what the key elements of your project are and their significance in the context of current knowledge.

2. Project Description

The project description has a 10 page limit, single spaced, including figures.

2.1 Goals and Importance

2.1.1 State Goals and Objectives

What are the main scientific challenges? Emphasize what the new ideas are. Briefly describe the project’s major goals and their impact on the state of the art.

  • Clearly state the question you will address.

2.1.2 Establish Importance

  • Why is this research area important? What makes something important varies with the field. For some fields, the intellectual challenge should be emphasized, for others the practical applications should be emphasized.
  • Why is it an interesting/difficult/challenging question? It must be neither trivial nor impossible.
  • What long-term technical goals will this work serve?
  • What are the main barriers to progress? What has led to success so far and what limitations remain? What is the missing knowledge?
  • What aspects of the current state-of-the-art lead to this proposal? Why are these the right issues to be addressing now?
  • What lessons from past and current research motivate your work? What value will your research provide? What is it that your results will make possible?

2.1.3 Introduce the Proposed Work

  • Identify the gap(s) in the field
  • Introduce your project to fill the gap(s)
  • Clearly explain the relation to the present state of knowledge, to current work here & elsewhere. Cite those whose work you’re building on (and whom you would like to have review your proposal). Don’t insult anyone. For example, don’t say their work is “inadequate;” rather, identify the issues they didn’t address.

Surprisingly, this section can kill a proposal. You need to be able to put your work in context. Often, a proposal will appear naive because the relevant literature is not cited. If it looks like you are planning to reinvent the wheel (and have no idea that wheels already exist), then no matter how good the research proposal itself is, your proposal won’t get funded. If you trash everyone else in your research field, saying their work is no good, you also will not get funded.

You can build your credentials in this section by summarizing other people’s work clearly and concisely and by stating how your work uses their ideas and how it differs from theirs.

2.2 Experimental Approach

  • Provide a broad technical description of research plan: activities, methods, data, and theory.

Write to convince the best person in your field that your idea deserves funding. Simultaneously, you must convince someone who is very smart but has no background in your sub-area. The goal of your proposal is to persuade the reviewers that your ideas are so important that they will take money out of the taxpayers’ pockets and hand it to you.

This is the part that counts. WHAT will you do? Why is your strategy an appropriate one to pursue? What is the key idea that makes it possible for you to answer this question? HOW will you achieve your goals? What will you learn through this proposed work? Concisely and coherently, this section should complete the arguments developed earlier and present your initial pass on how to solve the problems posed. Avoid repetitions and digressions.

The question is: What will we know when you’re done that we don’t know now? The question is not: What will we have that we don’t have now? That is, rather than saying that you will develop a system that will do X, Y and Z, instead say why it is important to be able to do X, Y and Z; why X, Y and Z can’t be done now; how you are going to go about making X, Y and Z possible; and, what new knowledge or insights you will gain along the way.

2.3 Outcomes and Impact 2.3.1 Plan of work

  • Present a plan for how you will go about attacking/solving the questions you have raised.
  • Discuss expected results and a plan for evaluating the results. How will you measure progress?

Include a summary of milestones and expected dates of completion. You are not committed to following this plan – but you must present a FEASIBLE plan to convince the reviewers that you know how to go about getting research results.

2.3.2 List Expected Outcomes

2.3.3 Conclude the Proposed Work

  • Reiterate the goals and importance
  • Address any broader impacts

3. References

  • Pertinent literature referenced within the project description.

Program directors often look in the bibliography for potential reviewers, and reviewers often look in the bibliography to see if their work is cited. If your bibliography has a lot of peripheral references, your proposal may be sent to reviewers whose work is not directly related to yours and who may not understand your proposal. On the other hand, if you do not cite the relevant literature, your proposal may be sent to reviewers who are not cited and who will criticize you for not knowing the literature. Most of the references in the bibliography will be cited in the Related Work section. The references do not count in the 10 page proposal limit.

Adapted from Write Like a Chemist, 2008 Oxford University Press


Student name:

Proposal title:

Review Criteria

Reviewers will consider each of the three review criteria below for the pass/fail assessment.

Section 1: __ pass       ___ fail

Section 2: __ pass       ___ fail

Section 3: __ pass       ___ fail

Final Ranking

  • Pass (passing grade in all three sections)
  • Conditional pass (one area needs major revisions)
  • Fail (two or more areas need major revisions)

Additional Feedback:


Research Proposal | Chemistry and Biochemistry | SIU

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Requirements, research proposal, research proposal and preliminary oral examination.

The preparation and defense of an original research proposal serves as the second portion of the preliminary examination. For this portion, there exists a Proposal Evaluation Committee (PEC) to consist of the student's entire graduate committee except for the member from outside the school. The school chair, if serving on the graduate committee as an ex-officio member, will be a non-voting member of this PEC. Initial work on the proposal should be initiated when the student begins taking cumulative examinations, as the first draft of the written proposal (see below) must be submitted to the PEC before the end of the student's fifth semester. Failure to submit the draft by the end of the fifth semester will result in discontinuation of assistantship support until the requirement is fulfilled. The student chooses the topic for an original research proposal. The topic must be approved by the Proposal Evaluation Committee (PEC) at a meeting in which the student outlines the proposal idea. The topic may use the techniques of the student's research project, but must not be an extension of the project. The proposal must be original with the student. After obtaining approval of the topic, the student will prepare a written proposal in accord with the prescribed format. (See Appendix IV.) During preparation, the student may obtain advice and suggestions from any faculty member but the proposal itself must be original with the student. The student must complete preparation of the proposal and submit it to the PEC before January of his or her third calendar year. The committee is allowed one week for evaluation of the proposal. The evaluation will include at least one meeting of the PEC. The evaluation shall be by a numerical score from 1.0 (lowest) to 4.0 (highest). An average score of 3.0 shall be required to pass. The scores will be accompanied by a written review by each voting PEC member. If the score is less than 3.0, the proposal must be revised and resubmitted within 30 days. The re-evaluation will follow the same procedure as described above. Only one re-submission is allowed. A second failure will be reported in writing by the PEC to the School Chair and to the Director of Graduate Studies. The latter will request that the Graduate School terminate the student from our doctoral program. In most cases, the students will be eligible for a Master’s degree. When the score is less than 3.0, copies of the final approved proposal must be provided to all members of the student's graduate committee at least one week before the date of the preliminary oral examination. Within 30 days of receiving notification of a passing grade, the student shall schedule a preliminary oral examination (defense of the proposal). This oral defense shall consist of a formal open seminar at which the student will present the proposal for credit as Chemistry 595. After questions from the general audience, the student's graduate committee will conduct an oral examination of the student. The grade for Chemistry 595 is based on the oral presentation and is independent of the oral examination. Only one attempt is allowed to pass the preliminary oral examination (defense of the research proposal). However, if the committee cannot decide whether to pass or fail the student at the end of the scheduled examination time, they may vote to continue the examination at a later date. Only one such continuation is allowed. The decision of the committee to pass the student or to continue the examination must be made with a majority vote of the committee. The student, the School Chair, and the director of graduate studies will be notified by the Chair of the graduate committee in writing on the next working day after the examination whether the result was Pass, Fail, or Continue. If a continuation is required, it must be scheduled no earlier than 30 days and no later than 90 days after the original oral examination date. Students in the Ph. D. program must complete the proposal defense by the end of third year in residence. Failure to complete the proposal defense by the end of third year will result in discontinuation of assistantship support until the requirement is fulfilled. If the student has not completed the defense by the end of the third year, the student will have one semester in which to complete the proposal defense (without assistantship support). Failure to complete the proposal by the deadline will result in termination from the graduate program. 4/5  Effective 12/13/07

A research project is required of all graduate students. A student in the doctoral program must earn at least 32 credit hours in research and dissertation (Chemistry 598 and 600). A minimum of 24 hours must be dissertation credit (Chemistry 600). The results of the research must be presented in the form of a dissertation acceptable both to the student's committee and to the Graduate School.

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How to write a PhD thesis

Zahra Khan

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Five tips for communicating your research

Writing a thesis is an inevitable part of a chemistry PhD. Yet it can be a daunting task. While everyone’s personal circumstances vary – university rules, the chemistry discipline and supervisor relationships – the most difficult part is actually starting to write. Adam Clancy of University College London, UK; Chiara Giorio of the University of Cambridge, UK; and I (a recent PhD graduate) reflect on our experiences to offer some advice and tips.

Start writing early

Ideally, if you receive funding you want to finish before the money stops coming in. ‘It’s such an appealing thing to think one more experiment will pull everything together,’ says Clancy. ‘It’s better to just draw a line in the sand in advance.’ This was a goal I set myself, and it proved to be a catalyst to my productivity. Clancy’s experience was different: ‘I got a postdoc and then wrote in the evenings, which was a terrible, terrible idea.’ Sometimes though, a promising job offer or unforeseeable circumstances means this is your only option for completion. Whatever your circumstances, Giorio advises ‘to write as much as you can, every day,’ even if it’s just experimental procedures or summaries.

For me, getting started was the hardest part. Thinking of a thesis as a series of small, manageable chapters rather than a whole book helped me compartmentalise. Once you start writing, you build up momentum. Having something that you can look back at as a starting point is better than staring at a blank page.

Make a plan

Devise a workplan with your supervisor before you start writing. ‘It should be a discussion with them about where they think the good results are – how you can split up all your work into manageable, multiple sections,’ explains Clancy. Spend time ‘understanding what are the key messages that you want to get across,’ says Griorio. During writing, send chapters to your supervisor for revision and go over them together. ‘The first draft doesn’t need to be perfect’ – and it won’t be – but this will give you a better idea of what your supervisor expects. ‘The first time you write something, it’s very difficult,’ Griorio explains, so it’s good to solicit feedback early on. But it’s not just your supervisor you can ask – peers, friends and family can contribute ‘even if only catching typos’, she adds.

No need to work sequentially

Start with the chapter you’re most comfortable working on – you don’t need to write the thesis in order. I found switching between chapters helped. Some days I had brain fog when writing up my results so I would work on the literature review and come back to writing up the results when I had the mental capacity. The structure of the thesis also does not have to be chronological: Clancy used what he did towards the end of his PhD to form his first results chapter. ‘You’re not recounting what you did for three years,’ he explains. ‘It shouldn’t be a biography of your research.’

Figures are your friends

Images can reveal a lot about your work. ‘I’m a fan of basically never really needing words,’ reveals Clancy. ‘It’s worth taking the time to make your graphs look highly presentable and really clear.’ Graphs and images are not only useful in breaking up large bodies of text, but they also provide context and meaningful data for your discussion. ‘You can start with just putting some figures together and some bullet points,’ says Giorio, noting that graphs assist with the initial hurdle of getting something written down. Clancy suggests you ‘go to the papers you like and see how they present data and be inspired by that’. Don’t take shortcuts with figures – a lesson I learned. I had to do corrections on my graphs after my viva that could have easily been avoided if I had been more diligent when producing the figures in the first place.

Don’t worry

You are an expert in your research so be confident about your writing. ‘If you’ve got to this point, you’re probably good enough to pass a PhD,’ Clancy says. You have put in years of work and all you must do now is communicate it. But don’t let writing consume your life – take regular breaks, keep active and balance your time with hobbies and friends. By taking care of your physical and mental health, you will be in a better position to deliver your best work.

I found the writing process unexpectedly fun and therapeutic. There were days when nothing would come to me, but I would say ‘tomorrow is a new day’. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself. At the end of it, you will hopefully look at your thesis with pride and a sense of accomplishment.

Zahra Khan

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Writing a research proposal

The key feature of your PhD is that it is yours - the topic, planning, motivation, and thinking all come from you. It will be the most challenging type of academic work you have ever done, but also the most rewarding.

The Research Proposal – an outline

The research proposal constitutes the main way in which the department evaluates the potential quality of your PhD plans. The proposal should be approximately 1,500 words in length and include:

  • A provisional title

Question or hypothesis

Value of the phd, existing literature, methods of work.

The title indicates the ‘headline’ character of the PhD. It should include any key concepts, empirical focus, or lines of inquiry that you aim to pursue. For example: ‘ High entropy alloys (HEAs) for fusion: Exploration of novel processing routes and HEA stability in extreme environments’, or ‘Tailoring the Thermomechanical Properties of High Performance Aerospace & Automotive Composite Materials’.

You can negotiate changes in the title with your supervisor should you be successful, but it's important to devise a title that describes what you aspire to research – and which looks original and exciting.

You need a question or hypothesis to drive the research forward. The question/hypothesis will provide your motivation; to answer the question or prove/disprove the hypothesis.

The question/hypothesis will need to be something that has not been posed before - this may involve looking at something that nobody has looked at before, or taking a fresh approach to an existing topic or issue.

The aims of your research should be a short list of answers to the question - what will the PhD do? So, for example ‘this PhD will explore...’ or ‘by carrying out this research, I will contribute to debates about...’. The aims are broader than the questions/hypotheses; they give a prospective statement about the overall destination of the PhD and its potential impact.

The value of the PhD follows closely from the aims. Think about how the ways it might improve our understanding of materials - a new process or the generation of new materials? To whom might the PhD be interesting - scholars looking at particular challenges, or specific industries?

A short note of key existing literature situates the PhD in existing research. Literature reviews are not simply descriptive mapping exercises at PhD level - you should identify a small number of key texts and say something about how these books are important for your research, and whether they support, extend, or challenge existing work.

The resources you require can vary according to the nature of your research: access to a particular archive, specialist library, visits to specialised equipment and facilities, the use of analytical software, access to databases, training, workshop attendance and so on. It's important to list any of these resources and give a very brief account of how they will enhance the PhD.

The methods of work is a particularly important section - it's where you can discuss how you will answer your question or prove your hypothesis. It's relatively easy to ask a new question; it is more challenging to set out how you might come up with a convincing answer!

The research also needs a  timetable . This should be set out over three years with clear indications of how long you will need to prepare for and carry out research (however defined) and allow time for writing up. Try to be as detailed as you can at this stage.

Each of these criteria helps the Department of Materials Science and Engineering selectors make a good judgement about your proposal. By following these criteria you will have your best chance of getting your proposal accepted.

Three more important points:

  • Try to be concise. Don't write too much – be as specific as you can but not wordy. It is a difficult balance to strike.
  • Bear in mind that the proposal is a starting point. If you are registered to read for a PhD you will be able to work the proposal through with your supervisor in more detail in the early months.
  • Take a look at the department’s staff profiles. Can you identify possible supervisors and intellectual support networks within the department? The better able the department is to support your research, the better it will be for your proposal.

Search for PhD opportunities at Sheffield and be part of our world-leading research.

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Roberts group publishes synthetic chemistry research in Science

A group of chemists from the Roberts group pose for a photo

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (04/25/2024) – The Roberts group recently published a new paper in  Science that explores enabling the use of a previously inaccessible functional group for N-heteroaromatic compounds.  Science – the flagship journal for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) – publishes groundbreaking research across the spectrum of scientific fields. 

N-Heteroaromatic are an important class of molecules which are key to elements of pharmaceutical, agrochemicals and materials. Efficient and innovative methods to make functionalized heteroarenes are needed to make these critical molecules more readily available. One attractive method for the synthesis of N-heteroaromatic compounds would be the use of a N-heteroaryne – an aromatic ring containing a nitrogen atom and a triple bond. N-heteroarynes within 6-membered rings have been used as key intermediates for synthetic chemists, however after 120 years of aryne research the use of 5-membered N-heteroarynes has remained elusive. Notably, a computational model has predicted these 5-membered N-heteroarynes to be “inaccessible”, meaning they cannot be accessed synthetically due to the excessive strain associated with forming a triple bond within a small 5-membered ring.

The Roberts group hypothesized by applying principles of organometallic chemistry, forming 5-membered N-heteroarynes at a metal center would alleviate strain through back-bonding and allow access to this previously inaccessible functional group.  In a report which was published in  Science , the Roberts group achieved the first synthesis of 7-azaindole-2,3-yne complexes using phosphine-ligated nickel complexes. The complexes were characterized by X-ray crystallography and spectroscopy. Additionally, the complexes showed ambiphilic reactivity, meaning they react with both nucleophiles and electrophiles, making them an exceptionally versatile tool for the synthesis of N-heteroaromatic compounds. This exciting research breakthrough will have important applications in expanding the “chemist’s toolbox” for developing new pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, and materials, and also provide fundamental insights on accessing synthetically useful strained intermediates.

This new work from the Roberts group was enabled by the National Institutes of Health, and by a multitude of fellowships held by the paper’s collaborators. Fifth-year PhD candidate Erin Plasek is supported by the UMN Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship;  fifth-year student Jenna Humke is supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program; both Plasek and Humke are supported by Department of Chemistry Fourth-Year Excellence Fellowships; and third-year graduate student Sallu Kargbo was supported by the Gleysteen Departmental First Year Fellowship. For leadership excellence of her research program, Courtney Roberts has been awarded the 3M Alumni Professorship, the McKnight Land-Grant Professorship, the Amgen Young Investigator Award, and the Thieme Chemistry Journal Award in the past year alone.

“It is incredibly exciting to see this work, which started out as a few lines in my initial job proposals, come to fruition because of the exceptional team of students and postdocs behind it. We are delighted to finally share this new functional group for 5-membered N-heterocycles with the synthetic community,” Roberts writes.

Founded in 2019, the Roberts group uses inorganic and organometallic chemistry and catalysis to solve fundamental problems in synthetic organic chemistry related to pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals and materials. They have published work related to early transition metal catalysis, photochemical reactions, and inducing regioselectivity in metal-mediated aryne reactions. The group now consists of 14 graduate students, two postdoctoral associates, and one undergraduate researcher from a range of organic and inorganic backgrounds, which allows the team to take a multidisciplinary approach to solving research problems. They value diversity, collaboration, inclusivity, and radical candor in everything they do.

Roberts Group Website

Science Vol. 384 Issue 6694

CSE News release: Researchers create new chemical compound to solve 120-year-old problem

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Funding Opportunity: 2025 Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

URL: https://vilcek.co/2025cppbiomedto


The Vilcek Foundation raises awareness of immigrant contributions in the United States and fosters appreciation for the arts and sciences. The foundation was established in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilcek, immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia. The mission of the foundation was inspired by the couple’s respective careers in biomedical science and art history. Since 2000, the foundation has awarded over $7 million in prizes to foreign-born individuals and has supported organizations with over $6 million in grants.

In 2025, the Vilcek Foundation will award three prizes of $50,000 to immigrant and foreign-born research scientists living and working in the United States. To be eligible candidates must hold a PhD, and be employed full time in a research capacity as a principal investigator. Candidates must have been born outside of the United States to non-American parents, and must have lived in the United States for at least 4 years. Prizewinners are selected for the scientific rigor of their work, and for the impact of their work in their respective field of study.


Unrestricted cash prize of $50,000.


Applicants must:

  • Have been born outside the United States of America to non-American parents.
  • Not be more than 38 years old as of December 31, 2024 (born on or after January 1, 1986). Exceptions will be made for applicants who were born between January 1, 1984, and December 31, 1985 and experienced career interruptions due to caregiving, medical, military or parental leave.
  • Have lived in the United States for at least 4 years (or immigrated to the United States on or before December 31, 2020).
  • Be one of the following: a naturalized citizen or a permanent resident of the United States; an H-1B or O-1 visa holder with a valid visa stamp; a H-4 visa holder with a valid EAD card; a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) relief; an asylee or an asylum seeker who has applied for asylum and has a valid EAD card.
  • Have earned a doctoral degree (MD, PhD, or equivalent).
  • Hold a full-time position at an academic institution or other organization. Eligible positions include: assistant or associate professor, or equivalent independent position.
  • Be directly responsible for the design and execution of the entire work submitted for consideration
  • Have at least one publication as corresponding author.
  • Intend to pursue a professional career in the United States.
  • Not be a past recipient of the Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise.


  • Personal information.
  • Upload a PDF of your CV.
  • Upload a PDF with documentation of your valid immigration status and your date of birth.
  • Provide information on authored publications. The jury puts the greatest value on publications on which you are the corresponding author.
  • Complete three essay questions
  • Please describe your role in the conceptualization, research and writing that resulted in the articles you submitted. We are interested in the scientific insights you developed, the evolution of your research approaches and strategies, and any technological innovations you may have made. What is the major significance of your work in the general context of biomedical science? (3,500 characters maximum including spaces)
  • Please reflect briefly on your background and experiences in developing your scientific knowledge, talents and skills. Indicate what you have done personally and professionally that demonstrates your creativity and productivity. Feel free to make mention of any individual who has played a significant role in your personal development or in regard to your work. In addition, tell us about your future goals and what you are interested in accomplishing in your career. (3,500 characters maximum including spaces)
  • Describe the circumstances of your immigration to the United States. (1,500 characters maximum including spaces)
  • Request two letters of recommendation by providing the names and contact information of recommenders.
  • Sign an age exception self-attestation if you were born between January 1, 1984, and December 31, 1985.
  • Submit a completed application by 5:00pm ET, June 10, 2024

June 10, 2024

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Information For...


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    achieved within the scale of a typical research degree programme, which is typically three years full-time for a PhD (or two years for an MPhil). Most good research proposals are usually between 2000 and 4000 words in length. A strong research proposal can and should make a positive first impression about your potential to become a good researcher.

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