Pitt | Swanson Engineering
PhD Proposal Examination

PhD Proposal Examination: Content and Format Guidelines

The student is required to have the graduate coordinator sign-off on the proposal to ensure it meets the department requirements prior to scheduling the proposal defense with the department graduate secretary. Ideally, this should be done at least two weeks prior to the anticipated defense date.


The research proposal should answer the questions:

  1. What do you intend to do?
  2. Why is the work important?
  3. What has already been done?
  4. How are you going to do the work?

This information should be distilled down into an efficient, written proposal which is double-space, 12 pt font and is as short as possible while covering the requisite information. A reasonable target for the proposal is 30-40 pages, excluding references and appendix material. The proposal cannot exceed 50 pages. All tables, graphs, figures, diagrams, and charts must be included within the page limit and should be, where possible, blended into the proposal text.


The following format and page distribution is recommended. This proposal format is adopted from that for National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants. Substantial published information exists on writing NIH proposals, which may be of use to students learning to write their first proposals.


A. Specific Aims. What do you intend to do? List the broad, long-term objectives and what the specific research proposed in this application is intended to accomplish. State any hypotheses to be tested. (Recommended: 2-4 pages).


B. Background and Significance Why is the work important? Briefly sketch the background leading to the present application, critically evaluate existing knowledge, and specifically identify the gaps that the project is intended to fill. State concisely the importance and relevance of the research described in the proposal by relating the specific aims to the broad, long-term objectives. (Recommended: 4-6 pages).


C. Preliminary Studies. What have you already done? Provide an account of your preliminary studies pertinent to the proposed research. This information should help to establish the feasibility of the proposed project and your experience and competence to pursue the proposed project. Any manuscripts/publications submitted or accepted for publication may be listed, and when submitted in the appendix are not part of the page limitations. (Recommended: 12-16 pages).


D. Research Design and Methods How are you going to do the work? Describe the research design and the procedures to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Include how the data or other results will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Describe any new methodology and models and their advantages over existing practices. Discuss the potential difficulties and limitations of the proposed procedures and alternative approaches to achieve the aims. Provide a tentative sequence or timetable for the project.


The following sections should be included but are not part of the page limit: 


Literature Cited. List all references cited in the proposal.

Appendix. If needed, manuscripts (submitted or accepted for publication) and/or other materials directly relevant to this project, e.g. detailed derivations or analyses not suited for the text, can be included as an appendix to the proposal.