A friend and former (younger) colleague of mine recently asked me for some advice on writing a PhD proposal. I thought it might prove helpful to share my response. Keep in mind that what is written here may not exactly apply to the application process in the United States, but it may still be generically applicable in that case (I’m from California but completed my PhD at the University of Nottingham in England). I welcome any other suggestions or advice that I may have missed in the comments section, as I tend to get such requests from friends and prospective PhD students fairly often.
First, be absolutely serious about your topic, but also keep in the back of your mind that your project may change slightly, if not significantly throughout the course of your research. So, don’t feel like you have to put everything into your proposal, as it is, after all, a proposal for what you still have to find out.
Second, and directly related, because it is a research proposal, don’t give all the answers to your suggested path; rather, combine your past expertise with your suggested line of work in such a way that you’re forming a highly intriguing question. Otherwise, worst case scenario, a person reading your proposal would think to themself, “Oh, they’re done then.”
Thirdly, to show that you know the field decently well, do a little bit of show-offy name dropping with the figures you’re interested in, but don’t go overboard and regale them with your knowledge of everything (save that for the thesis). Especially if your project is more of a topical one as opposed to a figure study, and even if it is a figure study, you’re still asking an interesting question about that figure instead of the predetermined answer of “Thomas Aquinas is the Best” or whomever.
Fourthly, because the research is open-ended, and you are asking a certain set of specific questions for now, be sure to say how you will plan to publish it by expanding upon the question in such a such a way. Also, and extremely important for your sanity (we all had to do this), thinking about how you will expand the project later will helpfully limit the scope of your project for now. We all have anxiety about not having read everything and so when we start reading enough to know how much we still have yet to go, there’s a temptation to go overboard and just read read read until we think we’ve read everything on the topic, which will be entirely unhelpful, and most likely impossible (unless you’re doing a narrow figure study on a lesser-known figure). The more you can focus your project now, the better.
Lastly, if you haven’t already, learn a language or two. Because the UK system doesn’t require you to take courses, let alone language courses, it’s actually possible to get away with not learning another language (about zero likely if you’re a biblical studies person, but it may be possible in theology/philosophy, sadly). You’ll probably already know the field of your topic or figure really well, and therefore you’ll know if you need to learn French or German or Greek or, perhaps there’s been an upsurge of academic interest in your topic in the Spanish academia, etc. Pick up one of the relevant books plus a dictionary, like French for Reading or German for Reading Knowledge.* If you can afford it, I’d also strongly recommend doing a language submersion course. It’s a lot of time, but it really helps you pick up the mechanics of grammar quickly.
Another language-learning option is that if you need to learn Greek or Latin, ask the Classics department if you can take one of their classes (this may work for other languages as well). Just e-mail their department and tell them you will do all the work and be there every day (you should really do all the homework, and while you’re not required to take the tests, obviously, that kind of preparation will actually help you remember and focus). The University of Nottingham’s Classics department allowed me and at least three other colleagues of mine go this route, and they were happy to have us. Once you start learning a language, if you can devote an hour or two in the morning before you get to the rest of your research, that will help keep it fresh, because otherwise, you can really lose it and get rusty.
* Note: these books can tend to be expensive, so in the case of German for Reading Knowledge, I would recommend not purchasing the latest, very expensive edition from 2013, but looking on Amazon.com for the cheaper, previous addition.