Making your research proposal work for you

Courses for beginning PhD candidates

Course information

ECTS: 2.5 
Number of sessions: 4
Hours per session: 3
Course fee:

  • free for PhD candidates of the Graduate School
  • €475,- for non-members
  • This course is suited for PhD candidates who have formulate their own, or a relatively short research proposal. It is less helpful for PhD candidates working on a project predefined by their supervisors (such as NWO or ERC grants).
  • consult our enrolment policy for more information


Telephone: +31 10 4082607 (Graduate School).

Session 1
December 19 (Wednesday) 2018
Sanders Building (directions), room 1-10

Session 2
January 10 (Thursday) 2019
Theil Building (directions), room CT-2

Session 3
January 25 (Friday) 2019
Mandeville building (directions), room T3-05

Session 4
February 7 (Thursday) 2019
Theil Building (directions​​​​​​​), room CT-2​​​​​​​


Many PhD candidates start their research journey with an ambitious research question, a first understanding of the relevant literature, and some preliminary notions about the methods to use. During the initial phase of the PhD project, these aspects become clearer and result in a more specific and elaborate proposal that serves as the basis for the actual research work.

This course is intended to guide PhD students in that initial phase, in which preliminary ideas are developed into a more concrete research proposal. As such, the course best fits PhD students in their first year of their project. The course familiarizes participants with a broad range of aspects of PhD research, and thus serves as a linking pin between academic content, research methods and process management. It is designed to help PhD students identify the choices that need to be made to further develop their research project, provide them with a brief overview of the options available to them and how these choices influence and relate to each other.

This course is most suitable for PhD students who intend to use empirical data, although many of the topics addressed are also applicable for more theoretically-based projects.

Aims and working method

There are four sessions consisting of workshops with mini-lectures, homework assignments and in-class reflection and exercises. In this course, you will use your own research proposal to work on the topics outlined below, and the classes will feature group discussions and reflection on the work of your classmates.

In order to participate, you must hand in a brief description of your research topic or (if available) a draft of your proposal in advance of the first session. The instructor can then confirm whether this course will cater to your specific needs.

Learning objectives

After completion of this course, you will:

  • Be able to identify and formulate your main research question
  • Be able to translate the research question into a useful conceptual framework
  • Be able to partition your research project into manageable chuncks
  • Be able to develop and appropriate an operational research design

Session descriptions

Session 1:
Research question and conceptual system

  • the empirical cycle and how your research fits into it
  • designing a research aim, main question and sub-questions
  • to what lack of knowledge does it provide an answer and for whom is this relevant?
  • types of knowledge: descriptive, explanatory, predictive, prescriptive
  • the nature of knowledge: a (very) brief introduction to epistemology
  • the importance of defining your core concepts 
  • relations between concepts
  • visualising your conceptual framework

Session 2:
Identifying the appropriate research design 

  • Dimensions of research strategy
  • Qualitative – quantitative – mixed method designs
  • Descriptive – explanatory
  • Correlation, causation and prediction
  • Inductive, theory building – deductive, theory testing
  • Types of designs (logical structure of inquiry)
  • Case study
  • Experiment
  • Cross sectional
  • Longitudinal, life history
  • Ethnographic
  • Recommended reading: What is research design? (pdf) New York University (NYU)

Session 3:
Turning question and design into actual research activities

  • Operationalization: from broad concepts to specific items and measurements
  • Scales and levels of measurement
  • Sensitizing concepts
  • Data sources and selection criteria
  • Data collection methods
  • Quality criteria for research

Session 4:
Application to your own research proposal, timetabling the work 

  • How to manage your PhD journey? Dividing your work into 4 years
    • Research process models
    • The iterative nature of research
    • Monograph vs. collection of articles
    • Major phases: fieldwork, analysis and writing
  • Interacting with your stakeholders, including supervisor(s)
  • Recommended reading:

About the instructors

Raphaël Smals (1980) studied Information Management at Tilburg University and obtained his PhD from Radboud University (Nijmegen, The Netherlands) in 2012. His PhD research focused on long-term buyer-supplier collaboration in the Dutch high-tech industry using a qualitative case study methodology.  Raphaël is working as an educator and adviser for several organizations, mainly universities and business schools, in The Netherlands and abroad.