Making your research proposal work for you

Professional skills courses

Course information

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

  • free for PhD candidates of the Graduate School
  • € 575,- 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).

In the academic year 2023-2024 this course will take place offline.

Edition 1

Session 1
December 13 (Wednesday) 2023
Mandeville building (campus map), room T19-01

Session 2
January 4 (Thursday) 2024
Mandeville building (campus map), room T19-01

Session 3
January 19 (Friday) 2024
Mandeville building (campus map), room T19-01

Session 4
February 8 (Thursday) 2024
Langeveld building (campus map), room 2.20


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

Dr. Peter Scholten is a governance and sustainability specialist with a background in Social and Political Sciences of the Environment. He holds a PhD in water governance and specializes in governance, integrated planning and leadership strategies in complex decision-making environments, specifically concerning water-related issues. He coordinates and lectures courses at IHS/Erasmus University and Radboud University Nijmegen and currently engages in the developing of international training modules on Sustainable Urban Water management. He also works as an individual consultant for Academic Alternative, research training and advisory services and is co-founder of the ‘nurturing landscapes’ approach for sustainable and integrated landscape & resources planning.