1. Overview

One of the responsibilities of the Board of the Graduate Research School is to review and approve research proposals presented by candidates in the degree courses overseen by the Board and administered by the Graduate Research and Scholarships Office.

These proposals include those submitted as part of candidates' applications for upgrade from enrolment in a master's to enrolment in the PhD.

Normally, a research proposal is reviewed by a single member of the Board, or the Chair, on behalf of the Board. The Board member who reviews the proposal will not be a member of staff of the school in which the candidate is enrolled, but will normally be from a cognate discipline area.

The Board expects that all research proposals will have passed through an internal assessment process in the relevant schools prior to being submitted to the Board. Indeed, the research proposal coversheet requires the signature of the Graduate Research Coordinator/s of the school/s as well as that of the candidate and Co-ordinating Supervisor.

However, approval by the Board is a vital part of the University's cycle of accountability and is neither trivial nor automatic. Approval of the proposal represents a formal agreement between the candidate, the supervisors, the school/s and the Board as to their mutual understanding at the time about:

  • the nature, scope and approach of the research to be conducted and the rationale for this;
  • the general methods to be used;
  • approvals and training to be obtained;
  • the timeframe for the completion of the research;
  • funding of the research;
  • arrangements for supervision; and
  • tasks that the candidate is expected to have completed in order for their candidature to be confirmed at the end of the first year.

Notwithstanding the formality of this approval process, it is understood that for many, perhaps most candidates, details of the research plan will change over time. These changes are recorded and agreed in annual progress reports and, in some cases, by submission of an updated research proposal.

Because they are privy to all examiners' reports for higher degrees by research at UWA and the comments and criticisms therein, members of the Board are in an ideal position to identify potential problems and criticisms of the research while reviewing the research proposal and to assist candidates to prevent these.

Accordingly, the Board expects its designated reviewers to read all aspects of each research proposal carefully and to highlight any problems or questions to be addressed before the proposal will be formally approved.

A candidate whose proposal is not approved in the first instance will be provided with written feedback to assist them to revise the proposal to an acceptable standard. This process may be iterative.

Initial feedback on a research proposal may be:

  • The proposal has been approved in its present form. The reviewer may recommend that the candidate consider particular questions or comments, but responses to these are not required.
  • Please provide further information. The proposal has not been approved in its present form. In this case the candidate will be provided with an outline of specific amendments that are required, and/or any general questions or areas of concern to which they are required to provide a satisfactory written response before the proposal will be approved. The response required may include full revision of all or part of the proposal.

Reviewers of research proposals are requested to read the whole proposal and coversheet carefully, with reference to the Guidelines for Preparing Research Proposals, paying particular attention to, and if necessary commenting on, the following aspects:

(a) Supervision

Please refer to the

a) Are the proposed arrangements for supervision appropriate in relation to qualifications, eligibility, expertise, experience, availability, arrangements for co-supervision and absence of conflicts of interest?

b) Would alternative or additional arrangements be appropriate, for example addition of a supervisor with particular expertise?

(b) Proposed study

a) Are the nature and scope of the proposed study consistent with the requirements of the degree in which the candidate is, or in the case of applicants for upgrades, is applying to be, enrolled?

For example, for a PhD, will the study make a substantial and original contribution to scholarship through the discovery of knowledge, the formulation of theories or the innovative re-interpretation of known data and established ideas?

For a master's, will the study be a substantial piece of work generally based on independent research which shows a sound knowledge of the subject of the research, evidence of the exercise of some independence of thought and the ability of expression in clear and concise language?

b) Is the structure of the proposed program consistent with the rules for the degree in which the candidate is applying to be enrolled?

For example, if the proposed study includes a creative component to be examined, is there provision for this within the rules for the course?

In the case of candidates proposing to use data collected or other work done prior to enrolment, will they meet the requirement that the thesis has been substantially accomplished during enrolment in the degree?

(c) Research direction

a) Are the aims/problems/questions to be addressed in the research outlined in sufficient detail in the proposal?

b) Is there sufficient evidence that the proposed work is appropriately original for the degree?

c) Is there sufficient evidence that the proposed approach, design and methods are suitable for the study in question?

d) Has sufficient assessment been made of any risks for timely completion of the project, and are there contingency plans for dealing with problems that might arise?

Common examples of such problems include:

  • delays in receiving approvals from relevant committees;
  • difficulty recruiting sufficient subjects or respondents;
  • unexpected failure of study organisms to survive, breed, or develop;
  • breed, or develop;
  • inability to get key specialised methods to work;
  • difficulty obtaining access to materials, specimens, animals, study sites, data, literature, primary sources or specialist assistance; and
  • disruption or destruction of plans due to political unrest, natural disasters and the vagaries of nature.

e) Has sufficient assessment been made of any safety and health hazards, for example in relation to field work and other off-campus work and travel as well as laboratory and other technical work, and are there plans for addressing these?

f) Overall, is there evidence that adequate risk assessment of the project has been undertaken, and are there plans for management of risk? Please see the University's Safety and Health policies.

(d) Candidature plan

a) Is the proposed timeframe for the research realistic, reasonable and consistent with the length of candidature for the degree?

b) Is there sufficient detail in the planned timing for completion of different phases of the research (milestones) whereby the candidate and supervisors can monitor progress?

c) Are the tasks that have been set out for Confirmation of Candidature fair, with reasonable and measurable outcomes, and are they consistent with the Board's expectations?

d) If the candidate plans to undertake formal coursework, is this within the limits set previously by the Board (maximum 24 points) and necessary for the research program, as required in the relevant University rules?

e) Has the candidate made an adequate assessment of the generic and research skills required to bring their project to a timely completion? For example, these might include skills in statistics and academic writing, as well as specific skills pertaining to the research.

f) In general, does the candidate appear to have the appropriate skills to complete the research and thesis?

g) If the candidate does not appear to have the appropriate skills, have they developed a realistic strategy for achieving them?

(e) Budget

Please see the University's Infrastructure Guidelines for the Support of Higher Degree by Research Candidates.

This resource includes lists of the resources provided to research candidates by individual UWA schools.

a) Is the budget presented in sufficient detail and are the anticipated annual costs realistic?

b) Has the school agreed to underwrite the costs of the research, including any necessary field work? If extra funds are required above those to be provided by the School, are these guaranteed? If not, is there a contingency plan in the case of the funds not being available?

(f) Ethics and other approvals

Please see the relevant ethics guidelines.

a) Does the proposed research include:

  • the use of animals or human subjects, including the latter as respondents to questionnaires;
  • genetic manipulation or use of genetically modified organisms;
  • potentially hazardous procedures or situations;
  • potent teratogens or carcinogens; or
  • ionising radiation?   
If so, has approval from the appropriate UWA approval body been obtained?

If approval has not been obtained, what is the timeframe for this, and should approval be a pre-requisite for confirmation of candidature?

b) If the research includes any of the above, has the candidate completed any appropriate training?

If appropriate training has not been completed, what is the timeframe for this, and should completion of such training be a pre-requisite for confirmation of candidature?

(g) Intellectual property and authorship

Please see the University's Intellectual Property Policy and Guidelines on Research Ethics and Conduct and some general information for candidates on confidentiality and intellectual property.

Examples of problems that arise in relation to intellectual property include:

  • disputes between candidates, supervisors and other collaborators about authorship of publications;
  • disputes between candidates, supervisors and funding organizations about ownership of intellectual property with commercialisation potential;
  • disputes between candidates and supervisors about the ownership of data, especially in the event of a change of supervisor;
  • disputes between candidates and supervisors about the ownership of research ideas or plans, especially in the event of a change of supervisor; and
  • concerns raised by examiners about the level of candidates' contribution to co-authored published work included in theses.

a) Have actual and potential intellectual property issues been addressed adequately in the proposal?

b) Is it likely that there will be publications arising from the research? If so, is there evidence that the candidate and supervisor/s have discussed and reached appropriate agreement on authorship of these publications?

c) If there is an intellectual property agreement, has it been duly signed by all parties? In particular, is it clear that the student has understood and agreed the implications of the intellectual property agreement?

(h) General

a) Are all the sections of the proposal complete?

b) Is the proposal generally acceptable as a piece of academic writing at the required level?

c) In particular, is there evidence of problems in relation to plagiarism, insufficient or inappropriate referencing or inadequate English expression?

d) If there are problems with the standard of the proposal as a piece of academic writing, do the tasks required for confirmation of candidature include specific activities to develop the candidate's writing/English skills?

2. Additional guidelines for the assessment of applications for upgrade to PhD

Board members assessing applications for upgrade from master's to PhD are requested to consider all the points above. In addition, the following points might be useful for consideration:

a) Why did the applicant enrol initially in a master's rather than a PhD? It might be that they were not advised/permitted to enrol directly into a PhD because they were not qualified to do so.

If this was the case, is there sufficient new evidence that this applicant is now qualified for enrolment in the PhD, in terms of their demonstrated ability to complete independent research at PhD level?

b) Are there scholarship or other funding issues that should be brought to the attention of the Graduate Research and Scholarships Office with respect to the proposed upgrade of this candidate?

An example of such an issue might be an international candidate who has guaranteed funding support for the tenure of a master's but not necessarily for a PhD.