Research Proposal Format for the Comprehensive/Transfer Exam

General Requirements

The research proposal is a formal document that will be prepared based on your proposed research plan for the PhD. While you will have already discussed your research direction with your supervisor and TAC, the research proposal required for the Comprehensive exam is neither a TAC report nor a re-submission of your supervisor’s grant proposal. Rather, the research proposal will cover the direction of your work from the time of the exam through to thesis submission. Its scientific rationale will be based on your knowledge of the field as well as your own results from your first year of PhD level studies. You must, therefore, decide your topic in a very narrow scope and ensure that all of your experimental aims are sufficiently independent enough to allow you to make a significant contribution to scientific knowledge in your field by the end of your studies, a requirement for the completion of a doctoral degree.

Required Sections

Title Page

The title page should include the title of your proposal, your name and student number, your supervisor’s name, the date you began the PhD program, the date of submission of the research proposal and the following statement: Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Comprehensive Exam.


A 350 word summary of the proposed research proposal. This abstract should include:

  • a statement of the problem
  • a rationale for the proposed research
  • the hypothesis and experimental aims
  • a brief description of the experimental plan
  • a statement about the significance and/or implications of the proposed work

The Introduction section should include the necessary information and context to understand your research question. The introduction should aim to summarize the literature in the field as well as your own research progress in a concise fashion with the objective of setting the stage for the hypothesis (next section). The Introduction should inform the reader about the important facts while also hinting at the significance of the field.

Rationale and Hypothesis

This short section should briefly summarize the known information that serves as the foundation for your research question, followed by your specific (and testable hypothesis). This section should not be more than one paragraph.

Experimental Aims and Methods

In this section, you will typically describe 2-3 experimental aims that will test your hypothesis. These aims can be formulated as smaller research questions (eg. Is protein X necessary for process Y?). For each aim, you will develop an experimental approach that is modern and feasible, and that will answer your research question. There should be sufficient detail to allow an independent researcher to complete the work. Also, it is best to think of multiple ways to validate your findings and to test your hypothesis to demonstrate scientific rigor. Ask yourself “If I do experiment A and get result B, what else, other than a correct hypothesis, could cause this result?” Asking yourself this question will reveal important control experiments that will make your approach more comprehensive.

In this section, you should also summarize for the reader what results you expect to see based on your hypothesis and literature review. While this section will cover the experimental approach that you think is ideal for answering your question, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that you will have to find another strategy to address your hypothesis. Also use this section to briefly point out pitfalls to your approach and to suggest alternative ways to answer your research questions.


Use this section to convince your reader of the potential impact of your research. It should be brief, but should put your expected findings into the broader context of the field of research you work in.


Each reference should be numbered sequentially as it appears in the text. The numbers should be placed in the text as a superscript. The Reference section should follow the format for the journal Nature, as shown below:

39. Schmidt, D., del Marmol, J. & MacKinnon, R. Mechanistic basis for low threshold mechanosensitivity in voltage-dependent K+ channels. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A109, 10352-7 (2012).

General Format

Page Length and Margins

The Research proposal should not exceed 15 type-written pages including figures but excluding references. Margins must be set to a minimum of 1 inch (2.54 cm).

Acceptable font

The document should be prepared using Times New Roman 12 pt. The document should be prepared single spaced.


Figures should be prepared in PowerPoint, Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator and saved as image files (jpg, tif) and inserted into the text with tight text wrapping using Arial 10 pt as a minimum font size in the final version. Each figure should include a concise legend using the acceptable fonts in 3.2 that describes the experiment performed similar to what is appropriate for scientific publication. Figures should be formatted to take 1 full page width or a half-page width or less. Figure that exceed one half-page width but do not extend to the full page width reduce readability. You will have to be very selective with the figures you include to manage your space efficiently.

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