How to Write an Effective Ph.D. Concept Paper (A Brief Guide)

Last Updated: 24 August 2023

When applying for Ph.D., although academic qualifications matter, the ultimate determinant of whether a university accepts your application is the concept paper.

A concept paper or a concept note is essential for every Ph.D. student. This paper is written in the initial stages of a Ph.D. application or during the program after admissions.

A concept paper is essentially a shorter version of a research proposal. The aim is to ensure students understand what is expected when writing a thesis or dissertation. Therefore, you must know how to write a perfect concept paper to impress your supervisor and the Ph.D. admissions committee.

This blog in-depth blog article will show you the steps and tips for writing an impactful concept paper for a Ph.D. so that you become a pro at it and fulfill the requirements for the doctor of philosophy position.

What is a Concept Paper?

It takes special interest to become a Ph.D. student. As you take on the new academic journey, you must prepare for the research work ahead. As a Ph.D., you must contribute to theory by developing a new theory or content area, debunking an existing theory, or extending an existing theory to make sense in a given context.

In preparation for the Ph.D. research journey, you will write a concept note or concept paper that culminates into a research proposal and then the study itself.

Consider the Ph.D. concept paper as a blueprint or roadmap for your doctoral journey that guides your research work. It should outline the proposed research topic, aims and objectives, methodology, and potential contributions to the academic community.

Concept papers are essential for those pursuing a Ph.D. because they lay the foundation for writing a research paper (dissertation or complete thesis).

Concept papers outline ideas for a proposed research project. Most people will confuse a concept paper with a research proposal. While they may look similar, they vary in the writing process and presentation. A concept paper aims to explain what the research is about, the proposed research methodology (design, frameworks, and data collection/analysis methods), and why it is crucial.

It is often a short paper, mostly 2-3 pages long, which includes the proposed research title, a brief introduction to the topic, the aim of the study, problem and purpose statement, research questions or hypothesis, research methodology, data analysis methods, and the project timeline and budget.

Besides Ph.D. candidates, principal investigators, professionals, or researchers can also submit a concept paper to a funding body to secure financial support for a research project. Students in their final year of undergraduate or masters-level studies can also submit a concept paper before beginning a research project.

This article focuses on the Ph.D. level concept paper, although you can transfer the tips when writing any concept paper.

Related Reading: How to write a research proposal.

What is the Purpose of a Concept Paper?

You will be required to write a concept paper for many reasons. Some of these reasons are:

Related Blog: How to write a Dissertation Proposal.

What are the Main Elements of a Research Concept Paper?

A concept paper must follow a structured procedure. It should have certain elements; otherwise, the supervising committee will reject it, and you will not continue your research. Even though there are no set rules for how it should be, there are certain elements that the paper should have. These elements are:

These are essential items to include in your concept paper. However, if your committee asks for a specific format, make sure you follow the format.

Below is a basic format for a concept paper outlining some of the contents:

Altogether, these contents should be briefly covered without wasting words and space. Some concept papers, including references, can be as long as 2000-2500 words.

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How to Write a Ph.D. Concept Paper: The Twelve Steps

The format of writing a concept paper will depend on the requirements of your university. Therefore, you should read all the guidelines to know what to expect. With that said, here are the general expectations of a concept paper.

Step 1: Understand the Purpose of the Concept Paper

A concept paper is a preliminary document that introduces your Ph.D. research idea to your academic advisors and the review committee.

It has to demonstrate your proposed research project's significance, feasibility, and originality.

The concept paper should lay the groundwork for your research and highlight your ability to articulate and plan a well-structured Ph.D. study.

The foremost step is to read the university's requirements so you can plan everything around.

Step 2: Choose a Sound Research Topic

At the Ph.D. level, you are expected to contribute to existing knowledge by:

You need to, therefore, come up with a researchable topic that addresses an issue in the area or field of specialization.

You can choose a topic or problem based on your professional experience. You can also build on your master’s level research topic or project.

Research project teams and supervisors are also good platforms for getting unique topics.

Ultimately, you must research widely and read peer-reviewed scholarly journals to identify limitations and research gaps to compose a great topic and title for your Ph.D. study.

Step 3: Develop a Title of the Proposed Research

Assuming you have consulted widely and settled on a topic, creating a title comes first when writing a concept paper.

A title is a stand-alone statement that summarizes all your project ideas. You have to show an understanding of the subject by creating an accurate, descriptive, and interesting title.

According to the American Psychological Association, a good title should identify all the variables you are trying to investigate and show their relationship.

Ensure you avoid words that do not add meaning to the title.

Also, ensure the title is short and precise. If you want the title to be more specific, add a subtitle below it. Make sure you separate them using a colon. For example,

Mobile Apps for Weight Management: A Review of the Latest Evidence to Inform Practice

Step 4: Write the Background of the Research Study

Background or introduction is the first section of a concept paper. This is where you state the topic you want to address and briefly explain the causes of these problems. Ensure you explain this part correctly so your audience can understand it. Conclude this part by showing the "opportunity" available for you to "fix" the problem. The opportunity is usually in the form of your values or skills.

This section should contain the following:

The inference here is that you had conducted a literature review before you began writing.

Additionally, ensure you provide references for your narrative, as it will help you establish authority for all the data given.

Step 5: State the Problem

This is a brief and clear statement of what you want the study to address. It explains the purpose of your paper. It also introduces the topic you are trying to investigate and how your research will help solve it. Provide supporting documentation, such as statistical data, emphasizing why you must conduct the research. In addition, include the relevance of the problem and the methods to address them.

Write this section well to grab your target audience's attention and support. Even if you care about the research, you must convince them it is worth their time. So make sure you use intriguing words.

Step 6: Define your Goals and Objectives

After identifying the problem, the next step is writing down all your goals and objectives for the research. Take note that is a difference between goals and objectives.

The goal means what you expect to achieve once you have finalized the study. When writing this part, relate it to the problem at hand.

Every study should have only one goal. Having multiple goals can confuse both you and the reader. However, note that one goal can have multiple elements that can be accomplished through the set objectives for the projects.

Objectives are detailed statements of how you intend to accomplish the goal you have set for the project. These objectives should:

Step 7: List the Research Questions  or Hypothesis

For every Ph.D. dissertation, you will be required to come up with a research question. A research question helps give an overview of what you are trying to investigate. Remember that the aim of any research is to come up with answers to questions. These answers then help in forming a thesis statement.

Research questions will help direct your research methodology. Including them in your concept paper will help show the link between the research and methodology used.

For many Ph.D. students, creating a research question is the most challenging part of writing a concept paper. This is because these questions will direct the whole project. Therefore, you must stay focused on the main issue of the research to come up with the right ones.

Consider the following examples of research questions for your project.

Are mobile apps effective for weight loss?

Are adults in the USA invested in using mobile phones to manage their weight?

Remember that a good research question can be explored deeply as you back it up with facts. Additionally, think of all the data that is needed for the questions. Think of whether you can access this data, and if not, how many resources are needed.

Step 8: Write a Preliminary Literature Review

When writing a concept paper, you must write a preliminary literature review to serve the following purpose.

The literature review aims to identify all the major literature that will support your research topic. The literature review also allows you to analyze and synthesize previous research on the problem.

Make sure you connect your topic to the theoretical model you have identified in the literature.

Note that to develop a strong concept paper, you must base it on a wide range of literature and then minimize it into a critical point summary.

Step 9: Outline the Research Methodology

This part will show how you intend to conduct the research. It involves showing the relationship between the goals you have identified with the methods you plan to use in the research process. As you write this section, make sure you consider the following issues.

Your research methods will be informed by the goals and objectives you set earlier. For instance,

If your research question is to measure the effectiveness of either one or more variables on another, you will use quantitative methods. On the other hand, if your research question aims to explain a phenomenon, then you will use qualitative methods.

You can also show how the project will be managed and the techniques used. If you will handle the project with the help of other people, write down the final team and the responsibilities laid down for them. This includes the sponsor of the project, key stakeholders, and support functions.

Establish the project's help chain and the required support sequence and timeframe. This will help identify the problems that arise during each stage.

Step 10: Create a Timeline (and a Budget)

You have to provide a timeline for your project. Present a realistic timeline for completing different stages of your Ph.D. research. This timeline will provide a glimpse of your research plan.

Your number of critical deliveries (milestones) defines a timeline. The success of the projects depends on these milestones should be connected to specific dates.

Setting milestones for your project will help in managing the flow of work. They also show that the project is on time. In addition, having a timeline show that your project is feasible and that you have considered all the practicalities of each phase of your study.

This section is crucial because it will help you manage your time and work.


If your project should be completed within 17 weeks, the timeline can be like this.

Step 11: Outline the Expected Contributions

Clearly articulate the potential contributions your Ph.D. research will make to the academic community and the real-world implications/applications of your findings.

Explain how your research can fill gaps in existing knowledge and offer practical applications.

Contribution of knowledge refers to information provided to increase the project's team's efficiency. This is perhaps the most crucial part of a Ph.D. dissertation.

You need to show your project's value to the existing knowledge. Show why people should give your research a moment of their time.

Making significant knowledge to study us is crucial at the Ph.D. level, but this does not mean your project must meet Nobel Prize standards. However, there are things you can do to ensure it meets these standards:

Step 12: Include Bibliography/References

The last part of your concept papers is the bibliography or references. A reference to a detailed description of the sources of your information. It aims at avoiding plagiarism by showing the words, phrases, and ideas that are your own. The references here are usually in the form of a list you write at the end of the paper.

Checklist for a Ph.D. Concept Paper

Take note of the following before you write a concept paper.

You should remember that a well-written concept paper not only gives you a roadmap for the Ph.D. journey. It also impresses your academic advisors or Ph.D. admissions committee. You have to ensure it is perfect by all standards.

Actionable Tips for Writing a Concept Paper

You must have the right tips to guide you to write an effective concept paper. These tips are:

1. Read Extensively

Before writing the paper, you must read what others have written about a similar topic in your field. This will give you a sense of what is expected, what research has been done in your field, current trends about the methodology you plan to use, and substantial findings to support your research.

2. Understand the Instructions Given

Like any other academic paper, a concept paper comes with instructions from the supervising committee. However, the number of students who jump into writing without reading the instructions will surprise you. This alone contributes to otherwise avoidable poor grades.

Therefore, carefully read the prompt and look for specific words such as length, formatting, and citation.

Once you understand the instructions, it will be easy to write your concept paper.

3. Be Direct

Avoid beating around the bush when writing a concept paper. Your paper should be clear and concise to make an impact. Concise writing does not mean using a few words but the strongest words to show what you mean.

4. Keep it the Required Length

A concept paper for your Ph.D. project should not be more than three pages long. That is between 250-500 words. Remember that the aim is to give a clear summary of the project you intend to do. So do not overwhelm your target audience with too much information that may be unnecessary.

5. Ask Yourself the Write Questions

One of the best ways to refine your research question is to ask yourself questions. Your idea is raw and unstructured at this stage of writing your concept paper, so no one will understand it. You need to refine it as much as you can.

Asking yourself questions about the idea, you must refine and clarify them.

7. Revise and Edit Your Paper

The first step to editing your work is checking for any errors that may negatively affect your work. Revising involves cutting, omitting, moving, and changing words or phrases to improve your writing. Look closely at your work during editing to check for punctuation, grammar, and spelling errors. Also, make sure you check for sentence structure and tone. This Ph.D. paper demands high standards.

Sample Ph.D. Concept Paper

Title: Exploring the Impacts of Virtual Reality on Spatial Cognition and Navigation Skills: A Mixed-Methods Investigation


Spatial cognition and navigation skills are fundamental cognitive abilities crucial in our everyday lives. As technology advances, virtual reality (VR) has become a powerful tool for simulating real-world environments and experiences. This Ph.D. research aims to explore the impacts of virtual reality on spatial cognition and navigation skills, with the ultimate goal of enhancing human performance and understanding the implications for future technological applications.

Research Problem and Objectives

The research problem revolves around understanding how exposure to virtual reality environments affects individuals' spatial cognition and navigation skills compared to real-world experiences. The primary objectives of this study are:

  1. To assess the differences in spatial cognition between individuals who regularly use VR and those who do not.
  2. To investigate the effects of VR exposure on navigation abilities and spatial memory.
  3. To explore VR's potential benefits and limitations for spatial training and cognitive enhancement.

Background and Rationale

Spatial cognition and navigation skills are essential for wayfinding, environmental exploration, and efficient decision-making. Prior research has shown that environmental and experiential factors can significantly influence an individual's spatial abilities. With the rise of VR technology, there is a growing need to understand how virtual experiences may affect human cognition.

The significance of this research lies in its potential to inform the development of VR applications that optimize spatial learning and training. Additionally, it may shed light on how VR can address spatial cognitive impairments in individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders or age-related decline.

Theoretical Framework

The theories of embodied cognition and spatial learning will guide this study. Embodied cognition posits that cognition is influenced by bodily experiences, suggesting that virtual experiences may have a comparable effect on spatial cognition as real-world experiences. On the other hand, spatial learning theories emphasize the role of environmental cues and memory processes in shaping navigation skills.


This research will employ a mixed-methods approach, combining quantitative assessments with qualitative interviews. The study will involve two groups of participants: one group with regular VR users and another with limited or no VR exposure.

Quantitative Phase:

Qualitative Phase:

Potential Limitations and Challenges

Some potential limitations of this research include the difficulty of precisely replicating real-world scenarios in virtual environments and the variability of individual differences in spatial cognition. Additionally, the study's generalizability may be limited to the specific VR technology and environments used in the experiment.

Expected Contributions

This Ph.D. research aims to contribute to the emerging field of virtual reality and its impact on human cognition. The findings could lead to practical applications, such as using VR for spatial training in educational settings or designing more user-friendly virtual environments that support spatial cognition.


This Ph.D. concept paper outlines a comprehensive investigation into the impacts of virtual reality on spatial cognition and navigation skills. This study seeks to advance our understanding of the relationship between VR experiences and human spatial abilities by employing a mixed-methods approach and grounding the research in theoretical frameworks. Through this research, we hope to pave the way for future advancements in VR technology, ultimately benefiting various domains, including education, healthcare, and human-computer interaction.

Final Word on Writing a Great Concept Paper

A concept paper is an essential academic text written by those pursuing a Ph.D. program. It initiates the phase of a dissertation for the Ph.D. program. Once the supervising committee approves it, you will write your proposal before moving to a dissertation. In other words, the concept paper is like a mini version of a research proposal, only that it is meant to be brief. It is like a mini-proposal; make it brief, concise, and coherent.

You have to know how to write it correctly by starting with a title page, background, statement of the problem, etc. Include every section to ensure your work flows well and covers what is needed.

Although writing a Ph.D. concept paper can be intimidating initially, you can use the steps and tips outlined in this article to excel at it. If you need help writing a concept paper, we have erudite writers who can help you. Our expert Ph.D. writers will create a well-researched, organized, and polished concept paper that is 100% original and written based on your instructions. We allow you to connect and directly engage with your doctoral writers as they work on your paper.


Is Concept Paper Short or Long?

A concept paper is short, but this will vary depending on the university. This piece of writing shows all the components of your Ph.D. research project. It aims to give the project an overview so the supervising committee can understand.

How Many Pages Should a Concept Paper Be?

The university or the Ph.D. program you are pursuing will determine the number of pages of a concept paper. Usually, it ranges between 2-3 pages, but it can go up to 20 pages, primarily if written as part of a funding process.