Starting my proposal (or looking for one)

I am currently writing my MA thesis (in Poland it is 2 years, of which the second I am in).
Since the start of the 3rd semester, I have started thinking about a PhD proposal.
Of course, I realise that it cannot just be a themed ‘project,’ neither can it just compare A with B and get C.
My current plan is to go further with the general theme/topic of my MA research into other directions, which I am currently exploring for possible interest and ideas etc.
Although I have an initial idea for an early chapter which feels like it could be quite innovative, I am worried that I won’t find a niche or a research problem worth solving.
I want to do a PhD because I really want to do a big research topic, but it feels like making a proposal in the next few months or trying to find a problem to solve is a bit of a contrivance.
Because I am very sincere in life and artistic, I am always worried too much about contrivances and fakery.
I have found at my Uni both a Professor who agrees to be a supervisor and a Doctor who could be an assistant promotor. The doctor seems to be very willing to share ideas and knowledge in a certain, specialised area of study.
Well, I don’t even know what the question is for this post, never mind the thesis.
Should I just continue to read up on certain topics I am curious about and just kind of go down the rabbit hole of study and wait for a Eureka moment? Or are there students (PhD candidates present or past) who just kind of contrived something convincing to get passed the proposal interview stage?

@SonofMaat full disclosure first: I recently dropped out from a Ph.D. program after the first semester and right now I am applying for 2 programs in the US in the Organizational Development domain (social sciences). In short, my Ph.D. application process is a bit different than yours because I need to present a personal statement with my interest in research rather than an actual research proposal and, I do not know what is your field of expertise, but social science is a completely different animal from the domains I have seen here in the group. So take my suggestions with a grain of salt. So here we go:

My first suggestion for you is to focus on what you can control. From what it looks like, you barely have a research question for your master’s thesis, much less for an application for a Ph.D. program. For instance, I have a friend who was accepted into 2 programs and she used her master’s thesis to open doors in her research proposal. In both programs, the faculty mentioned they liked her thesis because there was no research on that topic. Considering you need to present a research proposal for the Ph.D., focus on your master’s thesis because if you do it right it will give you leverage when applying for the doctoral program.

About your Eureka moment question, I am sorry to break it to you but there is no such thing. Ok, maybe there is for a couple of people, but the odds are not in your favor on this topic. Considering you make a yes / no question, I will give you a yes / no answer and then explain it. Keep going down the rabbit hole and forget about any Eureka moment. I have been watching a few videos about the Ph.D. routine and the one thing they all say is about the effort to keep moving forward rather than crazy ideas out of nowhere. Now, a couple of things I have learned over the past few months:
Keep reading but

  1. Make sure you are taking effective notes from your readings because given the amount of reading you will have to do for your thesis and even more in the Ph.D., the norm here is that you will forget what you read. Taking notes helps you memorize more and have accessible information at your disposal when you need it.
  2. Take time to reflect on your readings. That is how you will actually learn from what you read and create the connections in your mind and have the sketch of the story you want to tell. After each reading, I usually write a summary of what I just read (mostly for review papers) and I use that moment to design the overall takeaways from the paper.

Right now I would suggest you focus on your research question such as “What are the effects of leadership on employee motivation?”. I need to say that the more refined the better though if I were in your shoes I would probably think “Oh fuck!! I don’t know what I want to ask!!”. So grab one question you are interested in answering and go for it. As you go through your readings, you will learn better definitions, and the fine details of your literature and start refining it more and more to the point you will be able to land on something interesting.

Again, forget about the Eureka moment. It is an iterative inch-by-inch process. The more you read, the more you will have to reflect, the more you learn, the better will be your questions, and the better will be your guiding compass. Don’t get me wrong, it is a shitty process that nobody tells this upfront but unfortunately, it is the reality.

One thing that might guide you through your process is the Zotero software and the Research Rabbit website. One will help you keeping your reading stored and the other will, from that library, help you find related articles to that topic. There are plenty of YouTube videos showing how to operate them.

I hoped I have helped you somehow and I definitely hope not demotivated you to keep on your journey!! Best of success!!

Thanks for the detailed reply.
Well, my MA thesis is already quite advanced, well researched, with (now) a very clear set of questions and methodology. Also, quite a lot of it has been written already. If the PhD proposal has the same level of thought and research put into it, then I will be pretty happy.
Read, read, read is already my own advice to others. So, I guess I just need to take my own advice.
My area of research is literary and cultural studies.
It seems to me that literature and culture is a difficult beast to control when it comes to PhD level because the field is extremely well researched already.
It is very different to other sciences where you will have experiments and so on.
I think (at the highest level) that what is desired is for the proposal to discover new ways of approaching literary or cultural studies by being able to adapt theories from other disciplines or adapt existing methods of research (maybe). But I have also seen PhD theses that just explored topics that had been kind of overlooked.
I think both of these things are very hard to achieve, though.
Well, now I have a solid MA thesis (in progress) and a new rabbit hole to look down for the proposal. So, I will go down there and get back to you in future with what I found (or didn’t find).
P.s. I am not really bothered with Zotero. I am a bit old fashioned with studying and mostly just have tonnes of folders with notes and annotated essays. But I will check Andy’s list of software tips at some point if/when things get a bit more advanced.
So far, I have not really had much trouble doing my state of research in either thesis, and I get through a lot of sources.

Oh!! Well, @SonofMaat first please forgive me to mix up things!! When you explained the status of your research proposal I probably understood you were talking about your thesis and the proposal altogether!! So sorry for that!!

Trying to fix up things here a little bit then.

Yes, you are definitely right about your field being completely different from “hard” science such as chemistry, biology, or engineering. I believe you are even more on the social side of things than I am. Meaning you probably have much more focus on qualitative research than I have. I do not know if you have looked into this, but in terms of quantitative research, qualitative ones take much longer so your timeframe is probably different from most of the people here. Meaning that you will have to take other suggestions with a grain of salt too.

Considering you are very advanced in your thesis, I would consider the limitations of it as the first step of your research proposal. Considering you are interested in the topic, I believe this could be a great business card for your next step. This would also give you plenty of material to talk about in your interview.

I do not know if this is the reality in your field, but in Organizational Development every now and then some journals publish a special edition with scholars writing about the state of the field. I have found them a great source to use in my personal statement when I justify the topics we still have to work on. Each scholar takes a different perspective but in general, they talk about what has been done so far and what we still have to investigate. That could be a source to investigate.

Moreover, from my personal experience picking a Ph.D. program is more of a personal connection rather than applying for 5 or 10 that you can find. I dropped out of the first program pretty much because I applied for everything I could find and literally hate every single aspect of the program. So another suggestion would be first to find a program that is focused on topics you find interesting, read the work from the faculty there, and then you may find something in their work that is worth working on. You could start by looking at the authors from the papers you liked for your thesis. Considering the process of investigating, reading their work, and reflecting on your readings I say a reasonable timeframe is about 3 to 6 months because you may have not ever heard about the topic so it might take you some time to get comfortable with the vocabulary and definitions. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the 6 months you have your research proposal done.

For example, I not only honed in on which programs I am applying to now because I read the faculty’s work but I also have one or two research hypotheses to start digging into from the get-go. So taking that time to investigate was extremely helpful for me!!

And I hear you about Zotero. Especially if right now you feel comfortable with how you are managing everything with your thesis. First I used Mendeley and I did not think it was a big deal but Zotero was incredibly helpful once I spent time getting the hang of it. So keep in mind to take a look at it in the future because it will probably help you A LOT.

I hope I have helped more than before!! LOL