Writing a dissertation prospectus

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Now that I’ve moved through the written exam portion of my doctoral candidacy exams, I’m working on the second step of the process: writing my prospectus to present at my oral exams. In CRDM, oral exams generally have two main parts. The first is the oral defense of the answers to the written exams, where the student has an opportunity to elaborate on statements made in the written exams, and where the advisory committee has a chance to ask follow-up questions and make the student really think about what s/he wrote. The second portion is dedicated to the presentation of the dissertation prospectus, where the committee has a chance to come together and vet the project the student is proposing before s/he is sent off to write it over the next year or so.

I’m currently wrapping up my dissertation prospectus. I’ve got to get it in to my committee by this Monday, which would give them one week to review it before my oral exam on November 12. This has been a difficult genre for me to write: it’s not a document I’ve ever written before, nor was I exposed to it at all as a graduate student. I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the process that might help others in the future. They’re not necessarily organized, but — since I’m in the middle of this crazy other document, a bulleted list will have to do:

  • It’s OK to ask your chair/advisor to supply a couple of samples from previous students they have advised. I’ll emphasize the “previous students they have advised” because that will give you a sense of what’s acceptable as a prospectus to your particular chair, which can vary greatly depending on the faculty member. I got a couple of examples, and they were very helpful in showing me the kinds of moves I would have to make to write an acceptable prospectus.
  • Make your dissertation project speak to the field at large. This is so crucial: often in our seminar papers, we are speaking to a more local audience that’s situated in the particular seminar we’re taking. But just like articles we submit for publication, it’s critical to show how your dissertation will contribute something new/original or will further develop an important idea in the field at large. This is “bigger picture thinking” that is sometimes hard to do in the prospectus. The way that I got here in my own document was to …
  • Identify the case study you are interested in doing and consider what contribution you can legitimately make with such a study. Often a dissertation idea starts with a particular object/phenomenon people want to study (in my case, open access). I focused so intently on my particular case study in the first version of my prospectus — justifying it, proving why it was a timely topic, etc. — that I didn’t realize what conducting such a case study would actually allow me to say to the field at large (in my case, rhetorical genre studies and rhetoric of science). Once I realized the ways in which my case study could speak to the fields I was writing into, my prospectus turned the corner from a local document (one written in my program) to one that spoke to an international community of researchers.
  • Be very specific about the methods that you will use to do your research. The idea here isn’t to have laid out your specific process from start to finish and to have your codes developed (or whatever your method might be), but to demonstrate to the committee that you have a clear plan for accomplishing the work and that they can be confident you have the tools you need to go out and get the job done.
  • Ask your committee about your methods (in advance). Each committee member has a purpose on your committee, and for me, I specifically have one individual whose strength is empirical study design. We had a great meeting a couple of weeks ago, tossing around possibly study designs and discussing the merits and demerits of each. I might have thought I knew the best way to study the topic at hand — after all, I’m the one focusing on it! — but through my discussions with this committee member and my chair, I quickly realized that their experience in directing these projects meant they had important contributions to my methodological approach.
  • Read some dissertations in your field (or at the very least, parts of some). This will give you an idea of the end goal as well as a practical sense of how the larger project should be conceived. One of the most difficult things for me to figure out in writing my prospectus was the larger organization of the dissertation and exactly what constituted a “chapter.” This is also something to discuss with your chair/advisor, but a lot can be learned from an initial browsing of other dissertations from your program. Do faculty prefer to see a methods chapter that stands on its own? Or do dissertators incorporate those into a chapter reviewing the literature? Or up front in the introduction? In the humanities, the chapters and orders aren’t a given, and it can be difficult to see the best way to organize and work through the project that you’re doing.
  • If possible, do peer review with other students working on their prospectus. I am a part of a small writing group with other students at a similar point in the program as myself, and we have traded prospectus outlines and drafts for the last few weeks. Seeing how others envision their project and write into their fields has been incredibly helpful for articulating the contributions of my own project. It’s also ensured that I continued to work on my prospectus — I wouldn’t dare show up to writing meeting without any new materials for peer review!

So, this obviously isn’t a comprehensive guide, but these ideas have helped me get through the process of writing into such an occluded (out of sight) genre. I think the main takeaway here is that this is a document that absolutely needs the contributions of others: committee members, previous examples of the genre, examples of the ultimate genre, and feedback from peers. A dissertation certainly isn’t written alone, and the dissertation prospectus is the start to a writing process of incorporating the assistance of others to getting done successfully.

For those who have been through this process, or maybe faculty who advise doctoral students — what advice do you have about writing a prospectus?

4 thoughts on “Writing a dissertation prospectus

  1. This is way helpful (and I am, as I type, supposed to be finishing a draft of my own prospectus!)

    One thing I’ve run into, personally, is that I am clinging to “chunks” of (unpublished) text I’ve written already–the exam response, lit reviews from courses. I lazily thought that I could use such texts to patchwrite my prospectus. Not so! As soon as I started fresh, I got more writing done, and what I said was more clear.

    1. Ditto to hanging on to chunks of text. It’s so hard to admit that some things you’ve spent time on just don’t fit. In the end I told myself that my exam stuff was “spew writing” (if you know what I mean!) and that my prospectus could build from it but ultimately had to have more polished/better developed writing. Spew first; then revise to make it better.

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