by Chris Laursen, February 2013
1. Just get to the heart of what you want to do with your dissertation in the prospectus. You may not feel anywhere near ready to create a prospectus, and that's okay! You have to start somewhere. What you write will be critiqued. You can't escape that, and it's fine because it's part of being a scholar. Whatever advice you are given, remember that you will end up moving in better directions in your dissertation research and writing as a result of it. Make the prospectus a fun exercise, one in which you use your imagination and creative thinking, as well as showing that you have something to contribute to historical studies and can defend your preliminary arguments (which will become stronger as you get into the real work of your dissertation). Start by asking yourself, "What is my dream dissertation?" With that, get the essential bits in there: a strong thesis, proposed chapter outline, and showing how it makes a contribution to the study of history (through a historiographical section).
2. Once you've explained how you're making a contribution, put all of those scholars you've read aside, go back to what you've outlined, and think for yourself. Unless your committee indicates they expect application of an existing theoretical model based on your study, I would advise being more concerned about focusing on how you are going to approach your topic. Myself, I felt an invisible pressure after taking so many courses that focused on so many theoretical or philosophical models. I assumed that I was expected to think about my dissertation through the lens of at least a few of these existing models. Unless you're absolutely passionate about applying one of these models (which, honestly, I wasn't), you should start with yourself. After writing - and fumbling in my defense - on how my project could fit existing theoretical models (what a disaster!), the advice my committee gave was liberating: worry about your own methodological development, not applying that of others. It's not that it's easier to develop your own methodological approach. But the prospectus is your opportunity to propose how you would do so. You've been working on it in everything you've done up to this point. If there's one thing I wish I had done it would have been to say to myself, "Okay, I've learned all sorts of approaches. I've outlined how my works fits in the historiography. Now I'm going to put others' work aside and think for myself. How do I want to approach collecting research materials and analyse them? How would I get what I want out of them?" I think the ability to say this is what I want to do is crucial in a prospective defense. My committee wanted to know how I was going to develop my own scholarly style through the dissertation process, and some of that was in my prospectus, but I spent way too much time writing about other scholars' approaches. You've already recognized related scholars in a historiographical section. Make the rest of the prospectus about how you want to do things. What you produce will not be perfect, but it's a significant step toward thinking for yourself as a member of a community of scholars.
3. How one of your PhD colleagues or faculty members does something does not mean you have to do it the same way. First of all, remember to consult with your committee as you develop these approaches before you get to prospectus defense. This will be a big help. As your prepare, when you look at sample prospecti, read dissertations, or published works, concern yourself with how they're organized and consider how strong their thesis is. Apply structures and content that strongly benefits what you want to say in your dissertation. Ultimately, you are going to build an idea for a dissertation in the way you want to do it. From there, your committee is going to give advice, some of which you won't implement, much of which will completely lift you up in terms of strengthening your scholarship. I thought of my defense more as a formal brainstorming session. I loved hearing what my committee members and defense chair had to say. Nothing went as I imagined, and really, life is like that anyway. Defend your ideas as carefully as you can, but be open to all critiques and advice. Be thankful for it. This is really an opportunity to grow. It's a forum where you walk in with a document and walk out with new ways of thinking about your research, writing, and scholarly style.
4. Start early, gather your sources, and set yourself a tight schedule with milestones to complete your prospectus after passing comps. For those preparing for comps, insert key scholarly works to read that you'll be using in your dissertation research. This is so important. For those starting grad school, collect as many key sources as you can well ahead of time. If you haven't already started doing that by the time you begin your PhD, you'd better get going on that! (I had been gradually collecting sources since 2006, two years before commencing my MA, and defended my prospectus in January 2012, two months after my comps exam; writing the prospectus was a quick process because I already had key sources read and ready to consider in my prospectus.) Once you are ready to write the prospectus, make it an efficient process. In my opinion, you can probably write it, get outlines and drafts reviewed by committee members over a month or two, then refine it and defend. Set your defense date early to motivate getting it done. With candidacy, you can get to the real work of research and writing your dissertation. Don't draw the prospectus process out too long.
5. It's a defense; that's nerve wracking, and that's okay. It's part of being a scholar. The prospectus defense is probably not going to feel smooth. You're early on in your dissertation. Your ideas are just forming. Write as strong of a document as you can in a limited time. Consult with your committee members ahead of the defense to see what they think of an outline of it, and then on a draft of it. They'll catch the early weaknesses that you can work on. Expect to hear questions and ideas that hadn't been mentioned earlier in your defense - things you'd hadn't considered before.
6. Myself, I'm writing a succinct reimagined prospectus one year after defending. The first prospectus felt like a beginning, a way of getting feedback, and a way of showing that I can carry on with my dissertation work. The second one - only a revised working thesis, succinct overview of methodology and argument, and a more developed chapter outline - is an opportunity to truly shape the dissertation. The prospectus you write to achieve candidacy will be a useful tool to develop your methodology, analysis, and research travel strategies. As a candidate, I have put a lot of thought into those three elements over the past year. I also consulted a lot with people knowledgeable about my research topic - invaluable! Now the content seems all the more concrete, although I fully expect my committee to have a variety of new ideas and directions based on this revised prospectus. It's an ongoing process - and one that should be both as delightful and challenging as you can make it.
So what is a prospectus really?
It is an essential step for you and your committee to feel that you are ready to do the real work of the dissertation - so make this a time to show them and yourself that you're ready to proceed with that. It's an exercise in imagining what you would really enjoy doing, getting your key sources lined up, assessing the contribution your work with make to historical studies, and above all an opportunity to say, "This is how I want to be a historian. This is the approach I'm thinking about. What do you think, colleagues?"
Where to look for topic ideas
- Look at other dissertation in your field in order to get an idea of the overall scope and style. (The MSU Library is a good place to find dissertations from your own department.)
- Identify your areas of interest. What are you passionate about? Write about topics and look at your own academic career to see what you have done.
- Identify how you think and research—do you look at one topic in depth or several ideas you can explore in a comparative manner?
- Look at job openings to see what is “hot” in your field and what potential future employers are looking for.
- Strive for a balance between passion and practicality.
- Talk to your advisor and professors to learn what they are working on. In the sciences, you may have the opportunity to work with them on their research.
- Contact experts and professionals in the field to see what they’re doing and what’s new.
- Generate titles as soon as possible. They will contain words that will frame your work.
Once you have a general idea of your topic
- Remember that an idea or topic that is general and undefined is fine to start. Broad is all right because it is a research topic not research questions.
- Reading, read, read. Do extensive reading and research on your topic to narrow it down and get specific.
- Generate a list of possible titles. This helps identify key words and concepts.
- Choose the best possibilities, analyze them briefly, and present them to your
committee to get their feedback and develop them further.
- Try using cognitive/mind/concept maps to organize your ideas.
What is the proposal?
- A template for the larger project of the dissertation;
- An evaluation;
- A research plan;
- A trial run or head start;
A sales pitch;
- A contract with your committee saying what you will do and what requirements
occur before you get your degree;
- A document that demonstrates you can conceive of a dissertation;
- A document that identifies the ideas you want to call your own;
- A tentative blueprint that is always subject to change as you go.
Before and after the proposal
- Pre-proposal outline (consider letting your advisor look at this early);
- The proposal defense (expect open-ended and specific questions—consider asking
other students to do a trial run with you. Think of your committee as colleagues
trying to help you refine your ideas);
- Ultimately, your proposal won’t answer every question. In final form, it becomes
whatever your committee agrees it should be and guides you into your dissertation.
Two Possible Ways of Structuring the Proposal
Please note that these are just examples. Your program may have specific guidelines. Please speak with your advisor to find out about structures that are appropriate for your project.