Define Dissertation Prospectus Writing

The proposal for a thesis or dissertation is essentially an outline of the research - kind of like an architectural blueprint for building a house. The clearer the plan, the more timely and successful the completion of the house. And the clearer the plan, the more likely it is that it will be approved by your advisor or dissertation committee, with a high probability that the final paper will also be accepted. A well - done, acceptable proposal, therefore, is a kind of personal contract between you the candidate, and your committee.

The challenge lies - as usual - in deciding exactly what topic you want to propose! It is true that some fortunate students may be offered a specific topic or problem to pursue by a mentor whose preferences agree with the student's own. But more often, your job is to come up with a specific topic or research question that shows promise for extended study. Do not worry if a topic does not suggest itself to you immediately. Be ready and willing to try out a number of possibilities to see how they develop. How do you "try out" a topic? - by doing a topic analysis.

This is really a simplified proposal form that includes the following parts:

  1. Problem, hypothesis, or question
  2. Importance of research
  3. Significant prior research
  4. Possible research approach or methodology
  5. Potential outcomes of research and importance of each

(thanks to Davis & Parker)

Analyzing a potentially useful topic in this step?by?step way forces you to look at it objectively and precisely within two to four pages. Here are some points to watch for:

  1. If you are unable to write your topic in either the form of a hypothesis or a clear statement, you need to refine and clarify the topic. It must be statedspecifically, not in vague, imprecise terms.
  2. You'll need to be able to justify what you're doing and prove that it's worthy of your time and energy. It's always handy if you can quote a major authority who is stating a need for the research. But if you don't have an authority on hand, try to demonstrate that your research is in some way significant to a major activity.
  3. Be sure you have a reasonable (if not exhaustive) grasp of what's been done before. This will help support #2.
  4. Extremely important part! Exactly how do you plan to approach the research? Try to explain as precisely as possible, and include an alternative methodology. This part may still be in rough form, but it should indicate the likely nature of your approach.
  5. This will be important in assessing the worth of your topic. For example, let's say you might propose the use of a questionnaire to collect evidence. You would then need to analyze the results of the questionnaire. Your potential outcomes (speaking generally) might be a positive correlation between two factors, a negative one, none at all, or unsatisfactory responses. Perhaps only one of these outcomes could lead to a dissertation. That result could suggest the need for a different approach to the issue, which in turn could lead you down a more productive path.

Let's say that's what has happened, and you're now in the happy position of writing the first draft of your formal proposal. This is an expansion of the topic analysis and will be your final work plan, so it will probably end up being anywhere from ten to forty pages. Again, here's a generally accepted proposal with an idea of expected page length:

Section of Proposal

Page Length

1. Summary1-2
2. Hypothesis, problem or question1-3
3. Importance of topic1-2
4. Prior research on topic1-7
5. Research approach or methodology2-8
6. Limitations and key assumptions1-2
7. Contributions to knowledge 
(for each potential outcome,if there are more than one)
8. Descriptions of proposed chapters in dissertation2-3

(again, thanks to Davis & Parker)

Note: A master's thesis can often be less detailed and elaborate than the above plan. Also, individual departments usually have their own unique preferences. The above plan is meant only as a general guide. Always check with your own department for specific Guidelines

(1-4) the first four sections are about the same as those in your topic analysis, only amplified and refined. The prior research section in particular must be more comprehensive, although you may certainly summarize your report of prior research if there is a great deal of it. Your actual dissertation will be the obvious place to go into more detail.

The research approach or methodology section (5) should be explained explicitly. For example, what questions will you include on your questionnaire? If your work includes an experiment, what apparatus will you use, what procedures will you follow, what data do you intend to collect, and what instruments will you use in data collection? List any major questions yet to be decided.

In the limitations section (6) make clear what your study will not attempt to do.

The contributions section (7) will simply be more detailed than in your topic analysis, and your chapter descriptions (8) should be as specific as possible. Just remember this is a proposal, so keep descriptions brief, and try to highlight the structure of each chapter. Most dissertations follow a standard chapter format:

  1. Introduction (general problem area, specific problem, importance of topic, research approach, limitations, key assumptions, and contribution to research)
  2. Description of what has been done in the past. (a.k.a. literature review; this documents that your own research has not already been covered.)
  3. Description of the research methodology. (how your research was conducted).
  4. Research results. (What you found out).
  5. Analysis of the results (explains the conclusions that can be drawn from data, and implications of a theory).
  6. Summary and conclusions (emphasize the results obtained and contribution made. Outline suggestions for further research.)

With this general framework in mind, along with the specific characteristics of your own dissertation, you can define your chapters clearly for your formal proposal.

Remember that it's often necessary to refine the first proposal, most likely by narrowing the scope of your study. But this is all part of the essential process of formulating a working plan for a dissertation that will yield a successful result. If you think of your proposal in this light, you're more apt to remain patient as you, work your way to the final draft.

A checklist for self-appraisal, from Davis & Parker:

  1. Does the proposal have imagination?
  2. Is the problem stated clearly?
    • (a) hypothesis clear? testable?
    • (b) if no hypothesis, are objectives clearly stated? Can they be accomplished?
    • (c) problem perhaps too large?
  3. Is the methodology feasible?
    • (a) can data be collected?
    • (b) how will data be analyzed?
    • (c) will the analysis allow the acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis?
    • (d) is the sample population overused?
  4. What might the results of the analysis look like? (tables, graphs, etc.)
  5. What are the consequences if
    • (a) the experiment fails;
    • (b) data cannot be obtained;
    • (c) analysis is inconclusive;
    • (d) hypothesis is rejected or accepted?
  6. Can major research activities be listed?
  7. Can a time estimate be made for each activity?
  8. Again, are the dimensions of the project manageable?

Writing a Prospectus

There are many different kinds of prospectuses for different purposes. In the humanities, Ph.D. students are asked to submit dissertation prospectuses to their committees; most research grant applications require them; academic job candidates often include short prospectuses with their application materials; and book publishers request them as part of the process of considering a manuscript for publication. Editors of journals and essay volumes may also request a prospectus of a proposed article. These different kinds of prospectuses differ mostly in regard to the length and detail with which the project is described. Dissertation prospectuses can run anywhere from 5 to 30 pages, depending on the amount of detail requested of the student, while grant and job applications generally require brevity (1-2 single-spaced pages for a job application; 3-5 single-spaced pages for many grants). It is highly likely that before a major humanities project is published, 3 or 4 different kinds of prospectuses will have been written for it.

A prospectus should answer the following questions:
  1. What is the subject of the study? How is the subject defined (is there any special use of terminology or context)? What are the main research questions the study aims to answer?
  2. Why is the author addressing this topic? What have other scholars written about this subject, and how is this author's approach, information, or perspective different? What need or gap does this proposed study fill in the scholarly conversation? What new approach to a familiar topic does it propose to offer? What will be the study's original and special contributions to this subject?
  3. What are the main sources that will be used to explore this subject? Why are these sources appropriate?
  4. What is the proposed organization of the study?
  5.  Does the author have any special needs in order to complete this study? In particular, does s/he need funding to travel to archives, gain access to collections, or acquire technical equipment? Does s/he have the special skills (languages, technical expertise) that this project might require?
  1. Title: it should be informative and helpful in pinpointing the topic and emphasis of your study
  2. The body of the prospectus: this section should concentrate on addressing questions 1-3 above. The goal of this section is both to describe the project and to "sell" the reader on its potential interest and scholarly significance.
  3. A chapter breakdown: This can either be a formal section, in which each chapter is described in turn in about a paragraphâs worth of text, or it can be done more narratively, in which the whole project is outlined as a more seamless story. Either way, it should address question #4, above.
  4. (for grant applications, if applicable) a brief paragraph at the end addressing question #5.
  5. (for dissertation prospectuses) a bibliography is usually required.
  6. (for book prospectuses) a table of contents is usually requested.
Some further considerations:

Think about your audience. Most of the members of your dissertation committee will know a lot about your area of research. But this may not be true, for example, of committee members from outside the department. It is even less likely that readers of job or grant applications or book editors will be familiar with the particular area of scholarship in which you work. It is therefore important that your prospectus convey its subject matter in as clear a fashion as possible, and that it not make too many demands upon its readers in regard to knowing specialized terminology or about debates within a given field. Your prospectus should be meaningful and interesting to an intelligent general reader.

What readers look for in a good prospectus. In most cases, prospectuses are being reviewed because people are considering entrusting you with something: the freedom of advancing to candidacy; a job; grant money; a book contract. They need to know if their trust will be well placed, and that you are a good bet to follow through on your proposed work. Questions that often arise in this regard are as follows:
  • How interesting and important is this study? (will we have helped make an important contribution if we support this work?)
  • Is the study feasible? Can it be done in a reasonable time frame?
  • Can this author produce an excellent dissertation/book? (nobody wants to back a shoddy effort)
Your prospectus should address the first of these concerns head-on and show the reader exactly why your project is important, interesting, and, if possible, relevant to broad (human/social/political/cultural) concerns. The second two questions are a little tougher to address. Often, they emerge because the project appears to be too broad or ambitious in scope or not yet completely formulated. Or perhaps the readers have concerns about the author's scholarship. If you are concerned that your dissertation prospectus describes a project that appears too big to be successfully completed, you should discuss this with your dissertation director; this might be a signal that you need to reconsider your project's structure. As for the scholarship issue, you can best address this by making sure to show that you are completely in charge of the scholarly apparatus of your project: you know what you're talking about in regard to the scholarly debates, and you give sufficient (and the right) citations. (A negative example: if you say you're the first person to study a particular topic, you had better be right!)

Dissertations are works in progress. If you have read these suggestions in preparation for writing a dissertation prospectus, you may be feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps you worry that you don't know how to address all the issues raised in the five key questions outlined above. This is probably because your dissertation topic and/or organization has not been thoroughly worked out yet. Indeed, many students find it hard to be decisive about the shape, topic, and issues in a dissertation until they are well into the writing (which is why more advanced students tend to write better prospectuses than those just starting their research, and, not coincidentally, compete better for jobs and grants). If your dissertation is still in its early stages, you may have to bluff a little to produce a cogent prospectus, and even resign yourself to remaining a bit speculative in places about features of your project. But you should also see whatever difficulties you have in writing your prospectus as diagnostic of the work have yet to do in planning your dissertation: if you are having trouble articulating the topic, you probably need to think it through more thoroughly; if you are uncomfortable with your rationale for undertaking the project, perhaps you need to do more research on previous approaches; if you have trouble summarizing your chapters, perhaps you need to spend some time on either the organization of the dissertation or on the content of the individual chapters. This exercise is worth the effort: a dissertation prospectus will probably be the first draft of all the other prospectuses to follow.

Some other resources:
Przeworski & Salomon, "On the Art of Writing Proposals"
Sydel Silverman, "Writing Grant Proposals for Anthropological Research"

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