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Home » teaching » What they told you is wrong: The prospectus, proposal, and the dissertation

What they told you is wrong: The prospectus, proposal, and the dissertation

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If your to-do list contains a row for “write one page of dissertation,” you can move your little pony magnet to the mommy happy column on the fridge when you get it done. (Artwork by 古矢英玲奈 mixed media and magnets, 2019)

There is a lot of misinformation surrounding the prospectus, the proposal, and the dissertation. This may be so because this task is one left to advisement and mentorship rather than formal instruction. An open and critical discussion on the purposes of these documents rarely happens among scholars for good reason. The interpretation of these documents are unique to the research context, and the mentor. Even so, I feel there is much to be gained from an open discussion about the meaning of these documents; I welcome any comments on this. When doctoral students do not understand the purposes behind these documents, their completion may appear like administrative hoop-jumping rather than learning.  While I do not wish to dictate to other faculty how to view these three documents, clarification around the purposes allow a mentor and mentee smoother communication, and hopefully less frustration. I have written this explanation for my own doc students, Katie and Sam, and share it here.

The prospectus

The prospectus is a plan to study something. This plan is written down on paper for the purposes of facilitating discussions with faculty one might want on their committee. Writing the prospectus supports the candidate’s muddling through complex methodological and topical areas to form a team whereby a research strategy can be collaboratively orchestrated by the doctoral candidate. Of course, the writing process always helps clarify plans, but that’s not the immediate practical value of the task. If you assembled a team, you had a successful prospectus.

One thing a prospectus is not—an abstract of the dissertation. While sentences from the prospectus may in fact appear in the proposal or even in the final dissertation, the prospectus is not to be written as an attempt to capture a study in its entirety. Rather, the purpose of the prospectus is to start the discussion enough to assemble the team. The team is going to want to know what your plan is about so they can see where they might fit in, and that the topic is going to jive well enough with your life plans such that there’s a reasonable expectation that you’re going to finish the study. Red flags include academic jargon that seems unconnected to the learner’s larger picture of life goals, or text written purely to satisfy the interests of the faculty member. Effectively, you are looking for their buy-in, on your study, not theirs. Assembling a team requires that buy-in, and among scholars, buy-in is achieved only when ideas meet paper (or digital paper, you know what I mean).

The prospectus is not a written form of your dissertation elevator pitch. Instead, it’s a sales pitch and with that, all the subtle intricacies of sales play into it.  There are a fair number of subconscious elements at work here, including your presentation evidencing that you’re organized enough and cooperative enough to make this working together experience relatively enjoyable for the faculty member. Having your ideas written down makes them real- both in what is said and how it is said. The prospectus need not capture all perspectives, but it should convey enough to the reader knows why you’re in it and how they fit into your study. There is also risk on the side of the learner that the faculty member does not become invested,  and at the same time, the faculty member risks that the student never completes the study. These issues are being felt out in the prospectus process. In real and concrete terms, the prospectus should outline the plan in no fewer than two pages and no more than ten. Having sections mirroring the sections one might find in a dissertation is helpful. These guidelines surely vary among mentors.

The proposal

The proposal is a refined plan of action. It should capture the conversations supported in the prospectus, yet none of the language that appeared in the prospectus need be in the proposal. There is a common adage that the proposal is the first 3 chapters of your dissertation. After I completed my dissertation, going back and changing much of what I had in my original proposal, I felt this was untrue. However, this did not stop me from telling other people that the proposal was the first three chapters of the dissertation; it’s an easy description to fall back on when time is short and one need not get into a longwinded blog post about the purposes of a proposal. This refined plan of action’s purpose is to support the candidate both in laying out directions, and support the candidate’s self-efficacy surrounding the study.

An approved proposal guides the research process. The proposal should support even the most frustrated dissertating candidate because it is a document that, when approved, evidences that the candidate came up with a reasonable, manageable, and worthwhile plan for study and that plan was approved by those who should be able to foresee any issues that can be foreseen. Think bumper rails. Candidates should recognize that part of the purpose of the proposal is to get the scope of the study under control, and manageable. If you’re bring entertained by collecting and analyzing more data beyond what was in your proposal, it is not likely that such activities will be welcomed y the committee unless you check with them. Research studies can organically grow too large to complete. The committee’s oversight is there to make sure the project does not become too large, or wander into territory outside of the reasonable expectations of a first independent study (which is a dissertation after all). I advocate catching up with your committee every once-in-a-while to stay on track. If we look at the proposal as a confirmation that the candidate has the support of four learned scholars who agreed that the candidate had created worthwhile study that is manageable in scope, then the document should support self-efficacy.  The proposal is also to support and scaffold the learner through self-doubt and frustrating times when things don’t go as planned. That leads to the well intended by logically false contract adage.

While logically wrong, there is another adage that the proposal is a contract. A proposal cannot be a contract because a contract outlines what happens when certain foreseen events happen; and unforeseen events void the contract. Unexpected results don’t void your dissertation proposal though. Research is by definition new territory, so not everything can be predicted.  Therefore, a proposal cannot be a contract; the logic simply does not hold. However, the adage is a confidence builder for the student because it offers reliability that the student will not be left in the lurch should things not pan out as expected. It is a way of telling the student that if they in fact do what they planned to do, the process will result in a worthwhile dissertation no matter what the results show. Contracts do not plan for the unexpected, but in the context of a dissertation, there are often feelings of self-doubt, and at times, panic. The contract adage works against the panic, even if the adage is false. A proposal is a detailed plan, but no plan is perfect, and contracts are not plans. While contracts are not written for unknown entities, this way of thinking about the process is a good one; don’t bother arguing the semantics here. Just go with it.

In real and concrete terms, the prospectus should range from approximately 30 pages to no more than 100, and 100 is still really long. These guidelines surely vary among mentors. A proposal of less than 30 pages may raise concerns; it would for me. Not because committees measure quality by word count, but rather because detail is so important. The lit review in the proposal is important ground work. The methods need to be spelled out or cited extensively so procedures are obvious. The committee needs to know why you’re going to do the things you’re going to do, and how you’re planning on doing them requires detailed planning that needs to be discussed. A little working of real data goes a long way in playing out the plan; good to have, but it doesn’t need to be in the proposal. Sometimes that data is not available, but usually, there’s a way to get at least a small sample, enough to make that proposal a really good guess. Of course, you can use previous data, but the closer your data is to the data you will use for the dissertation itself, the better your guess will be. You may well see important things that change your analytical plan in major ways. The task of the committee is to help you get to your goal, and without sufficient planning, you might lose a lot of time in rethinking things.

A proposal of more than 100 pages will raise concerns. Not because committee members are getting old and feeble, making it difficult for us to read for long stretches, but excessive writing suggests you’re over planning, or can get sucked into a rabbit hole. It is important to let go of the writing process and submit it at some point. No writing project is ever truly finished, by life does march on by if you don’t submit it.

The dissertation

The dissertation is a show-all-work, independent, original research task. It’s not a magnum opus. And no matter what you have been told, your dissertation does not define you as a scholar. I have also heard people call the dissertation simply a book, but it’s not the same as a monograph. A dissertation must please 4 committee members. Books don’t necessarily have to do that. Rather, a dissertation places you in a field of study as someone who has contributed. It should connect you to the field you want to be in when you finish it, but if it doesn’t, you’re not going to be doomed. I think strategizing the dissertation takes more time than actually writing it. I would encourage all doc students to start thinking about the dissertation from the start of doc study. Big ideas don’t change; it’s the details of how to get it done that change. I came to doctoral study wanting to study the way people learn language because I was convinced that the way you talk has enormous influence on the quality of life that you lead. After a few years of more graduate study I learned what types of language I wanted to study, and some nifty tools that gave me access to study it. My dissertation topic was the same the day I left as it was the day I arrived. The tech I used to do it was not all that important. What I learned was how to do research.

Long awaited conclusion to this dry blog post

The relationships between these three documents are actually not linear, though they may appear so. One need not finish the prospectus to start the proposal. Each of these documents serve different purposes. There are some tricks that help the writing process. For example, for each research question you write, imagine the possible answers and write down what meaning those outcomes would have. This will make writing the discussion chapter much easier. Try not to be too hard on yourself. Make small, accomplish-able writing goals. For me, I had each chapter in a separate word file, and if I wrote a page a day, on any of them, I considered it a good day. I decided to be happy with myself for that day, even if it was just one page. I wrote a page (500 words), I had worked. Of course, there were days where I wrote a lot more, but I found the key was having no days where I wrote nothing. A day where you write nothing, or do nothing, is your enemy. Those days can pile up fast, as can days where you write just 500 words. You’ll find each chapter done in about 3 three weeks.

I also advocate being cognizant of the people skills beneath the dissertation process. How to navigate scholars and communicate with a committee of very different minded individuals is important learning and part of the process. Lastly, the doctoral research experience is not meant to be uniform. All PhDs do not serve the same purpose nor the same learning. It should do what you want it to do for you, and revisiting that at some point during each of these documents is wise. Each new scholar finds value in different places. For some, the people skills are the most important and the most crucial. For some, it is in fact the writing. For some, it is the defense itself. Some PhD’s are pursued to get a job, some to enter a field of research, some to enter a career in teaching. I believe that in all these cases, the dissertation serves as an exercise, albeit a very formalized, careful, and important exercise. In the end, it is training, an education. The dissertation is an exercise in creating knowledge and convincing others who have also consumed a fair bit of related knowledge to agree in the value of this knowledge that you created.

While everyone’s dissertation experience is different, the three stages of prospectus, proposal, and dissertation unify the experience among all scholars. I think most who have earned a PhD will understand what one means by these three documents though they may not actually have the time to explain the nuances, and will often take the easy outs provided by the adages. The misinformation is not borne of malice, rather of trepidation that their experience is unique, which it is. At the same time, I do not believe anyone who actually went through this process knew the differences among these docs when they started. I sure didn’t.


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