I have read countless dissertation proposals and few of them are, well, good.  That’s a shame, and not only because I often find the experience aggravating.  After all the hoops of courses, languages, and exams that you’ve jumped through, the dissertation proposal is your first real introduction to academia.  The dissertation proposal not only lays the groundwork for an effective dissertation completed in a timely fashion, but also introduces you to the genre of the book proposal, of which you will hopefully write many more throughout your career.

There are many, many books and essays devoted to writing a dissertation proposal.  So many that it would be relatively easy to spend months simply reading them rather than getting on with your own actual writing and research.  They can be useful, and for some they help alleviate anxiety, but the basics of proposal writing are, in the end, rather simple.

The most important thing to remember about a proposal is that it is a “specification document.”  It is a road map for how you will be spending your time over the next year or two.  It thus almost never needs to be more than about 15 pages, double spaced, including bibliography.  It is not a place for you to hone your creative writing skills.  It is not a place to prove that you have done all the reading for your preliminary exams (from which you might still be recovering) or to prove that you are the smartest person in the program with jargon or what not.  It is certainly not the place to repeat all kinds of information that your professors already know.  These are the most common mistakes that I see; many students think that this is a far more complicated and involved document than it really should be.  It should be written so that anybody in your department can flip through it and in no more than about ten minutes have a good sense of what you are doing.

The most important part of the document, by far, is the question that your dissertation is going to try to answer.  Nobody expects you to have an answer yet, although you may have a good sense already of the argument you think you want to make.  By this stage, though, you need to be able to articulate a clear and precise question and to convey succinctly why it is an important question.  This question – which should have a question mark – you should print and paste to the top of your computer.  This is your question, and everything you will be doing from now until you complete your dissertation should be directed toward answering it.

Next you need to specify your approach to the question.  This really involves three parts.  If appropriate, will you use a different theoretical framework from those who have approached the question before?  What are your sources – are any of them newly used to answer this question?  What is your method?

That’s about it.  I often like to see a short chapter outline, timetable, and select bibliography at the end.  The bibliography should be no more than two pages and include only those works with which you will be most directly in dialogue.

Your advisor’s primary job through this stage is to help you to articulate a good question.  A good question is one that: (1) is significant for the discipline; (2) can be answered with the agreed-upon methods and sources in the agreed-upon time.   If others read it, they too really just want to know the answer to two questions: Does this plan have an excellent chance of yielding a dissertation?  Is the question being answered significant enough to warrant a dissertation?

The prospectus will also serve as the basis for future grant proposals and job letters, most of these addressed to those outside of your field.  The sooner that you can explain what you are doing succinctly in a way that “ordinary” readers think is interesting, the better.  You might try your parents as readers of your prospectus to see if you succeeded.

There are no tricks to prospectus writing.  It is a relatively straight-forward process designed to yield a relatively straight-forward document.

Now get to work.

Note:  You know you should never take medical, financial, professional, or spiritual advice from random websites.  So too here, please consult your advisor or Director of Graduate Studies before actually using any of the advice offered here!