Regulations for Graduate Study – Appendix B: How to Write a Dissertation Prospectus

The Pre-Prospectus Stage

The dissertation prospectus process can be a long one – for many people it is at least a year from the moment when you first start to think about a topic until the defense of the proposal itself.

Here are some things to think about/do to help you get to the proposal writing stage:

  1. Talk regularly to your advisor and other committee members about your ideas.
  2. Use seminar papers/comprehensive exam readings to help you uncover ideas for the dissertation (review and “state of the field” essays can be especially helpful).
  3. Think about scholars whose style/methodological approach you enjoy and might want to use as a model for your work.
  4. Read prefaces/acknowledgements/footnotes/bibliographies of books in your field to identify archives of interest and people with whom you will want to talk. Take notes and visit the websites of relevant archives.
  5. Keep a weekly record of the notes, ideas, and conversations you’ve had with committee members, classmates, people you’ve met at conferences etc.
  6. Share your ideas with scholars in your field in your department to make sure your study won’t be the tenth one on that subject in the last five years.
  7. Is the project feasible for you? Know your own working style and design a project that works within those parameters. What constraints (family, health, financial) might limit your ability to access archives etc.?
  8. In consultation with your dissertation director, put together a dissertation committee in which each member can make a unique contribution either in terms of topic area expertise, or because of particular skill sets (e.g. ability to help you conceptualize ideas/willingness to read written work carefully/methodological overlap).

Writing the Prospectus

Your dissertation prospectus should be a clear, succinct statement of the problem you propose to investigate in the dissertation and your plans for executing the project. It is NOT the place for a comprehensive literature review. Your purpose is not to demonstrate that you know the field; your purpose is to tell your committee and any other interested party what it is you propose to do.

Length – aim for 15 pages, with a maximum of 20 (INCLUDING the bibliography).

The dissertation prospectus is one of a variety of pieces of writing that will require you to make succinct statements about your project. Perhaps its greatest utility comes when writing fellowship and grant proposals, many of which will require you to cover similar ground. Writing a good dissertation prospectus can therefore be the gateway to successful funding applications. BUT! Don’t tie yourself in knots trying to write the perfect document. Dissertation prospectuses are by definition imperfect documents because they demand that you lay out an argument before you have completed your research. Your dissertation will change as you engage your material and shifts in emphasis are normal and expected as the project develops.

Typical sections of a dissertation prospectus

  1. Introduction which provides basic context/background
  2. SHORT literature review/historiography
  3. Dissertation question/argument you will make
  4. Significance of the project (otherwise known as the “so what?”)
  5. Methodology/approach (this section can take various forms – describing your approach to your material [e.g. social history, cultural history, intellectual history, political history, etc.]; noting the chief methodological/theoretical influences you intend to draw upon; or offering particular themes and how they might translate into chapter topics).
  6. Research Agenda/Plan – this is where you will share the archives you will visit and the documents you wish to see.
  7. Chapter breakdown – give you committee a preliminary sense of how your dissertation will be structured and what kinds of topics/sources will inform each portion of the whole.
  8. Estimated time-table with completion dates for research and writing each chapter.
  9. Bibliography focused on the literature most pertinent to your dissertation topic.

Tips for getting started

Don’t feel obligated to sit down and write the proposal in order from start to finish. Begin with whatever section you feel most ready to complete and put the document together as you go.

Pull out relevant ideas from your notes and cut-and-paste them into each section: pay particular attention to those notes that deal with the big questions in your dissertation, the argument, major historiographical intervention, etc.

Some thought-clarifying exercises

  1. The elevator pitch: imagine you are in an elevator and only have a minute before the doors open to explain your project to everyone in the elevator. This exercise will force you to identify the most salient points about your dissertation and its argument.
  2. Subject, Angle, Take: every history dissertation has a subject it addresses, an angle through which the subject is approached, and a take (the author’s argument). Identifying these elements will allow you to write the various sections of your proposal.
  3. Fill in the blank: Finish the following sentences
    1. My dissertation argues that…
    2. My dissertation poses the key question…
    3. My dissertation innovates by…

The Prospectus Defense

Talk to your committee members about their expectations for your proposal defense.

Share drafts of your proposal with everyone on your committee so you can deal with any major issues BEFORE the defense.

Take the opportunity during the defense to absorb as much feedback as possible and follow up on all committee suggestions as you proceed with the dissertation writing process.

Return to Regulations for Graduate Study main page.