Friday, July 3, 2015

On writing a prospectus for a dissertation

The closest approximation to my dissertation-writing process I could find online.
Recently, I was talking with a few grad students from my PhD program about the process for writing a dissertation prospectus. At UT-Austin, the prospectus process is fairly rigorous (possibly in part because there are no qualifying exams to move on to ABD status). These students are at the beginning stages of prospectus work and wanted to know how others went about their year of committee-selection, writing, and research.

Hindsight is, as they say 20-20, and looking back at my prospectus year, I think I could have spent a bit longer refining my project. However, the benefit of defending at the end of year three (the suggested time frame for a projected five-year PhD) was that I could take advantage of being in candidacy for teaching within the university for a longer time, and I had a mental block removed to dissertation-writing. While the details of how a dissertation proposal works will vary among institutions, below are a few reflections I had for these students. In a cursory search of the philosophy blogosphere, I didn't find a lot of links on the topic. If I find some, I'll put them up.

In retrospect, I defended (a bit) too early. I could have used an extra semester to sharpen my focus. Some of that was because I hadn't dug deeply enough into the relevant literature to see the challenge that I was taking on -- the initial project was very wide-ranging. That was the major criticism I got at the defense--I had too much. It was right. 
However, I wouldn't have put it off that much longer, perhaps only asked more direct questions of my committee earlier on, such as (1) do you think that the project is feasible in this form? (2) is the project making a contribution? (3) what gaps in the relevant literature do I have?  
In terms of the committee, you are (as I understand) able to change your committee after the prospectus, so consider it provisional. What I did was set up conference courses with some potential members and used the time as a way to develop my bibliography. I then chose other members who I thought would give good feedback and met with them on a relatively regular basis. For the dissertation committee, I changed one member for an outside committee member. 
What worked for me may not work for you, but I think having a goal of when you want to defend and working backwards by setting rough draft dates for your various pieces is the way to go. Then figure out which faculty members you think you might be able to work with, see if they're on board, and find a way to meet regularly and have them actually looking at your work. 
Ultimately, they shouldn't let you defend a prospectus if you aren't ready (some outliers exist, but I think usually that's what happens) and the defense will be hard, but even if you pass with changes, remember that the goal is for you to have a strong project that will give you publishable pieces of work and a contribution that will help you get a job--so you will have to keep revising!
I'd like to hear what others have to say about their dissertation proposal process. What would you have done differently? What would you recommend to those just starting out? One thing I didn't say which I would also emphasize is that it is easy to get paralyzed by having to read everything. At a certain point, you ought to just start writing. There is time to revise, but revising doesn't happen without something, not matter how rough.