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Path to the Prospectus

Committing to a dissertation topic.

February 18, 2015

Emily VanBuren is a PhD student in History at Northwestern University. You can find her on Twitter at @emilydvb or at her blog, dighistorienne.


Last quarter, after surviving coursework, qualifying exams, and the dissertation proposal, at long last, I arrived at the glorious land of being ABD. Along the way, I’ve taken advantage of many of the strategies suggested here on GradHacker, and have found the archive of advice and reflections very helpful. But when it came time to fulfill the final phase of the candidacy process — writing and defending the dissertation prospectus — I found fewer resources here (but found these two especially useful).


So as I settle into the long process of dissertation research, I thought I’d share a couple of things I learned while writing and revising my prospectus. (Disclaimer: I’m an historian, so some pieces of this list might prove less helpful to grad students in other disciplines.)


1. It’s okay to change your mind. I came into my graduate program with a clear idea of what I wanted to research. I had identified a primary research question and potential archives, as well as the body of secondary literature into which I hoped to write. Part way through my second year, I realized that this project was not quite what I wanted to spend the next several years of my life investigating. I still found it really interesting, but suddenly felt less certain about committing to this project long-term. Something just felt off. I’d often heard more advanced graduate students and academics say that it’s common to change course from the dissertation idea you come into your PhD with (especially since many projects start large and gradually become narrower). And because so much of the dissertation depends on what one’s sources deliver anyway, I know that the project proposed in the prospectus might look different from the one I end up writing. But as an obsessive planner, this was still a slightly alarming experience. It proved such a valuable opportunity, though, because it forced me to step back from my research and reevaluate what seemed most interesting and important about it.


2. Writing the prospectus can feel a little bit like performing surgery on your ideas. During the process of reevaluating my project, I found that breaking it apart into smaller research questions was helpful. I made a list of all of the questions and sub-topics I still found fascinating. I also made a list of the smaller research ideas I’d jotted down over the past two years, that I didn’t plan to incorporate into my dissertation research, but which I hoped to investigate someday. I spent some time reading through documents I’d found in the archives, which seemed unrelated to my project but which I found interesting enough to photograph and store away for the future. I started noticing a pattern among these miscellaneous documents and “someday” projects. I found one particular source I’d filed away (a newspaper article from 1938) that clarified everything for me. I realized what I really wanted to ask. I started shuffling all of these questions and materials around, stitching them together into a coherent project. I realized that my original dissertation question would work really well as a single chapter in this new project. Once I found the link between my collection of questions, ideas, and archival materials, everything came together very quickly. I had been setting myself up for this project all along. I just didn’t realize it. My remodeled dissertation topic felt like a much better fit, and allowed me to salvage the questions from my original project in a more compelling way. The process of connecting so many of my interests into one dissertation topic was invigorating.


3. Coursework is a really valuable opportunity to rehearse your questions and to get to grips with the secondary literature. I used research papers and course assignments during my first two years of the PhD to try out versions of my dissertation question on a small scale. I took advantage of required literature reviews to get acquainted with relevant scholarship, and research papers to try out a couple of archival documents at a time. But in addition to allowing me to familiarize myself with relevant scholarship and materials, these miniature assignments are what helped me to realize that my initial research question wasn’t quite right for me. And coursework forced me to think critically about topics far afield from my own, helping me to ask new questions of my evidence and project.


4. Keeping an eye on the dissertation prospectus can make reading for qualifying exams more enjoyable. No matter how much you love your discipline or your research field, exams are hard and stressful. Reading a mountain of books and articles in order to demonstrate mastery of content, scholarly debates, and methodologies is enriching but also a lot of work. But thinking about where my project fits in with the major themes and developments in my field helped me to corral all of this information and remain invested.


5. Grant proposals are really good practice for the prospectus, and vice versa. Learning to pitch my new research idea, hypothesis, and methodology in writing, within the parameters of just a few pages, was challenging but incredibly useful. Thinking about why someone might find my dissertation compelling enough to fund it forced me to be really clear with myself about my contributions to existing scholarship, and explicit about which archival sources I needed and how I planned to use them. Agonizing over figuring out the right turn of phrase or example that conveyed all of this in such a concise format helped me to clarify what I planned to do. All of this was really helpful when it came time to write up a long-form version of my dissertation proposal, so that I already had a clear structure and getting to go into greater detail felt like a luxury.


6. Talking about writing can be more helpful than writing. Discussing your research project with a mentor or chatting with a friend over coffee or having a phone conversation with a long-distance pal when your prospectus is not in front of you can be really freeing. You don’t get bogged down in the way you’ve already asked your questions or envisioned your chapter outline. You have to get your idea out of your head without this crutch, and try to explain to someone else why you’re interested in the project. It can be especially useful to talk about your dissertation with someone who is not in your field at all, because you have to express your ideas in cogent, non-specialist terms (good practice for grant-writing!). Some of the reading suggestions and offhanded comments I received when just talking about my project with other people helped me to see my dissertation in a new way. Sometimes my friends asked questions about things that had seemed obvious to me, and this forced me to be more explicit about my contributions and arguments. It’s also encouraging when you realize that your idea is clear and interesting to someone who is not you, especially when making the commitment to a long-term project.


7. Keeping tabs on what’s interesting to you from the beginning saves time and energy. As I mentioned above, working through the assortment of miscellaneous materials I’d collected over the last few years helped me to see the implicit research question that was most interesting to me all along. I was really glad I had kept all of those random letters, photographs, web pages, journal articles, and newspaper clippings. I didn’t do this systematically at all. I just stashed it all into DEVONthink Pro Office (either manually or using the Firefox add-on) as I came across it, and promptly forgot about it. I guess the point here is that it’s a good idea to have one place where you can store all of the loose bits and pieces of your research interests, even if they don’t seem related to what you’re working on right now. You might opt for software (like Zotero), a simple Dropbox folder, or even a designated notebook or desk drawer where you stash notecards.


And because I think this last tip is most important, I’ll use it to wrap up here: Everyone’s path to the prospectus is different. You might get lucky and come into the PhD with the question you end up chasing. You might come in with no clear idea and stumble around for a while until you land on the question that speaks to you along with the evidence to investigate it. You might try out one idea and find that it’s not quite the right fit or difficult to answer with extant materials before transitioning to another. I know people who fall into all of these categories. Don’t get too frustrated, don’t compare your approach to anyone else’s, and enjoy the prospectus for what it is — a process that helps you transition into another process.

[Image by Flickr user LendingMemo and used under Creative Commons licensing]


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