Dissertation Prospectus Defenses as a Scholarly Conversation

In reflecting on my own experience in my dissertation prospectus meeting I realized how little is known by graduate students about what these documents look like and what happens in these meetings. Here are a few thoughts on getting from post-comps to post-prospectus.

A few months ago I found my efforts to write my dissertation prospectus grounded by a frustrating set of attempts to gain site access for my dissertation research and a kind of lingering insecurity over what this document was supposed to be about anyways. While coping with site access ultimately shifted my dissertation content, my anxiety over the actual document was something I had to get over and do so quickly. Thankfully, my committee is incredibly attentive and one of my committee members happened to drop The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Demystifying the Dissertation Proposal,” in my mailbox. Leonard Cassuto’s advice is succinct and was helpful. Cassuto lays out a series of descriptive points that establish what a proposal is not:

  • A dissertation proposal is not an essay.
  • A dissertation proposal is not a mini-dissertation.

He also offers suggestions on what a dissertation proposal is:

  • A proposal puts forth your argument.
  • A proposal describes how your argument will fit together.
  • A proposal outlines methodology.
  • You need to show the place of your dissertation in the critical field.

I found his advice to be enormously helpful, but there is a glaring caveat that Cassuto recognizes in the form of a commandment, “Consult your adviser as you develop your proposal. The myth of the writer as solitary genius striving away in the garret has surprising persistence.” The fact is that a dissertation prospectus can be many things, including the mini-dissertation or essay Cassuto urges you not to write.

For example, as I wrote my prospectus I consulted with a number of my colleagues who had recently written or were writing a prospectus. I discovered that their chairs had advised them to write everything from a fifteen page overview to a two-hundred page proposal with one or two sample chapters. Even more harrowing was that in many cases the chairs demanding these documents happened to be on my committee. Meaning, that even writing my prospectus under careful guidance from my chair, I knew walking into my defense that at least two-fifths of my committee advise their doctoral students to write their documents in radically different ways from what I had written (A 34 page overview of my research orientations, justification for the study, theoretical insights, and chapter overviews).

In the end my document served me well because it accomplished what Cassuto describes as the main purpose of the dissertation prospectus:

The purpose of the dissertation is for it to be approved. Only then can you start writing. A lot of misunderstanding swirls around dissertation proposals. One foundational fact cuts through it: A dissertation proposal has no independent existence. It’s a provisional document, a way station to an eventual goal.

My document accomplished just that. From here, my dissertation is able to get moving. However, it is worth noting that in the actual defense meeting many of the questions that were asked of me called me to answer for what some committee members would have asked their advisees to write in the first place. For example, my theoretical insights, though provisional, were heavily featured in the document. Two committee members needled me with questions about how those insights specifically connect with the actual analytical work with texts I would be doing. These questions could have been nullified had I written a mini-dissertation or provided a sample chapter of some kind. I do not regret writing the proposal I wrote, however, I do find that the document I wrote did as much to determine the tone, pace, and content of the defense meeting as the documents I chose not to write.

Here, as my last point, I want to emphasize that the prospectus document is meant to get you to the meeting so you can talk about your project in front of a panel of experts. The meeting is meant to help clarify issues that may have occluded your view and to engage in a conversation with your committee about the work you plan on doing. Defense, may in fact be the wrong posture for these meetings. I found that my committee members asked tough and important questions, listened carefully to my responses, and pushed me–all of this was not to make me defensive about my project but to aid in widening my field of vision so that I could see important issues I was missing. What emerged is a set of lingering questions that I must attend to in my dissertation, but the tone of the meeting was never defensive. Instead, I found my meeting to be a rigorous and challenging conversation with experts in the field. This conversation model is important because as we progress beyond comps and through the dissertation process we emerge as colleagues instead of students. These meetings, as conversations, help facilitate that movement.

In the end, learn to trust your chair’s intuition about the process but remember that they cannot anticipate everything that can happen in the meeting. As such, prepare by talking with your colleagues and gauging their perceptions of the styles and postures faculty have taken in their meetings. This can provide enormous insight that helps you get past the last hurdle before you write your dissertation (Which is, of course, an entirely different set of anxieties).

For another look at defense meetings see Daren Brabham’s recent post on these meetings.

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5 Comments

Filed under Grad School, Research, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Dissertation Prospectus Defenses as a Scholarly Conversation

  1. Nice job, Guy. Great bit of advice here. I did really poorly in my prospectus defense. I was trying to tackle too much, and my prospectus reflected a scattered plan for many separate projects. Luckily, my committee passed me, but not without a TON of redirection. The resulting dissertation was much more streamlined – smaller, with modest claims and practical focus. And congrats on your own recent defense!

  2. Pingback: Thesis and Exam Defenses « Daren C. Brabham, Ph.D.

  3. Heather Stone

    Good stuff, guy. Thanks

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