Before you can write a dissertation, you must write a dissertation proposal. How to do that is worth a closer look.
In my July 24 column, "It's a Dissertation, Not a Book," I emphasized the importance of viewing a dissertation in practical terms, beginning with the fact that it is, first and foremost, the credential for a Ph.D.
Questions about what a doctoral dissertation should look like are essentially teaching questions. Professors are finally starting to ask those questions, especially in the humanities, where they most need to be asked. Commentators like Louis Menand, a writer and Harvard professor, and Sidonie Smith, recent president of the Modern Language Association, have suggested that we revamp the dissertation into something radically different. Menand proposes—polemically, perhaps—that a single scholarly article stand in for the omnibus that we currently demand, while Smith calls more generally for a reconception of the traditional dissertation in light of new possibilities offered by technology and the kinds of work patterns (such as greater collaboration) that it engenders.
Certainly such conversations about the future of the dissertation should continue. But even as we seek to devise new and better approaches, we're stuck—for now—with what we have, and we have to figure out how best to work with it. The dissertation process is the longest stage of graduate education and it begins with the proposal, the crafting of which is dominated by a few central and simple yet elusive truths.
The purpose of a dissertation proposal 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.
In the laboratory sciences, the dissertation proposal—or, as it is often called, the prospectus—is increasingly viewed as an implied contract with the adviser (who will finance the work in his or her lab) and the committee. If the approved experiments are then conducted, the thesis will usually be acceptable even if the results don't support the initial hypothesis. That understanding removes the incentive for publication bias or fraud, but it also attaches understandable weight to the experimental plan. The point is that it remains a plan. That sense of its provisional nature needs to be stressed.
A dissertation proposal is not an essay. In the humanities and some of the social sciences, a proposal looks a lot like an essay, but it differs in one fundamental respect: While an essay must prove a thesis, a proposal needs only to advance one. It's enough, in other words, for a proposal writer to demonstrate an argument and show how to prove it at a later date—given approval, space, and time.
A dissertation proposal is not a mini-dissertation. If a dissertation is a small world that you (as god of the microcosm) will bring into being, a proposal is a map of that space within the larger universe. The emphasis here is on the idea of mapping rather than creating. Before you can become a god and invent your own world, you have to become a cartographer.
That means that the goal in your proposal is not to create your world, but rather to suggest what it will look like when you do create it. Because you're mapping a world that doesn't exist (and here my metaphor becomes strained), you should imagine that you're diagramming a place you haven't been to yet.
It's a common mistake for a proposal writer to fall into writing the actual dissertation in the process of laying it out. That's not entirely a bad thing: It offers you a head start. But because students and faculty members too often misunderstand the nature of the project, most dissertation proposals take too long to complete. Students should ordinarily finish writing the proposal in three to six months, and their advisers need to recognize the point at which students should be turned loose to work on their actual dissertations. It's far too common for advisers to put students through needless extra drafts of the purpose, perfecting a document that doesn't need to be perfect because it's just a step on a long road. Extending the proposal stage only makes that road longer and more costly.
For their part, students generally don't recognize the proposal for what it is, either: a provisional document that marks a point of transition, not a polished work of compressed scholarship that need only be inflated to become a dissertation.
A proposal describes your project from both inside and outside. First, the inside stuff:
A proposal puts forth your argument. It points toward how it will be proved, giving well-chosen examples without unspooling them in detail. A few exemplary details will help illustrate your presentation, but a profusion of them will distract. Such details serve the purpose of demonstrating—not fully proving—your argument.
A proposal describes how your argument will fit together. What examples will you use, in what order, and why? How is the argument sequenced and subordinated? You will probably need to provide a chapter outline, but you should offer a clear and extended overview of your argument long before that.
A proposal outlines methodology. How will you make your argument? What theoretical, historical, contextual, and interpretative tools will you use? Will you employ any particular approach?
Your proposal should fit your dissertation topic. A proposal to edit a scholarly edition, to pick one exceptional possibility, will require a different presentation than a dissertation laid out in the model of a monograph (introduction plus four chapters on related topics). The shoe must fit the foot and not the other way around.
From the outside:
You need to show the place of your dissertation in the critical field. Which field and subfield conversations will your project enter, and how? Which critics will you be building on, and which ones will you be revising? Your dissertation marks your formal entry into the community of scholars, a world of intellectuals engaging in overlapping conversations of varying size and scope. Your proposal must show your awareness of those multiple discourses and show the place your research will occupy within them.
Accordingly, you should include a thorough bibliography in your proposal so that readers may look at what works you plan to consult, as well as those you have consulted already. Your committee will review that list and use it as the basis for further suggestions.
Finally, I offer proposal writers a commandment and a postulate.
The 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. I've seen many graduate students teach their undergraduates to collaborate without realizing that they're not following their own advice. (That is a mistake I made often enough myself.) You should not imagine that you will be writing your proposal on your own. Instead, draw on the experience of your peers, and especially your adviser, as you shape your topic so that it may be the most relevant, the most challenging, and the most marketable later on.
The postulate: Your dissertation will be different from your proposal. That's to be expected—and the differences can be substantial. Your proposal outlines a hypothetical dissertation: what your thesis looks like to you from where you stand now. The goal of a proposal is not that it should outline your future dissertation. Rather, it should outline one possible dissertation, and do so plausibly.
If you can offer up a credible possible dissertation based on your ideas, then it follows that the dissertation you actually wind up writing will benefit from this early exercise. Your proposal will get finished faster, and so will your dissertation—because unlike diamonds, dissertation proposals (and dissertations) are not forever. And graduate school shouldn't be, either.