Leslie Leonard is a Ph.D. candidate in American Literature and American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can follow her on twitter @lesliemleo.
The prospectus is often a frightening step in one’s program, as it opens the door to full ABD status and is the initial guiding document for one’s dissertation. Despite knowing dissertation topics change and the proposal is a work of speculative fiction, it can be easy to spend more time on a prospectus than is necessary. However, as with many aspects of the graduate program, sometimes what is most important is that it is done.
Other contributors have provided excellent resources that take a long view of one’s path from classes to exams and, finally, the dissertation. However, there’s little talk about the actualities of the prospectus itself. While all programs and fields will have different requirements for students’ proposals, it’s time we think about how to get from a blank Word document to a submittable draft.
Revisit Your Exams
You didn’t always live in prospectus limbo. In fact, just a short while ago you were completing your comprehensive exams (remember how awesome you are at grad school?). While it’s tempting to lock your exam papers in a deep desk drawer and never relive that period of your life again, the ideas from your exams can actually help move your prospectus forward.
Revisiting your exams can revitalize your inspiration for your project, remind you of a new research path brought up during the exam, and even supply some great opportunities to steal your own ideas. There’s no shame in copying your best thoughts and phrases from your written exams into your early prospectus draft, and, if you find yourself staring down a blank page, it could be just the thing to get you typing again.
Read Other’s Work
I don’t mean dive back into your shaky stack of library books. In fact, I recommend giving your secondary sources a momentary breather. Instead, it’s time to access the prospectuses (and maybe even dissertations) that have already been successfully submitted in your department.
If you’ve never seen a prospectus before, this step is vital. Reading your peers’ submitted work can give you a sense of how to organize your own prospectus, how to begin drafting, and how to phrase your own intervention into the field. Reading others’ work can also make the process seem more accessible and less intimidating.
Outline the Big Picture
During drafting it can be easy to lose yourself in the minutiae of writing, editing, synthesizing, quoting, and so on. In these cases, it’s sometimes best to back up and take a bird’s eye view of the situation. If you find yourself lost in your own draft, or even unsure of where to start articulating your project, it might be time to go back to the drawing board, maybe literally.
Like the string-and-corkboard configurations of a conspiracy theorist, it’s time to outline the broader goals, themes, and major points of your larger project. When you imagine your dissertation – the chapters, topics, major landmarks, studies, or authors – what comes to mind? What are the goals of your project? What are its interventions? Who is it in conversation with?
Your committee will expect you to know the answers to these questions as you start writing, and it’s work that you can start now in a more low-stakes way. So, draw up an outline, a mind map, or a corkboard of sticky notes. Remember to keep your eyes on the bigger picture, and the job of articulating that picture clearly to your audience, as you dive into the work of generating a prospectus draft.
Generate Your Own Deadlines
This tip might seem obvious, and, as someone who has navigated their way to this point of the graduate experience, you likely have some experience doing this already. Still, it can be all too easy to fall into the empty gulf that exists between your exams and your prospectus so creating (and sticking to) your own deadlines is a crucial skill.
When setting deadlines for your prospectus there are a few things to consider. First, you’ll want to consider when you want to be dissertating in order to give yourself enough time to finish. Secondly, take into consideration fellowship deadlines that might require your prospectus to be filed before you apply. Finally, think about how long you want to realistically spend on the document before you reach the point of diminishing returns and it’s time to say “it’s done.” Along with long-term deadlines, setting weekly writing goals can help move the work along faster, and using your peers as accountability partners will make sure that you’re not stuck in one place for too long.
Be Honest with Your Advisor
As I mentioned in the previous tip, when it comes to the prospectus there is a point of diminishing returns. Because it is a speculative piece about what the dissertation might look like, there’s only so much it can do. This means that eventually there comes a point when you’ll need to call it finished and move on to the work of dissertating. However, in order to recognize this moment when it appears, you’ll need to have honest conversations with your advisor about what they expect from your prospectus, what you expect the prospectus to look like, and how the document can best serve you as you move forward.
Now is not the time for shyness. In fact, the more honest you are with your advisor about your goals for your own work – why you’re in graduate school, what you want out of the program, what you envision your project doing or looking like – the sooner the two of you can join forces to tackle the prospectus in a way that makes sense for you.
What have you found most helpful as you worked on your prospectus?