The Dissertation Prospectus (Hidden Curriculum #6)

For those of you who are new here, the hidden curriculum includes a set of things we’re expected to know how to do, from attending a conference for the first time to applying for funding to going on the job market, without actually being taught them. This month I’m talking the dissertation prospectus: what it is and how to write it.

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Congratulations, you’re a PhD candidate! You might be either celebrating the fact that you are done with exams and coursework or tentatively wondering, “Now what?” (Or both.) 

While you are definitely free from the constraints of courses and teaching, there still remains one final hurdle before you’re really free (aka ABD): the dissertation prospectus. In this post, I offer some general guidance for navigating this onerous and often inadequately explained requirement.

Writing the dissertation prospectus doesn't have to make you feel like this guy
Writing the dissertation prospectus doesn’t have to feel like this

Prospectus Timeline

As with everything, the timeline for writing and submitting the dissertation prospectus may vary somewhat from department to department. However, in general, there are certain steps that you usually must follow before officially changing your email signature to include “ABD” (all but dissertation).

These steps are, roughly:

  1. Assemble dissertation committee, including deciding on a chair or co-chairs, and submit through appropriate channels
  2. Consult with committee members about dissertation topic and possible approaches
  3. Draft dissertation prospectus
  4. Defend prospectus (aka meet with your committee members to discuss your draft)
  5. Complete revisions and submit prospectus to department for final approval
  6. Start dissertating!

This post focuses primarily on writing the prospectus. If you want to know more about how to approach other steps in this process – such as how to choose who’s on your committee or how to prepare for and what to expect at a defense – let me know!

The Prospectus at a Glance

To be clear, there is no “standard” for what the dissertation prospectus looks like or entails. Every department has their own requirements and expectations, so I urge you to check in with them for specifics. 

As someone who has herself written and submitted a prospectus, what I hope to do here is offer some guiding principles for how to approach writing up that dreaded document.

Although there are differences in what each department expects from a prospectus, there are a few elements that you can almost always expect to include:

  1. Statement of your thesis and the scholarly importance of your topic (or, how has this topic been approached before?)
  2. Problems to be addressed
  3. An outline of current scholarship (or, how is this topic being discussed now?)
  4. Methodologies to be employed and resources needed to successfully carry them out
  5. Tentative subdivisions or chapters
  6. Bibliography

The advice I give below regarding each of these features of the prospectus is provided as a series of questions that you should be thinking about as you plan.

General Considerations

Is there a word limit (in pages or word count)?

Some graduate handbooks are very explicit about this, while others are not. If you fall into a graduate program that offers the latter, make sure that you ask about word and page limits for the prospectus. 

As someone who has frequently turned to Google to answer my PhD-related questions when no formal guidance was provided to me, I will warn you not to do this when it comes to answering this question. A quick survey of graduate handbooks from several institutions (including my own) showed me that the expectations for prospectuses are widely varied; there is no one size fits all approach.  

Is the bibliography included in the word limit?

A related issue is whether or not the bibliography should be counted in your prospectus page count. I was surprised that this was not consistent across Classics departments. Even my own program’s requirements (10-15 pages without bibliography) differ from the departmental requirements (minimum 6 pages with bibliography).

Again, make sure you check in with your department and/or dissertation chair before spending time writing too much or too little.

Is there a timeline that you should be mindful of?

Sometimes there is a stipulation in the graduate handbook that a dissertation should take no more than X number of years to complete. Although this is not always explicitly stated in the handbook, departments usually – if not always – have a clear vision of what timeline graduate students should be on. 

In reality, it’s not uncommon for exceptions to be made and extensions to be granted – hello, ongoing pandemic! – but on paper, departments expect you to be aware that you don’t have forever to complete this project.

Once again, when not made explicit in writing, it’s important to ask about what that timeline looks like. It’s okay to have concerns about whether or not you’ll get everything done in that time frame, and obviously we are all well aware now that life happens in the meantime. 

Nonetheless, make sure that you at least try to appease the powers that be in writing and squeeze your project into their rigid-appearing timeframe. The prospectus isn’t a binding contract; whatever happens after it gets approved happens.

Writing the Prospectus

What is your dissertation topic?

This can arise in any number of ways, but the most common avenues for coming up with your dissertation topic include using a topic from your preliminary examinations, and developing a topic that was discussed in a course you took in previous years.

It might be helpful at this stage to not only think of your dissertation topic as a statement, but also as a question or a series of questions. Once you have your dissertation topic, I recommend brainstorming a list of questions that you might want to answer in the course of your research.

For example, my dissertation research aims to decenter the symposium in conversations about ancient Greek drinking culture because traditional approaches have been largely Athenocentric. Some questions that I am working on answering, and that have formed the basis of several chapters, are:

What evidence has been traditionally used to talk about and define the Greek symposium?

Are literary and iconographic depictions of the symposium meant to be ‘accurate’ representations of the institution?

Can literary authors and especially vase painters be considered ‘authorities’ on what happened at the symposium?

To what extent did Athens interact with other cities on the Greek mainland, especially the northern Greek city of Olynthos?

Why has Athenian evidence (literary, iconographic, and archaeological) been privileged in modern discussions of the symposium?

What questions are you attempting to answer with your dissertation?

Aside from helping you flesh out your dissertation topic, making a list of questions to answer with your dissertation will provide a foundation for organizing your project in a way that makes sense. 

Once you have your list of questions, see if you can rearrange and organize them in coherent groups. Voila! You have (what appear to be) chapters!

How have other scholars addressed this topic? Have you come across any scholarship on or related to this topic in courses you have taken in previous years?

This is a pretty self-explanatory point. 

Do your research. 

Revisit some of the syllabi for the courses you took since you started your graduate program. I wish that someone had told me to do this, rather than flailing around for several weeks (months?) trying to figure out where the heck to start.

I am also pretty fond of doing deep dives into the footnotes and works cited pages of things you’ve already read. You should have enough scholarship cited that you are actually able to talk about in an informed way, especially when explaining the significance and context of your own research. 

But no one ever said you had to have read everything on your prospectus bibliography before you started writing your dissertation. Now that is just absurd.

How are you going to approach your dissertation topic (i.e. what methodologies and/or theoretical frameworks will you use)? What are you doing with this topic that is new and exciting to you?

This primarily involves identifying gaps in scholarship. 

Think about how you can push the boundaries of your discipline in ways that either have never been done before or that build upon otherwise unsatisfactory initial approaches. 

Did you explore interesting methodologies or theoretical frameworks in your prelims? Have you ever attended a lecture and been in awe of an approach or methodology employed by another scholar? Or maybe you took courses outside of your department (such as in anthropology or gender studies) that introduced you to theories that you think should be applied to the study of the ancient world?

Whatever the case may be, don’t be afraid to think outside of the box. It’s okay – and frankly super cool – to do things that no one’s ever tried before. But it’s okay to revisit traditional approaches, too. 

Not everything you do has to be cutting-edge.

What data will you need to complete your dissertation?

In other words, how are you going to make the case that your position on this topic is a good or important one? Data is the answer.

You should be thinking, then, about what kinds of data you’re going to need and how much. Are you primarily using texts? Ceramics? Sculpture? Architecture? 

Once you have your big category, make sure that you narrow down enough to make it specific to your dissertation topic. For example, while my dissertation deals with ceramic evidence for the symposium, I am not looking at every vessel related to the symposium. I have necessarily narrowed it down to a smaller selection of vessels which I felt were most relevant to the questions I was trying to answer.

How will you access that data? How much time will you need to do research (including archaeological fieldwork, archive and museum visits, literary translations, scientific analyses, etc.)?

Ask around about what methods others used in their research. You should inquire not only about how they carried out their research, but also about what steps they took to be able to carry out their research. 

This includes securing permits, funding, and accommodation, and reaching out to staff at archives and/or museums you’re interested in visiting. 

It also involves finding out, if you will be doing research in another country, whether you will need to know the language well enough to communicate via email and/or in person. If your knowledge of the language is not sufficient for these tasks, you will need to consider opportunities for improving those skills prior to your research trip.

Final Thoughts

If you take anything from this post, let it be these two points.

First, never be afraid to ask questions or for help. 

A quick survey of graduate handbooks from a number of universities shows that they aren’t always clear or helpful. If you have questions about any aspect of the graduate school, prospectus-writing, or dissertation process, ask! 

When writing your prospectus, it can also be helpful to ask if you can see what students ahead of you wrote, to get an idea of what the department is looking for in terms of structure.

Second, the dissertation prospectus is only a starting point for this larger research project. 

Nothing – related specifically to the dissertation or in grad school more generally – is set in stone. The prospectus is not a binding contract, so don’t be alarmed or ashamed if (and when) your plans and ideas change.

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