Perspectives on the Prospectus

Last week, my mother commented to me that she felt lost when she listened to me describe my current daily work--not only were the content and the argument and the history unfamiliar to her, but also the basic mechanics of what it means to write a dissertation prospectus. 

The dissertation prospectus is a requirement in all doctoral programs, not just in history, but the format and process varies between disciplines and departments. After passing your comprehensive exams, you are given a certain amount of time to write, revise, and defend the prospectus to your committee. In my department, your third year of the program is divided into exams and prospectus--the former must be completed in the fall semester, and the latter in the spring.

A dissertation prospectus in the field of history usually consists of the following sections: an introduction of the project; an overview of how the study will make a historiographical contribution (more on that later); an explanation of what sources and methodology you will use; a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the argument and contents of the study; and finally a bibliography detailing the archives, documents, primary and secondary sources on which the project will be based. After writing a draft of these sections, your committee reads the proposal and returns it to you with comments and feedback--hopefully nothing too brutal. Usually by this point you've worked through most of the kinks, so what you mainly worry about is disagreement among the committee members.

Most doctoral candidates have three or four faculty members on their committee, usually two or three internal advisors plus one or two experts from another institution. The chair of the committee is your main advisor, who in my department is the faculty member you applied to work with. In addition to my advisor, a historian of medicine, I have two other committee members. One is an esteemed expert in urban history, and is a senior faculty member in my department. The other is an assistant professor in religious studies at a nearby university, whose specialty is postwar American Jewish history. As you will see in later posts, the expertise of my committee members reflects the three areas of scholarship in which I work.

After revising the prospectus, a defense is scheduled--this is perhaps the most difficult part! Getting four very busy people in a room at the same time is a trying task, and thankfully one that is the responsibility of our department's Graduate Coordinator. I have attended two defenses over the past two years, to support two dear colleagues. The defendant and their committee sit around a table, while fellow graduate students in attendance take a seat around the edge of the room. After spending about twenty minutes introducing the project--its major questions and proposed contributions--the committee begins asking its own questions, usually about methodology or tricky problems with sources or how you will respond to controversies in the literature you are addressing. When they finish, the graduate students have a chance to ask their own questions--some critical, some softballs to make you look good. The defense concludes with the committee taking a brief leave to decide whether you have passed, and if your defense was successful you and your committee then sign a document acknowledging that you may proceed to the dissertation stage.

The accepted wisdom among graduate students in my program is that if you are allowed to schedule your defense, it is assumed you will pass it. While prospectus defenses are more stringent than a mere formality, it's understood that the prospectus is tentative and the project is liable to change. My advisor's adage is to think of the document as a hunting license rather than a contract--it's meant to provide an opportunity, not bind you to fulfilling a commitment.

My defense will likely take place in late April or early May. While I spent the eight months preparing for exams absolutely convinced I would fail, I feel no stress about the prospectus defense and assume I will be advanced to candidacy. I look forward to being ABD (All But Dissertation) and to changing the line under my signature from "Doctoral Student" to "Doctoral Candidate".