Everyone do the prospectus dance

The teaching track certification that I’m all hopped up on (yes, I still am) is a bit of an aberration from the usual progression of post-exam graduate student life.  The certification does not absolve me from my other duties, but rather happens in tandem with them.  So, I thought I would explain here the other big thing I’ll be working on this semester.

Duhn duhn DUUUUUHHHHHNNNNNN……*the prospectus*

So, what does a prospectus look like?

This. It looks like this.
About like this.

As I’ve been explaining it to family and friends, the prospectus is my plan for the dissertation.  The dissertation has to be somewhere between five and seven chapters, not including the intro and conclusion, so the plan is not a short, flash-in-the-pan sort of thing.  It’s more of a 30 to 40 pages long sort of thing.

For comparison’s sake, that is half as long as my entire MA Thesis.

First, I have to situate my project in the historiography.  This entails going through all the existing literature about my chosen topic and figuring out where my project stands in relation to current research.  What am I contesting?  What do I agree with?  What evidence can I add?  What is my original contribution?

willy wonka

I hear this normally takes about five pages or so of writing, but will likely be my least favorite part.

Next, I spend about ten pages or so outlining my dissertation by discussing what goes in each chapter. As of right now…I have no idea what is going to go in each chapter.  I have lots of ideas, but I’m having trouble whittling them down and saying, alright, this idea goes here in Chapter 2.  So, my plan, as suggested by one of my advisors is to just throw down all my possible ideas on paper and then drop the mic and walk away for a while.

adam scott mic drop
BAM. Actor-Network Theory, bitches.

As of right now, I would say I probably have about forty pages of ideas and snippets of chapters up in my head, and it’s going to take a little while to get them all on paper.  It’s also going to take every bit of self-control in me to let these ideas spill without giving in to the compulsion to add footnotes, worry about historiography, or get all concerned about audience and voice.  But the idea is to expel my stream of consciousness.

Then, on the suggestion of a second advisor, I’ll go back and look at whatever I produce in the brainstorming stage and start dividing it up into chapters.  I’ll also at this point have to decide what is going to make it into the dissertation because it logically makes sense to put it there, and what amazing bits of research just aren’t going to fit.  Those errant thoughts and stray tangents will become either the spring boards to new projects as my career continues, or they might grow into article-length reflections that lead to journal publication.

My tendency is to want to include ALL THE THINGS.  I can’t think of a single piece of research I didn’t love doing. I am fascinated by all the voices I’ve met in the archives, and I just so dearly want to give every idea I have its chance in the sun.  So, I’ll have to check that tendency, and force myself to set some things aside for later in the effort of building a coherent, manageable project.

And I somehow have to figure out how to turn forty pages of brainstorming into ten pages of succinct chapter outlines.

19 Essential Miyazaki Reaction GIFS For Every Occasion
Miyazaki comes through, again.

Finally, I’ll include a section in my prospectus that outlines where my primary (contemporary) sources are, what secondary (scholarly) sources I’m using to contextualize those, what my timeline for completion is, and how, logistically, I plan on getting everything done.

Once the prospectus is finished, I have to defend it to my set of advisors.  They will have all seen the prospectus in its draft stages, offering comments and questions throughout its process of construction.  So, as long as I attend to their questions, I hear the defense will generally go pretty well.  The difficulty here is that every advisor is going to have a different idea of what my project should look like in the end, and I have to take those considerations into account while still retaining my original voice.  And if there’s something I just passionately want in the prospectus, I might have to put up my dukes and battle it out.

A typical prospectus defense.

I am not anticipating much push back in the prospectus defense (famous last words).  But that’s mostly because I’ve been dealing with push back at every other step in my PhD work.   I’ve already made a number of concessions as well as won a number of battles.  So the prospectus, for me, is going to be a record of my past three years of work, another defense of my method and theory, and a list of preliminary hypotheses  and possible research conclusions, pulled out of my ginormous source base.

Some people write their prospectus before they’ve done any research at all…I would not recommend that.  Nine times out of ten, if you do things this way, your dissertation ends up looking totally different than you thought it would.   This renders your prospectus basically useless, and all your chapters and thought-mapping and best-laid-plans turn back into a muddle.

On the other hand, if you stick too closely to your prospectus, and start tucking all your research away into neatly mapped out drawers, you might miss something super important.  So you have to remain somewhat flexible.

Anyway, once I have defended the prospectus, I will be officially ABD (All But Dissertation) Status.  I’ll get to do fun stuff like print up business cards that say “PhD Candidate” on them.   I will also get to start writing the dissertation in earnest, turning previous seminar papers into chapters, chapters into journal articles, and journal articles into publications and presentations at conferences.  So cool, right?



Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

4 thoughts on “Everyone do the prospectus dance

    • Man, that fortune teller/mom has some serious faith in me. ; )

      Glad you liked the cartoons! I wasn’t sure if they would be distracting or not, but they all made me giggle, so I kept them.

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