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Tips for preparing a dissertation prospectus

  • As with preparing for a comprehensive exam, the major rule for preparing a dissertation prospectus is to:
  1. Rule #1: Clarify what your committee expects early on in the process and seek to fulfill those expectations. Each committee seeks to guide students to a dissertation that will provide the most sound basis for their future intellectual career. T he demands placed on the student are intended to help the student write a dissertation that contributes to the scholarly dialogue of political science in a way that also contributes to the student's career. Their will undoubtedly be struggles and conflict s between the student and the committee over time, but it is rare that the committee seeks to create unnecessary work for the student or suggests ideas that would detract from the ability of the student's work to make an impression on the field.
  • Components of a prospectus
  1. Although, again, the only true source of knowing what should be in your prospectus is to clarify what your committee expects, most prospectuses center around three key elements:
  2. What is the main question and why should the reader be interested in the answer to it? This section should lay out an empirical puzzle, a theoretical debate, or some other question that has not yet been answered in the field or subfield. The p rospectus should delineate the "pedigree" of the question, showing how this or a similar question has been described and framed in the past, how discussion of the related issues have been laid out, what the current state of debate on the question, etc.
  3. What are the previous answers to the question? The prospectus should provide a review of relevant literature showing how others have answered this or similar questions in the past. It should identify what are useful contributions of these answe rs to these questions. It should also identify where they have failed to frame the question correctly or have ignored the question altogether. It should also identify what misunderstandings and problems have arisen from past answers. In short, the main go al of this section is to "place yourself in the literature," identifying why your thesis needs to be written (i.e., demonstrating that the question has either not been asked or not been successfully answered in the past), and showing how the work will con tribute to progress in the field or subfield.
  4. How are you going to go about answering the question? What will your methodology be? This is often the hardest part of the prospectus. It requires going back to your research methods knowledge and really thinking through systematically what yo u are going to do to answer the question in a systematic and convincing way. You need to convince your committee that, if they let you go off for a couple of years to do your research, you will actually return with something that allows you to answer the question. Although this often is difficult and provides a common source of friction between the student and committee, the committee is seeking to push the student to avoid the worst outcome possible which is spending years collecting data and doing resea rch only to come back with information that simply does not allow a convincing answer to the question. The methodology does not have to be of any particular type - it only needs to be a methodology that all members of your committee believe will help you make an argument that is convincing to them and to the other people in the subfield who will be making the decision as to whether to hire you or not.


  • A few other useful pointers
  1. Know and love your project - a prospectus is the first cut at identifying your dissertation question. It is therefore the basis for the ideas that will be occupying your mind for the next several years. Given that, make sure you identify a ques tion that is interesting to you, as well as your committee.
  2. Get help early and often - your committee can only help you solve problems if you ask for help. But also make sure you use your colleagues and the extensive literature in your field to answer the questions posed above. The clearer expectations are from the beginning, the less room for misunderstanding and frustration later.
  3. Get used to living with uncertainty - your committee cannot tell you at the beginning that the question and methodology you are proposing will lead to your successful completion of a PhD. They can only try to help you devise it so that is as li kely as possible. In addition, they recognize (and you should recognize) that the nature of a dissertation is such that the question and method and cases are all likely to change as the dissertation develops. (That is what's called learning.) You will nee d to get comfortable with not knowing how the dissertation will come to a successful conclusion at the same time that you have faith and know that it will come to such a conclusion. Your committee (and hopefully your grad student colleagues and others) wi ll try to give you advice that increase the chances of success. Working cooperatively with them will help achieve that.