Writing a Dissertation ProspectusThe prospectus is a research design that acts as an informal contract between student and his/her committee. A prospectus defines a dissertation’s nature and scope and will serve as an action plan for the dissertation. What the committee is looking for is a well-formulated plan of why the research is relevant, and how it will be done. Beyond the particular components (below), the committee is looking for the student to discuss some specific themes over the course of the prospectus.
Students should look to discuss
- their research question and how it addresses a gap in the scholarly community’s understanding of the topic,
- where that question fits in the existing literature,
- an initial theory that provides an answer to the questions and produces observable implications for the student to test, and
- research steps that are concrete and doable.
In order to successfully defend a prospectus you must demonstrate an understanding of the literature and how your topic fits into the literature as well as a concrete (and achievable) plan of action for empirically evaluating your topic. A prospectus should be in the range of 25-40 pages (double spaced). This is flexible and subject to your knowledge of the topic and the desires of your committee. That said, you do not want to make it too long by having too much literature or speculative analyses or ideas, but you want to show you have a solid grasp of the key areas in the literature you address.
Committee members will be asking themselves whether you have a coherent plan and whether you appear to know the specific steps you will take once you leave the defense. An outline of specific chapter titles is less important than demonstrating to the committee that the student understands the question, the literature, and the empirical test needed to answer the question. The page lengths below are merely suggestions, but a concise document will better present the ideas that you will eventually develop more thoroughly in the dissertation.
Your prospectus should be developed in consultation with the Chair of your committee and your committee members. Once you have a completed draft of the prospectus, you should submit it to your Chair. Only after your Chair has approved your prospectus should you distribute it to the rest of the committee for comment. Once the rest of the committee has indicated that they think you have a defend-able prospectus, a prospectus defense should be scheduled with the full committee. As per the Department graduate handbook: “The prospectus must be completed and formally defended before a dissertation committee within three months following the successful completion of the final comprehensive exam.”
Components of a Prospectus
- Cover page – a simple title, with your name, contact information, a date the draft was completed, and the members of your committee (top page)
- Abstract – 100 to 200 word summary of the topic, theoretical approach, and contributions (separate page)
- Introduction– a clear and concise statement of the dissertation’s objectives, main research questions, main theoretical idea, and basic methodologies (1 page)
- Literature Review & Critique – a brief review of only the most relevant literature that situates your question within the existing literature (i.e. what has been said about this topic to date) and which ends with a critique that illustrates the gaps in the research (i.e. based on what has already been researched, why do we need your dissertation) (3-5 pages)
- Research Questions – a clear statement of your main and subsidiary research questions and how they directly address the gaps in the literature you just discussed. This should be a single sentence or two and should be explicitly labeled. This is a statement of what you want to explain or what explanatory factors you will look at (1 page).
- Theory - a brief presentation of your main theoretical ideas that will form the basis for your argument and which generates specific hypotheses you will address. You should concentrate on developing and laying out conceptual relationships between your independent and dependent variables. Try to identify the process, set of stages or factors that produce the phenomenon you wish to explain. Clearly lay out your hypotheses (i.e. what do you expect to find). It can be helpful to include your research equation or a causal diagram in this section (3-5 pages).
- Research design – arguably the most important component of a prospectus, this should discuss how you plan to test the hypotheses introduced above. You should specifically address how you define your terms, how you will test your hypotheses, and the cases you have selected and why. For quantitative dissertations, make sure to address which datasets and variables you plan on using (if you are creating your own dataset, some discussion of how and why is helpful) and why they are best suited for your project (Note- this requires a strong understanding of the dataset you plan to use before you defend your prospectus). For qualitative dissertations, make sure you provide a list of data sources that will be used to address your question, addressing issues such as who you will interview and what questions you will ask, and/or when relying on secondary sources what concepts will you look for and how will you know if you have found them. It can be helpful for students (particularly those doing fieldwork) to provide a timeline for when the research will be conducted (5-8 pages).
- Conclusion – a brief conclusion that focuses on the dissertation’s contributions to knowledge in the field and notes any potential difficulties you may face (2 pages).
- Dissertation Outline – a very skeletal outline including what you intend to accomplish in each chapter (2 pages).
- Bibliography – include only what you cite in the prospectus (3-4 pages).
After the Prospectus DefenseAfter the successful defense, the student should:
- Inform (email is sufficient) the Graduate Director of the successful defense, and include a copy of the defended prospectus (if the committee asks for changes, a copy of the revised/completed prospectus should be sent when completed).
- The student should update (either in person or via email) all members of their committee and the Graduate Director of their progress at least once a semester.