Questions to Ask
Before you begin planning your dissertation project, set yourself up for success by asking yourself a series of questions.
What is your research question?
- This is an essential first step! It can be easy to focus on a project that you want to create and lose sight of the question you’re investigating. Keep that question front and center to ensure that your decisions all support the research goals.
What existing guidelines does your department offer (for you and/or the committee)?
- Before you jump into something with both feet, make sure you have a sense of the existing terrain in your department. Talk to the library to see examples of dissertations in your department as well as others. Information is not always accessible in the place you would expect it, so if you are having trouble finding guidelines, talk to faculty and more advanced students about any materials they may have access to. These guidelines can be a starting point, and can help you to anticipate where you might face challenges.
What format best serves the research, and why?
- Are there nuances that you would not be able to convey in a standard monographic dissertation? Maybe you want your readers to actually hear the voices of your interview subjects, or maybe your argument is intrinsically nonlinear. There are many reasons you might choose to create an innovative dissertation project; the key is to know what those reasons are and how they serve the research.
What skills will you need?
- Does your project idea build on skills you already have, or does it take you in a new direction? What skills will you need to learn, and how will you learn them? How long will it take? How much will it cost to learn them and how will you fund it? Are you likely to enjoy that process or will it feel frustrating?
Is the scope realistic?
- This question is essential, and one that you should ask repeatedly at different project stages. Taking into consideration elements such as skill building (see question above), research, and development of the final project, is the scope of your project realistic for the timeframe and resources at your disposal? The dissertation is the beginning of your scholarly career (whatever that may look like)—not the end. It can be tempting to add more and more depth and complexity to the project, but ultimately, having a tightly scoped project will make a successful outcome more likely.
What’s your timeline?
- This is basic project management. Figure out when you hope to finish your degree, then work backwards from that end date to set intermediate deadlines. If the timeline doesn’t feel realistic, then consider modifying the scope or structure of the project.
Are the right people on your committee?
- This is another question that can make or break your success. The right committee is right for you. Rather than seeking out the most high-prestige scholars, consider who will be a strong ally, who will help you navigate institutional challenges, and ultimately, who will help you finish? Other questions to consider are: whose voices and influence do you need? Where are you likely to hit resistance? Does the department chair support your project, and if not, who will help you to smooth that road?
Do you need a supplemental document of some kind?
- Some of the dissertations referenced on this site include multiple components—for instance, a creative project and a more traditional write-up. You may find that you need to provide something similar—think of it as an interpretive lens that will help your committee to read and engage with your work in the way you intend.
- Note for advisors: A supplemental document should not take the form of an additional dissertation. Rigorous scholarly work can take many forms. While some documentation or interpretation may be necessary, avoid asking students to produce double work. Instead, work with them to ensure that their best work is present and legible in the project itself.
Writing the Proposal
For dissertations in general and for non-standard projects in particular, the proposal or prospectus process is a crucial moment of scoping and defining the work. Putting in careful thought at this stage can surface questions and obstacles at an early stage, giving the student time to take a new approach if needed. The final dissertation may end up looking very different from the proposal—which is completely natural, since the research and analysis that take place after the prospectus is approved will necessarily shape the final product.
It’s rare to get a chance to see a prospectus for a completed dissertation outside of one’s own department, which is unfortunate because seeing other examples helps demystify the process and the genre. We are happy to share some here. Read on for sample proposals from Anna Williams, Sonia Estima, Jesse Merandy, Amanda Licastro, and Amanda Visconti.
First, consider the experience of Dr. Anna Williams (University of Iowa, 2019; English). Williams’s prospectus is a particularly useful example because she faced a number of challenges in the early phases of her dissertation, which she shares in a nuanced and engaging audio prologue to her podcast-based dissertation. This episode is invaluable: the proposal phase is often completely invisible to current students, and yet it is pivotal in their ability to move forward in their doctoral work. Dr. Williams presents painful moments from her own proposal defense, and explores the purpose and substance of what the dissertation is and could be—and what obstacles prevent students from reaching their goals. We have retroactively annotated Dr. Williams’ proposal to show what a a values-oriented evaluation process might look like.
We include Williams’s prospectus not so much as a model for what the document should look like, but rather as a glimpse behind the curtain into the process and evolution of a dissertation from early planning stages to final product. Readers and listeners will note that Williams’s prospectus looks quite different from her final dissertation, both in content and in form. And that’s ok! For many doctoral students, the dissertation will dramatically change shape as you work on it. In fact, some of the scholars we’ve worked with preferred not to share their prospectus because of the significant differences between the prospectus and the dissertation. Normalizing this may help reduce anxiety and pressure in those early stages.
For some doctoral students, the prospectus may look quite different. Dr. Sonia Estima, for instance, presented her dissertation prospectus as a talk with slides. Additional examples are available from Dr. Jesse Merandy and Dr. Amanda Licastro. In each of these cases, the goal is to make a case for your project plan—even if that project changes shape.
The prospectus isn’t meant to be a persistent document; it usually becomes obsolete once the project is complete. However, that isn’t always the case. For example, Dr. Amanda Visconti was able to use their prospectus as one of the deliverables for their final dissertation by adapting it into a white paper. The prospectus, which Visconti gave permission to share here, is also publicly available in the GitHub repository associated with the project.
The proposal is perhaps the only formalized moment of intermediate evaluation prior to the dissertation defense. Ideally, though, there would be many such opportunities for feedback. This feedback should not only come from the advisor, but also through a structured opportunity for iterative self-evaluation. Such a process could most effectively be built into the expectations around the dissertation proposal, with additional checkpoints continuing all the way through to the defense.
The guidelines below are intended to provide a means of interpreting and assessing the effectiveness of that self-evaluation process. It is separate from the dissertation; however, a solid and thoughtful self-evaluation is a likely precursor to a very good or excellent dissertation. Problems with the self-evaluation can signal issues with the project, and advisors are encouraged to use the process to help candidates mitigate problems prior to dissertation completion and defense.
A successful self-evaluation includes:
- a clear grasp of the project’s aims, limitations, and modes of engagement
- an articulation of what a successful project would look like
- ambitious yet reasonable goals and meets benchmarks
The following warning signs should prompt deeper discussion:
- a struggle to articulate project goals or structure
- failure to establish self-determined benchmarks, or failure to meet those benchmarks
- significant changes from plan without clear rationale as to why
- inability to explain the project
|Demonstrates a clear grasp of the project’s aims, limitations, and methodologies||Is able to articulate a solid sense of project goals, intended structure, and outcomes||Struggles to articulate project goals or structure||Is unable to articulate the project’s aims, limitations, or scope|
|Articulates what a successful project would look like||Has a rough sense of what they would like their final project to look like||Changes plans significantly without clear rationale as to why||Is unable to explain the project|
|Establishes and meets ambitious yet reasonable goals and benchmarks||Meets most self-determined goals||Does not meet most self-determined goals||Does not make progress toward goals or requirements|
As an example of what the self-evaluation process can look like, see the work of Amanda Wyatt Visconti. In preparing their dissertation, Infinite Ulysses, Dr. Visconti also included a great deal of meta-analysis of their own process, limitations, possibilities. This work is a real model for others, and also provides a wealth of resources. This page will soon feature an interview with Dr. Visconti; check back to learn more.