Putting it all together: How to write a prospectus

Posted: July 5, 2011 in Uncategorized
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No one ever did this for me. I wish someone had. I wish I’d known before I started. But I didn’t.

I started my prospectus with no idea what I was doing. I had two others I had seen, things to model after, but I didn’t know even the basic format, aside from what my colleagues had done before me.

So, I followed the model before me, and I put in a section describing the project, one about preliminary theory, one about research questions, and then a vague outline of the chapters in my dissertation. On top of that, I put in a literature review, which was largely taken from this blog. I ended up with a ‘draft’ of 52 pages.

I also ended up using the wrong tone, writing to the wrong audience, and generally doing everything wrong. That’s okay; it’s kind of how I work. I do it, I get told what’s wrong, and I do it again. Not very efficient, but it works. Still, there are a few things it would have been nice to know:

1. Length: A prospectus, including a literature review, should be around 20 pages. You are, after all, writing a PROPOSAL of your dissertation, not the dissertation itself. You may end up using the prospectus as your first chapter, but once again, 20 pages is a good length for that.

2. Tone: You are no longer a student. When you write the prospectus, you must do so as the expert on your topic. Not AN expert, but THE expert. You don’t need to stand on the shoulders of others anymore. No need to add a quote to back up what you’re saying. Your own voice is an authority, and needs to be presented with authority. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use other sources or research. It just means that instead of the “This is what I think, and here’s a quote by famous scholar who agrees with me” model, you follow the “Here is the what is what (famous scholar), and here’s what that means.”

3. Context: No, seriously, you’re not a student anymore. You aren’t writing this to get a grade, or to get approval of your teacher. There is no cookie at the end of this. What you’re writing is a short guide to your research. You are TELLING your committee what your dissertation is going to be about. No need to hide behind hedging language. No need to hide behind anything. You’re the authority, act like it. Once you do that, your committee says “Okay.” Then you write the actual dissertation. (THEN comes the cookie)

4. Audience: They are no longer your teachers. Most likely, your committee is made up of at least some of the professors you’ve had classes with, possibly as recently as last semester. But they aren’t your teachers anymore. They’re your colleagues. The second they shook your hand after that final stage of the exam process (for me it was the oral exam), they stopped being your teachers. They don’t take your opinions with a grain of salt anymore. You are a legitimate mind worth working with. Remember that. And they are other people, just like you, only a little bit (or a lot) further along the path. But you ARE on the same path now. You can write your prospectus with that in mind, writing it to others who respect your opinions, who are experts in their own rights, but not in the field you are talking to them about.

5. Literature Review: There needs to be a through line. You may know how all these things connect. After all, you read them and you put them together. Hell, you even put them together in a certain order. But other people aren’t you. Your colleagues are experts in THEIR fields, not in yours. Now that you are an expert, you need to put the information a way that they can follow. They don’t need the entire mosaic. What they need is a basic understanding of the field you’re bringing them into. So it’s your job to present the greatest hits, pointing out how those hits build into your field, and get out.


If someone had told me those 5 things before, then I think I would already be done my prospectus. But since no one did, I got to learn it myself. And maybe you’ll have to learn it yourself too. Maybe I’m just telling you the stove is hot; it’s up to you to burn yourself.

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