For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing my PhD proposal. Of course, when I say “writing,” I really mean staring at a blinking cursor on the screen and frantically reading pages and pages of notes. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I don’t know what I imagine my dissertation to look like, or that I don’t know the kinds of historical questions I aim to tackle, or even that I don’t know what sources to consult. That’s all the easy parts. The hard part? Actually writing the proposal.
Why? Because my department, like many others I imagine, does not provide a clear template or guideline as to what the proposal should include. I’ve asked several of my fellow grads, and all of them had different answers and advice to give. I’ve looked at several proposal examples and they range between 7 and 30 pages in length (double spaced!) with bibliographies.
Also, I know no matter how I write out my proposal, my committee will not accept the first draft. I’m already preparing myself for at least 6 revisions. After consulting my how-to manuals and informative websites, as well as reading examples, here’s what I concluded: A good proposal must
-have an introduction
-state the thesis right off the bat—either in the first or second paragraph
-raise questions and address ways to answer them
-examine where the dissertation fits into the scholarly literature
-outline the methodologies for research/archival research (a must for history proposals!)
-include a breakdown—even better, a chapter outline
-include a bibliography and/or a preliminary table of contents
So there you have it. Sounds simple, no? And yet it’s incredibly difficult for me to write this—it’s like the ultimate declaration, the next two or three years of my life summarized into a few pages. It’s overwhelming!
Also, I’m totally aware I can change my topic/questions down the line…So what about you? Do you have any tips/advice to share on writing a PhD Proposal?
EDIT: Silly me. I didn’t see the guidelines that my department has on their website (thanks, Aaron!–see his comment below). I’m so glad I have such an incredible department and fellow grads. I got to say, however, that the word count isn’t always accurate. I’ve seen proposals that were shorter or longer. I suppose it depends on the supervisor, committee, and graduate director.
You know what? Having written this post, chatting with a friend immediately after, and then replying to Aaron’s comment, I realize that there’s nothing to fear. At the end of the day, the proposal is essentially what YOU want to write, and how YOU plan to do it. If you’re confident enough in your research and take advantage of all the resources available for you, including your committee, friends, and online guidelines, you can map out your work. Or else do what a friend told me yesterday: don’t get started unless you can see the entire picture/story in your head!