A Contract

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know of my recent frustrations in writing my PhD proposal. My problem isn’t not having enough to say, but in trimming the 3000 words I’ve already written down to (roughly) 1,250 to meet my departmental standards.

A friend of mine sent me a link to Matt Might’s (University of Utah) very helpful blog posts on writing a PhD proposal (among other grad school survival skills). What’s interesting is that Might argues grad students need to realize that a PhD thesis is essentially a contract. Here’s an excerpt from the post:

A proper thesis defense should be a rigorous formality. No advisor should ever let her student stand for a defense unless the advisor is convinced the student will pass.

Thesis proposals, on the other hand, rarely pass without an objection requiring a modification to the proposal.

Students tend to invert the importance of the proposal and the defense: they see the proposal as the formality and the defense as the challenge.

Faculty, however, treat proposals like contracts. When faculty sign off on a proposal, we are giving up some of our rights to object later on. We are agreeing that if a student does X, Y and Z, as outlined in the proposal, then we shall grant a Ph.D.

We are never going to yield such rights passively.

All good thesis proposals contain two ingredients: a clearly-defined thesis, and a specific plan for demonstrating that thesis.

Everything else in the proposal (related work, prior work, challenges) exists to support the plausibility of the thesis and the plan.

Done properly, a good proposal grants immunity against remarks like

  • I thought you said you were going to do X,
  • I’d like you to also do Y before I sign off, and
  • So what?

during a defense.

This is a really interesting way to look at the proposal. I’m sure every grad student and their committee has their own way of approaching the proposal, but I for one, see this as a helpful way for me to eliminate 1,750 words from my proposal 😀

One thought on “A Contract

  1. Yeah, reading that made me stop and try to formulate my ideas as a simple declarative sentence. Probably a good exercise; I have been too caught up in the historiography-angle, not enough about the actual, you know, history.

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