Writing a PhD Proposal

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!

My Daily Schedule

Thankfully, I nipped this cycle in the bud. I had no choice–I was becoming an incredibly cranky person who even I started to resent.

One of my favorite grade school teacher told me that discipline is the key to success. She taught me that I should never, ever, use my limitations as an excuse for laziness (I’m heard-of-hearing, in case I never mentioned it before. I don’t think I did). I kept her wise advice to heart, working multiple jobs, keeping on top of my schoolwork, and engaging in various social activities. Freetime? I didn’t even know the meaning of the word.

This disciplined life lasted until…last year. The year of my specialist exam. Horror, deep-set fear, and an overwhelming sense of failure dominated my days and sleepless nights. I cancelled nearly all social engagements, ignored my partner (who put up with all my crap and crabbiness), and heavily abused caffeine in all of its glorious forms. Like every grad student sooner or later, I succumbed into the vicious cycle. People told me not to worry, that I was over-preparing for my exam. I give them the stink eye. Whatever confidence I had in me was thrown out in the trash along with multiple copies of my presentation proposal.

Yes, grad students often over-think things and after a certain period of time, realize their fears were ridiculous. But you know what? THE PRESSURE WAS TOO MUCH. ANYONE WOULD CAVE. Oh, even I did–the mostly disciplined life I carried for so long to secure my success was gone in a matter of weeks. I admit that my specialist wasn’t as bad as I hoped. Actually, that’s a lie. I still think it was bad. I bombed on the first question, which immediately led to a panic attack, followed by a bunch of rambling sentences that led to nowhere. After 5 minutes of rambling–and not answering the question–my prof interrupted me and answered the question himself. I totally lost my composure after the first question.

But I passed. All is right in the world and now I’m slowly building my disciplined daily schedule to get the most work out of very little grad time.


(Source: PhD Comics)

Sorry for the lack of written posts. Writing two papers this week takes priority, but a friend of mine posted this old PhD Comic on Facebook and I couldn’t help but smile. Yea, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing right now…except of course, dreaming of another life in Dharmaville with Sawyer…

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