A dissertation prospectus is a paradoxical piece of writing. It is not an abstract (which is to say, a summary of a completed dissertation) or an introductory chapter of a dissertation, but rather an attempt to describe what is planned before it has actually been done. Since it is meant to be submitted within six months after completion of the general examination, it need not be a huge document. Indeed, it could be around ten double-spaced pages in length (roughly 2500-3000 words) with up to ten further pages of bibliography. As indicated, the prospectus should provide a preliminary description of the proposed dissertation. It should delineate what topic and area the dissertation will explore; discuss why this topic and area merit such exploration; and include a provisional chapter outline. The outline, which can be in narrative form, should be as precise as possible, even if it is likely to be modified in the course of writing the dissertation.
Finding, defining, and communicating a topic that is at once significant and of realistic scope are tasks that require discussion and cooperation between the dissertation writer and faculty members. Therefore, the dissertation writer is encouraged to show drafts of the prospectus to his or her dissertation committee and other faculty members. After these initial consultations, the writer will submit the final version of the prospectus for formal approval by the committee. The committee will then meet collectively with the candidate to discuss the project and its implementation.
There is no single recipe for a good dissertation prospectus. But all writers should answer, to the best of their abilities at this early stage of research, certain fundamental questions:
• What is the central problem that the dissertation will address? This problem can be theoretical, critical, or historical; but it should, in most cases, be presented as a question or related set of questions to which the dissertation will attempt to find answers. It is important that the problem and hypothetical answers be stated from the outset, so that your research will not risk becoming random, and your exposition will not lapse into mere description. The sense that an argument is being made should be constantly kept in mind.
• To persuade your reader that you are not just reinventing the wheel or restating what has already been said, you should include a brief review of the present “state of the art” with respect to your topic. Has this topic been treated before? How does your approach differ from earlier ones? Has new evidence appeared (for example, a new primary source) since previous treatments? However, to preserve collegiality with previous generations of scholars, it is essential not to play games of upstaging for the sake of self-promotion. (“My predecessor blundered [or even made a mistake] in not noticing what I have noticed.”)
• Outlining a sequence of potential chapters will help you clarify the argument of your thesis and check the balance of its parts in relation to one another. A chapter should be conceived as approximately 30-40 double-spaced pages. If the major sections of your dissertation seem likely to exceed this length, plan to subdivide them. A finished dissertation is generally 200-300 pages long. You will find that developing an outline helps your thinking to move forward substantially, so that the actual writing of the dissertation is more clearly focused.
• Once you have drafted your prospectus under the guidance of your thesis committee, you might want to have it read by someone who knows nothing about your topic, to see whether you have clearly set out your problem and defined a workable method. Seeking out a general reader right at the start is a good reminder that although you may be writing on a specialized topic, your thesis should be written in clear, intelligible prose. Make sure you define the theoretical categories you are introducing, and try to avoid technical jargon unless it is necessary to the intricacies of your argument.
• Remember that you are undertaking to write a book. You ought therefore to think about that book as a whole, rather than as merely a series of separate essays. What overall message would you like the reader to take away from reading your book? Try to formulate your subject and your intended destination in a simple sentence or two; make sure that you locate this statement in a prominent place within your introduction.
In thinking about your future book, you would do well to try to place it in a broader field than the one it addresses. That is, as of now, you have a rather good command of current thinking with regard to your book’s overall field. Indeed, you are currently something of an authority. How is your book going to change peoples’ ideas, add to the present picture, or revise commonly held views? Thinking in these terms should help you formulate your project for someone who is not immersed in its field.
Prospectuses and theses tend to either lose themselves in detail, or to be too general. To avoid this, try to do what you would in any paper you write: make sure that your main argument remains clearly above ground, and that each paragraph has a clear connection with the ones preceding and following it. The prospectus is not a mini-dissertation, and need not involve more time in writing and revising than another paper of comparable length. Yet enough care and stylistic grace should be exercised so that the prospectus clearly and concisely articulates the project, its arguments, methods, and special considerations in a manner that anyone in literary studies can grasp.