Doctoral dissertation proposal
The Bulletin is the student newsletter of the Graduate Doctoral dissertation proposal of Arts and Sciences.
Printed eight times during the academic year, and updated continually online, the Bulletin profiles PhD and master’s students and reports on GSAS news and events. The dissertation proposal for a fellowship application, which is often an initial version of a dissertation prospectus, is a very special form of writing, a genre in its own right, with its own special context. Typically the committee reader of proposals is faced with the task of reading between 50 to 100 proposals, a strict deadline for selecting potential winners, and the reader is probably not a specialist on the proposal topic but qualified mainly as a skilled scholar. In choosing what to say and when and how to say it, try to imagine that in all likelihood the committee reader will only absorb or retain approximately five major points from each proposal that she reads. The Importance of Structure The structure of the proposal plays an important role in the strength of the proposal. The order in which you present your points should be a hierarchic order, with the most important items placed first, as early as the opening paragraph.
The reader is likely to be grateful to learn sooner rather than later what the project is all about and is likely to attach dissertation weight to what doctoral first. Identify the Main Topic In terms of effective hierarchic order, it is important to pin down the topic as early as possible, at the very opening of the proposal. Proposal essentially means stating the central argument or question as early as possible. There is common tendency for the writer to engage in preliminaries, often providing extensive background material and saving the actual topic for last. This deprives the proposal of much of its meaning until the main point is reached.
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Subsidiary Ones There is another common tendency for the writer to present a multitude of specific questions in neutral fashion, scattered throughout the proposal, without distinguishing between the main central question and those that are subsidiary. Bringing these dispersed questions together benefits not only the reader, but also the writer. Communicate Your Intention Up Front Recognize that the reader’s main interest in the proposal is to find out what the writer intends to do with the topic, rather than the topic itself. There is a common tendency for the writer to hold back, avoiding a direct statement of intent, avoiding the use of the active voice. It is also important to make all statements concise and compelling. The use of fewer words is the best path to clarity.
There is a common tendency of adding clause after clause, burying the main point of the statement and making it unmanageable for both reader and writer. Once you have written a strong concise opening, you can elaborate, as noted, in subsequent passages of the proposal. Once you have accomplished the difficult task of making a concise and compelling statement about your topic, your opening should present a concise statement of how the project will contribute to the field, emphasizing how the project will fill a gap and make a difference in how we think about the subject. This is the single most important aspect of the proposal, and needs to be stated early. Present Topic before Contributions to the Field Another tendency is to present the gaps in the scholarly literature before telling what the topic is.
In many cases, the best presentation of the topic is found in a statement of what is missing in the literature. It is far better logic to state what you are doing and then to note it is missing in the literature, rather than have the reader surmise that what is noted as missing is what you will be doing. State the HOW, Make It Match the WHAT Your concise opening statements will also need a concise description of methodology, how you will document your arguments, what principal sources you will use, and what theoretical framework, if any, that you will use for analytical purposes. Some proposals create a disconnect between the WHAT and the HOW in the proposal: a topic is presented, but the method for implementation is poorly matched with the stated topic.
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