– tips and topoi –
• You have to identify a problem to address, otherwise you have no dissertation. A better way to put this would be that you have to be able to argue that there is a problem (or a set of problems) that needs to be addressed. In other words, crafting this problem is just as important a part of your prospectus (and, eventually, of your dissertation) as showing how you’re going to solve the problem.
• You should have a thesis statement, just like in those five-paragraph essays you learned to write in junior high. It should be simple enough to be stated without excessive scholarly jargon, but complex enough to sustain a book-length project. It should be efficient without being anemic, scholarly without being arcane. Generally, this statement should take a “problem-solution” format: you’ve identified a problem of some kind, and you’ve developed a strategy for addressing it. If you can’t describe your project in one sentence, it’s generally a pretty good sign that you haven’t thought about it long enough. Everyone on the committee will realize that this is a provisional thesis, subject to sometimes major revision as the project develops; nevertheless, you should write it like it’s the firmest, truest, most enduring statement ever composed.
• You must prove to your audience that the project can be done — by you, in a reasonable period of time, and in a reasonable number of pages. And you must prove to your audience that the project is worth doing. And that it will be worthwhile for them to read it.
• The actual audience for your prospectus consists of your advisor and your research committee. No one else will read it. But always there must be a broader imagined audience — both in your head and in the heads of the members of your committee. Another of your tasks, then, is to help your committee imagine the same audience that you do.
• You will need to include a literature review. And at the same time, you don’t want to include one. You do want to demonstrate that you have a firm grasp of the key literatures (theories, texts, films, websites, academic controversies, whatever) relevant to your project. But you don’t want to write your prospectus with the express purpose of merely demonstrating this grasp. Rather, you demonstrate this grasp of the relevant literature through your efforts to demonstrate that you have a viable thesis statement, that you have identified a problem worth addressing, that the project is feasible, that you have an intended audience in mind, that the chapter outline makes sense, etc.
• Most prospecti include a chapter preview. Again, everyone will understand that this is, at best, a provisional preview; and, again, you should write it like it is not provisional at all. You want to be sure that in your prospectus you do not merely describe what the chapter will say but, more importantly, describe what it will do to further your argument.
• For most people, the prospectus functions as a very rough draft of the first chapter of their dissertation. Also, for most people, the first chapter of their dissertation bears only passing resemblance to their prospectus. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to write your prospectus as though it were the first chapter of your dissertation; but it does mean that you shouldn’t be surprised when you find yourself changing it around substantially.