Writing a dissertation proposal is an important step toward the dissertation itself, but the process of researching and writing one can be a difficult transition time for many graduate students.
For their first years of graduate school, students adhere to a structured coursework schedule with deadlines from their advisors, the Graduate School or their department. After spending those years criticizing the best work by experts in their fields, students are expected to propose something new and better.
The Social Sciences Dissertation Proposal Workshop offers graduate students strategies and support for getting started and efficiently completing their proposal.
Carew Boulding, associate professor in political science, designed the workshop to help students produce a dissertation proposal as a realistic plan for a successful dissertation, identify outside funding opportunities and write a version of their research proposal targeted for a specific grant.
“One of the great things about this program is that it’s not evaluative,” said Boulding, who facilitates, troubleshoots and offers mentoring support. “I’m a faculty member, but not a member of the students’ committees, so students can be a little freer in trying out ideas and being honest about the challenges they are facing.”
The workshop is for all graduate students in the social sciences who are writing dissertation proposals. The process differs in each department, but most PhD students have to defend their dissertation proposal to a faculty committee before they dig into their dissertation research and writing.
Created as an interdisciplinary link between course work and independent research, the workshop is organized around short memo assignments that build toward a finished proposal. These memos help keep students focused and moving forward as they develop their projects.
The workshop began this past fall. About a dozen students attended from different departments, including sociology, political science, ethnic studies, linguistics and anthropology.
“The writing prompts add up to a solid foundation for a dissertation proposal and provide good opportunities to clarify details of their project,” Boulding said. “It’s important that the workshop is not a replacement for communication with advisors and committee members. In fact, we talk a lot about effective communication with faculty, and the writing prompts are often a great starting point for feedback and conversations with other faculty members.”
Students found the workshop format helpful in turning what can be an overwhelming task into an attainable goal.
Stefani Langehennig, a PhD candidate in political science, is working on her dissertation on the appropriations process and whose policy preferences prevail among the different congressional chambers and committees, and the president.
She compared writing a dissertation proposal to being an independent researcher.
“You have to write a dissertation all by yourself,” Langehennig said. “But before you can do that, you need to put together a project that will be sustainable and viable until you defend it. That’s a daunting thing to do alone, and I think people can get lost at this stage.
“The workshop provided a framework and guidance for how to go about managing such a big project and putting it into a document you can run with,” she said. “It helped us focus on our research questions, the ideas we might want to test and how to go about that. It helps you put something together that’s not just a hot mess.”
Students met weekly to ensure they were meeting critical writing deadlines and gave each other feedback, which helped them fine tune their ideas. In another section of the workshop, they learned time management and organizational tools. At the end of the semester, their work culminated in a finished dissertation proposal.
“The summer before the workshop, I think most of us were just trying to keep our heads above water trying to pin down a good dissertation idea,” Langehennig said. “Your brain starts going all over the place when you think about all the topics you could do for your dissertation. It’s hard to winnow that down without guidance, so having someone show you how to tackle tasks chunk by chunk makes the process seem less daunting.”
A PhD student in cultural anthropology, Page McClean studies the impacts of the Southern Highway in Chilean Patagonia on rural communities along the road. She found weekly deadlines and having to be accountable to others to be particularly helpful.
“That helped me break up something that’s truly insurmountable—a 12-page grant proposal—into sections and focus on one part per week,” she said. “Learning to frame the question to grant funders so they believe in me enough to give me money for research was really hard. Getting feedback from students in different disciplines was really helpful. It’s so nice to have that support system with people who are going through the same thing. It’s a way to feel less isolated in graduate school.”
For more information, go to the Dissertation Proposal Workshop webpage.