How to prospectus, maybe

I still think about this: A week before my dissertation prospectus defense, I had lunch with one of my committee members to go over his final comments. I was tired and perhaps franker than was strictly professional. I told him, “This process seems designed to make you hate your project and to break you.” I meant: why is the act of putting together a project in which you’re ostensibly very interested and over which you have a lot of ownership so utterly miserable?

I don’t mean to suggest that prospectus-ing is universally unpleasant. I would like to think that it doesn’t have to be. And in that vein, I want to share some things that I learned during the process that I wish someone had told me at the outset.

1. The prospectus is a step in the research process. It is not written in stone.

In that meeting before my defense, my committee member told me, “You will think about some of the questions we’re raising for years. We don’t expect you to have solutions right now. We just want you to think. You know that, don’t you?” No, I didn’t.

And so I’m saying it to all of you writing right now: just keep working. The prospectus is a starting point. Different committees have different standards for how much of the project needs to be figured out at this stage, so obviously listen to whatever guidance you receive in that regard (and ask for it if it’s not forthcoming). But ultimately, you are formulating a research agenda. That is an enormous task! You will not complete it in a year. Hell, you may not complete it by the time you graduate. (You may also change your dissertation entirely after passing your defense. More on that later.) That is normal. That is okay.

Just keep working. Every draft is a chance for progress, not perfection.

2. Others’ milestones aren’t, and can’t, be yours.

(Yes, most of this is about stones.)

In my department, most students take a prospectus-writing course in the fall semester of their third year. (Some particularly ambitious people take it earlier.) The course is structured around a series of deadlines for when pieces of the prospectus draft must be done. These change slightly depending on who’s teaching the course; when I took it, we had to write an introduction, a theory section, a research design, and then have a full draft by the end of the course.

This makes approximately no sense for two reasons. One, everyone’s project is different, and Experimentalist A may need to spend significant time writing an experimental design while Critical Theorist B may really need to sift through several bodies of literature. Even if one believes that every scholar’s prospectus should have the same components, the content and relative weight of those components varies tremendously, and so having the same deadlines for everyone just doesn’t work. Second, one might need to spend significant time revising one’s theoretical framework before having enough material to even generate a research design, and a strict deadline structure like this doesn’t allow for much tacking between various parts of the research project, at least on the surface.

As soon as I stopped viewing the course deadlines as deadlines for specific pieces and started viewing them as deadlines for just having more work done, my life improved tremendously. I find deadlines very motivating, and so if you don’t, ignore this part. But if you are a deadline-oriented person, set check-ins with your committee at regular intervals where the plan is progress of whatever type your project requires, not progress based on attempts at universal standards.

3. The prospectus is a hurdle-clearing exercise on some level, but viewing it that way is unlikely to make you happy.

I really believe that the prospectus should not be about checking a box—it involves far too much work to write about a project you don’t really love, only to throw large parts of it away once you’re ABD. I know, because this is kind of what I did.

For me, the prospectus process was about confronting who I was as a scholar. I say “confronting” and not “figuring out” because I already knew but had buried that knowledge because it didn’t conform to what I’d been conditioned to understand as desirable in the discipline. I am not a quantitative researcher; in many respects, I am barely a positivist of any methodological stripe. This is not, I am told, a “cutting-edge” way of identifying. It is not where political science is going in the United States. It is not what will get me a coveted R1 job.

Setting aside the single-minded and harmful nature of this construction of the pinnacle of academic achievement, it is what many of us in top programs are told. Realizing you simply don’t make sense of the world that way—that your beliefs and values mean that you can’t—can be jarring. It can be especially jarring when you feel that those around you don’t understand your approach, even if they are supportive of you as a scholar in general.

When I was writing my prospectus, I didn’t know how to explain a lot of the fundamental assumptions I was making about the social world. It has taken me, I kid you not, two years to figure this out. And though some people do take two years to write the prospectus, this is highly discouraged, and so given the time frame I had, I made some compromises with myself. For example, I wrote about building a massive document classifier; this was attractive methodologically, I had the skills to do it, and my committee liked it. I scrapped it immediately after the defense, and I can lie and tell myself that I actually had the intention of following through when I designed the classifier on paper…but I really didn’t.

Don’t do this! It is an enormous waste of your time and mental energy. In retrospect, I wish I had better understood point #1 and spent more time working on parts of the project that I believed in, no matter how hard they were, rather than grafting on parts that I didn’t. I ended up having to do this work later anyway, so all I did was delay it and slow down my progress to graduation.

It may take you a while to figure out what you really want to write about. You may also have different priorities than me for what you want out of graduate school and how you connect your work to your self-worth (or not), so please follow your gut here. But if you know what you want to write about, write about that—not about what you think others want you to write.

4. Even if you love your prospectus, your project is still going to change.

I always get a kick out of younger students who are familiar with my work now and ask to read my prospectus, because in many ways it’s nothing like what my dissertation has turned out to be. The seeds of the project are in that final prospectus draft, but see the aforementioned document classifier. It’s…changed a bit.

But I also think that’s normal. Again, again, again: the prospectus is a stepping stone. (Stone idiom count: 3.) It is not written in blood. (Blood idiom count: 1.) And I think it’s really important to see how much projects evolve over time as we read more, learn more, dive into data and research contexts, talk to people, and do the work. (If you have never read the prospectus of a scholar whose work you admire: ask them!)

Nowadays, I meet with that same committee member I mentioned earlier, and he tells me, “You need to relax.” It is not the best advice, insofar as I sometimes interpret it as dismissing legitimate concerns that I have about my ability to actually execute my project while adhering to some arbitrary timeline. Still, it’s well-intentioned, and so I try to internalize it. I am working on my dissertation. I am pushing through. I am learning. It will come together. It will.

Every draft is a chance for progress. Keep working.

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