Category Archives: prospectus

Writing (and Defending) A Prospectus

In my Ph.D. program, after successfully completing your comprehensive exams, you then produce a prospectus. The prospectus is, in many ways, a speculative document. Think of it as a proposal for the dissertation: you are creating something that outlines the main research questions, the methodology, the existing literature, and your proposed intervention, while also giving your committee a sense of your timeline to completion. A prospectus is multi-faceted and multi-functional, thereby making it one of the most difficult genres of writing.

To start writing my prospectus, the first thing I did was check my handbook to see what the parameters and expectations were. These were the instructions given:

“The prospectus will give a full description of the inquiry to be undertaken. It will identify an issue or problem, explain how this bears upon or intervenes in a particular field of scholarship, relate the topic to previous and on-going works, detail the several parts of the project and show their interrelations, name the key primary sources, outline the principle methods, and suggest a timetable for completion. Such a prospectus should run between 3500 and 5000 words (approximately 14-20 pages) and should include as a supplement a bibliography of the principal primary and secondary sources.”

 

Next, I broke this up into sections that I knew I needed to answer:

  • Description of the inquiry
  • Identify an issue or problem
  • Explain how this intervenes in a field of scholarship
  • Relate the topic to previous or on-going works
  • Detail the parts of the project
  • Name the sources
  • Methodology
  • Timetable to completion

After I had the barebones structure, I reached out to a few trusted colleagues who were ahead of me in the same program, hoping to see their prospecti. I asked for and received about three prospecti to examine. Looking at their documents gave me a sense of how to structure my own.

Admittedly, I did something a little unconventional in terms of writing my first draft. The week after my oral comprehensive exam, I did a week long writing retreat sponsored by William & Mary Libraries, and spent five entire days just writing. I simply worked on drafting responses to each of the sections, and took advantage of being in the library to help build my bibliography and source material. By that Friday, I had a 20 page outline for what would eventually become my prospectus.

Following the retreat, with the exception of adding a section about the creative component I wanted to produce, I left it alone for almost the entire summer, coming back to it just before the start of the fall semester. Being able to leave it was a Godsend because I was able to reapproach my questions and methodology with fresh eyes and new ideas. I spent about two weeks stitching together my blocks of text, smoothing them out, connecting them more seamlessly until the document flowed as a cohesive unit.

Once I was happy with the way it read, I started to send it out to my chairs. Both offered substantive content and structural edits, which I took to heart and used to make my prospectus stronger.

After making the appropriate edits, I emailed the professors who would serve as my committee for my Prospectus Colloquium. In many programs, the defense of the prospectus is a much bigger deal than it is in mine. For some, one is not considered a candidate or “All But Dissertation” (ABD) until successful completion of the prospectus defense. In my program, we don’t even consider the colloquium “a defense;” it’s much more of a conversation about the project, a low key way to offer feedback that should propel you forward and help mold your path further.

Indeed, my colloquium was just that. Everyone was pleased with my proposed project, my methodology, my conversation with theorists, my proposed research and the creative component. They offered a few suggestions of note which would help me structure my chapters and overall narrative. Despite the project being “innovative” and “trail-blazing,” one of my chairs had very valid concerns about my work being legible in a way that would secure me a job.

I’m not sure I allayed her fears when I informed her that I’m not worried about being legible to older, white folks on search committees. My work is for Black girls that were and are like me. As long as I’m writing for them, I’m walking in my purpose and that is all I can ask for. Like I told my mother after the colloquium, I’m at a point where I’m no longer super concerned about landing a job in the Academy after I finish the Ph.D. I have so many skills and passions that something will turn up for me. That said, I have never been one who believed in simply waiting for things to fall in my lap. You must stay sharp and prepared so when opportunity comes knocking, you are ready. For me, that means getting my work out there in a variety of ways so that when the right opportunity comes, I can take it.

For the time being, I need to consider my next steps, which includes making an obnoxious, color-coded outline for my dissertation; pasting a timeline (also color-coded) to my bathroom mirror; creating a dissertation hashtag; and opening a new file in Scrivener. So that’s what I’m doing this weekend.

I’m ready to begin in earnest.


If you are a graduate student in American Studies or a related field, and need help formulating your prospectus, I am happy to send mine along. Just reach out via email or DM and say a little about who you are, what your project is and how you think seeing my prospectus could help you along.