Dissertation Writing Advice: The Prospectus

LaToya R Jefferson-James
6 min readOct 20, 2022

My past couple of posts have been about dissertation writing. Well, before you get to the most important document of your academic career, there is just one other hurdle that you have to clear: the prospectus.

My last few posts have been about writing your dissertation. Yes, this is the most important document that you will produce in your academic career. Yes, it will be time-consuming. Yes, you will have to impress your committee members. Yes, you may have to do revisions. Yes, you have to follow the school’s dissertation format. No, you don’t have to stress about it.

Don’t Skimp on the Prep Work

There are a few things that I want to ask you first. 1.) Have you crafted a thesis statement? Gone to the databases? Downloaded some killer articles? Read through them? Started an annotated bibliography? 2.) Have you met with your committee chair to discuss how you will write your dissertation should you get past the prospectus phase? There are two ways that people write dissertations. The first way is to write each chapter as if it were a stand-alone journal article. Though there is a common thread running throughout the entire dissertation, each chapter could be its own paper. That way, when you graduate and land that first tenure-track job, you will theoretically have at least four articles to send to various academic journals. And in academia, publishing gets tenure, no matter how much teaching or service you do.

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The second way is to write the dissertation as if it were a book. Each chapter blends into the next chapter. Have made it this far in the graduate process, you have read more than one academic book. If this is the way your chair prefers the dissertation, find one of your favorite authors and mirror that author’s style. And don’t think that this is beneath you. To want to start from fresh is very American and very silly.

Now, if you have done those two very important things, it is now time to craft a prospectus. Keep in mind that a prospectus is its own document separate from the dissertation, and there are certain things that you need to do in the prospectus that you won’t necessarily need to do in the dissertation phase.

Introduction to the Prospectus

  1. ) You may need to explain your controversy/issue/research question thoroughly in writing. This may take a few paragraphs. If you want to research British schooling policies of the 1800s, why? Why is it essential that the American academic community know about this topic? Remember, this is your topic, you are the expert, and you should be passionate about it. By the time you arrive at this stage, you should have researched this topic inside out, outside in, upside down, and downside up.
  2. ) Get to the nitty-gritty. Do you have a very strong thesis statement? What is the point of this research project? Make sure that you state your thesis statement explicitly and not craft an implicit thesis. Now is not the time to be creative!
  3. ) Talk about what is missing surrounding your chosen topic. Write the research that you want to read. If there is no research out there about Britain’s private school system and how it contributed to the entrenched class system with its implicit and explicit biases, then write it. As a matter of fact, at the prospectus stage, write about how this research is missing and link it to how your writing is a contribution to the academic conversations of schools and society at large.

The Literature Review

I want to tell you this, Reader/Writer. The literature review for Modern Languages Association (MLA), American Psychological Association (APA), and the Council of Science Editors (CSE) vary greatly! Before attempting the literature review, read the format in your writer’s handbook or visit an online writing center.

My go-to writing center is here:

Now, let me give you a very simple definition of what a literature review is. It is a summarizing of the current major theorists/experiments in your area. Do you remember doing an annotated bibliography at some point in your writing career? This is a unified version of one. Now, here’s one key question about the literature review: after you have given the committee a brief overview of the major theorists and what they say, how do your views differ? Again, we are right back at this major point: how will your research add to the current academic conversation? This is a point that you need to drive home throughout your prospectus.

The Body of the Prospectus

Again, Reader/Writer, I need to tell you something about the body of the prospectus. Some departments/committees want you to write the first two chapters of your dissertation. These are called, “qualifying chapters.” And that’s fine. The rest of your prospectus should be a plan for how you will arrange the dissertation. Here are three pertinent questions:

  1. How many chapters will this dissertation have?
  2. How will you connect or not connect these chapters?
  3. How long, if you can guess, will it take you to write this dissertation?

I suggest providing a brief summary of each chapter. When I say brief, I mean only one paragraph. Sometimes, extend it to two. Your conclusion should tell the committee how each of these chapters is connected. And please give them a time-frame.

Judgment Day

Well, not really. I wanted to be dramatic. Technical things in writing can be boring, though they are all beneficial. I have some advice for the nervous Ph.D. candidate on the day of your prospectus defense.

  1. ) Send a written copy of your prospectus weeks in advance. Send it to your dissertation chair first, let him/her mark it up or make suggestions, and make sure the rest of the committee members receive a hard copy. Professors are busy people. Make sure that you don’t burden them with last-minute technicalities.
  2. ) Go in to the room with a well-organized, professional slide presentation. Since I am talking to doctoral students, I do not have to give you any points about what a professional slide show should look like.
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  1. ) Provide a hand-out that matches the slide. Arrive early so that you can give your slide presentation one last run-through and make sure that all equipment is working. There is no need for a great slide presentation with a busted overhead!
  2. ) Be prepared to answer many questions. Don’t sweat this. Remember, you are the expert here! You have done the research and turned this topic over a dozen times. I used to dream that I was writing about my topic. There was nothing those people could ask me that I wasn’t prepared to answer. It was my topic and that dissertation would be my work.

I have nothing more to add here. The rest is up to you. I will say this before I sign off, if you are headed into the prospectus defense this fall, if you did not skimp on your preparation phase, you have already given yourself a head start. Be calm. Be cool. Don’t smoke funny cigarettes before the presentation, go in and wreck shop!

If you have recently defended your prospectus successfully, comment. Let me know. How was it?

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LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.