Planning, researching, and writing your doctoral dissertation is the culmination of your graduate studies. When successfully completed, your dissertation will represent the apogee of your scholarly abilities, demonstrating not only your advanced knowledge of a particular field of research and its related practices, but also your highly developed research, organizing, and writing skills.
The faculty do not expect you to undertake such a project without considerable preparation and guidance. Indeed, you have until the eleventh week of the semester after you’ve passed your Comprehensive Exams Portfolio to submit your dissertation proposal. Given that a part of your CEP already includes a brief dissertation idea, this should give you plenty of time to craft that idea into a well-developed research project, especially if you work closely with your dissertation director and consult the Dissertation Writer’s Handbook that can be downloaded from the Program website.
Once your proposal is approved by your committee--usually in a meeting with them in the 13th week of the semester--you will be considered “ABD” (All But Dissertation). While not an academic credential in the same way an awarded degree is, many people opt to put the initials “ABD” after their names on business cards and email signature lines to indicate to others their proximity to the Ph.D.
At present, the dissertation is a relatively conventional print document, though increasingly there are efforts to encourage the Graduate College to accept dissertations that go beyond print to include film, video, audio, software, archives, and other media forms. If you are interested in pursuing one of these less conventional options, talk with your director and the Program Director to discuss how best to proceed.
At the front end of the dissertation is the dissertation proposal. This is a document that advanced students compose in order to clarify for themselves and their advisers why and how they will research, organize, and write their dissertations. It is less like a blueprint—which is, by definition, a fixed and fully formed set of specifications—than an “architectural scheme,” that is, a somewhat detailed sketch that systematically captures the essence of a project and describes an action plan for carrying it out. Such a document can emerge in many ways and the writing and presenting of it serves many functions.
Students typically find that through drafting the dissertation proposal—a process that is equal parts idea generation, sifting, selection, and description—they become keenly aware of when their theoretical frameworks need bolstering, when their research questions are too vague, and when they are being over-ambitious about their objectives. Once identified, such weaknesses can be addressed and corrected.
Moreover, students begin to learn a fundamental skill that they will likely need several times throughout their careers: how to develop a convincing book proposal. While dissertation proposals are a bit different than proposals for trade or academic books, many of the elements are the same. In writing the proposal with the help of your Dissertation Director, and in presenting it to your Dissertation Committee, you will develop skills in professional and rhetorical arts that could have a profound impact on your ability to advance in the academy.
For faculty, dissertation proposals are a chance to help students hone their professional academic skills and avoid some of the research and writing obstacles that can only be identified with experience. It also gives faculty a chance to get oriented to each particular student’s way of thinking about certain kinds of problems, from philosophical paradoxes to time management issues. By discovering such information early on, faculty are in a much better position to offer helpful counsel throughout the actual dissertation writing process.
As you develop your proposal, be mindful of the various strengths and weaknesses of your committee members and assemble a document that will give each of them the most useful picture of your project as you envision it. Say, for example, that you are planning to write a dissertation on diaspora rhetoric under globalization. If you happen to know that one of your committee members is extremely well read in the area of pre-eighteenth-century diasporic rhetorics while another member is really only familiar with the migration rhetorics characteristic of the Galician Diaspora, then you might want to add a sentence or two that will help each of these members to understand your project given their scholarly strengths and limits. Simply put, write your proposal like the rhetor you are.
One significant factor in the successful completion of both the dissertation proposal and the dissertation is careful stewardship of your time. It is imperative that once you have passed your Comprehensive Exam Portfolio that you identify and consult with your Dissertation Director as soon as possible (within two weeks at the outside), preferably with your CEP Dissertation Idea and a sense of the dissertation’s basic argument in hand. The Director will work with you on early drafts of the Proposal. (See the Program Assistant for Dissertation Proposal models.)
Dissertation Proposals tend to be 5-15 pages long (single-spaced, 1” margins, 12 point typeface, MLA format) depending on the number of chapters anticipated for the completed manuscript. Dissertations themselves tend to be 200-300 pages long and are broken into four to six chapters. Early chapters tend to outline the general issue under investigation, review the relevant literature that impinges upon your topic, clarifies the theory and methodology that govern your project, and offers one or more case studies, close readings, or other analysis and argument that advances disciplinary knowledge. Dissertations can take anywhere from one to several years to write depending the complexity of project, though most students in this Program finish their dissertations in one to one-and-a-half years.
For more detail on the dissertation proposal, the dissertation writing process, and other information related to planning, writing, and defending your dissertation, please talk to the Program Director or the Program Assistant.