5 Tips for Successfully Defending a Dissertation Prospectus

As some of you know, I defended my dissertation prospectus on December 6th, 2012. I thought I would want to write about it right away, but I didn’t. I think I needed to just bask in the glory of finishing another step. All those working on any long-term goal will understand.

Before this event, I was so worried. I had no idea what to expect. Would it be formal, casual, something in the middle? Should I prepare a PowerPoint or Prezzi, or just type something?

wordwallproposalI decided to go “simple” (I actually took my dad’s advice on this) and so I’d like to share with you my top five elements of a successful prospectus defense. But please remember, this is just from my experience. You have a different committee with different requirements; however, following this list certainly can’t hurt!

1. Look at Every Assignment as a Possible Dissertation Chapter: As you go through your courses for your PhD program, try to write papers that you could envision taking to the next level. Look at each paper as a possibility. In this way, you have a motivation for writing: it is a means to a possible end.

Some may be saying “I have no idea what to write my dissertation on, so how will I shape my papers with the dissertation in mind?”

This was what I said to myself, by the way. I had no idea, so I tried to make each paper about something that interested me. The hard thing was that each time I’d write a paper I would think, “Now HERE is what I am interested in!” and then the next paper would make me react in the same way. Just remember that sooner or later you will have to pick a focus. One of my colleagues gave me the following advice that has helped me to find a bit of peace: “You can save the world and invent a theory later in your career…just get the dissertation finished.”

You may be asking what this has to do with the actual prospectus defense. All I can say is that when you have to have a conversation with scholars about several different topics, it is good to have researched them beforehand. The papers help.

2.  Talk to People! I started this blog because I wanted feedback from friends, romans, and countrymen – ha-ha – that just popped into my brain, sorry. Anyway, I wanted the feedback and I got it from several fellow bloggers. I also got feedback from students, colleagues, and family. It’s amazing how talking can just help you to understand your process and your topic.

The bottom line: Don’t research alone. Discuss ideas and don’t be shy about getting constructive criticism. You want criticism so you can avoid writing 100 pages of stuff you can’t use. The day before my proposal defense I walked by a colleague’s room, saw that he was alone, and popped in to talk with him for a second about my topic. He brought up a concept that I hadn’t even considered. As a result, I researched the concept and it became an integral part of my defense argument. Wow – I am so glad I talked with him. (Thanks John.)

 3. Starting the Prospectus: For some, the prospectus is comprised of the first 2-3 chapters of the dissertation. For my concentration in Rhetoric & Composition, I produced a research-based argument for what I wanted to write about, why I wanted to write it, and what the holes were in the research.

However, at the beginning when I had a blank screen, I didn’t know how to start. Thankfully, a friend who had already defended her proposal gave me some advice. She said that I should “look at my comps papers (seven papers I had to write in 6 days for my comprehensive exams) and pull out useful paragraphs that applied to the topic I thought I wanted to write about”. This was so helpful, because as I looked over all those papers I had written I realized that there was some useful research there! I didn’t have to reinvent the proverbial wheel.

Some of you may not have comprehensive papers; you may have had to go through oral comps. If that’s the case, revisit your past research papers. Also, be sure to peruse all your files, both paper and online. I bet there are some sources you forgot about. I am even going over my bookshelves (in this Kindle world I know that the paper book is almost a novelty, but for academic texts, I like to take notes in the margins).booksresearch

The primary lesson: Don’t forget about all the work you’ve already done. Use it. Don’t repeat it.

4. Keep the Presentation Simple: After I submitted my paper and got it approved and scheduled my dissertation defense, I had no idea where to go from there. As a result, I put everything down for a couple weeks. For me, that was effective. It is often beneficial to put work down – whether it’s a paper or novel – so you can look at it with fresh eyes later.

When I came back to it, I created handouts for the committee. My problem: The handouts ended up six pages long and were a regurgitation of the actual paper. It was not what I wanted, but I just didn’t know how to fix it. I was scared about cutting out information that I might need to remember.

As you all know, the best presentations are those in which the presenter talks with the audience and doesn’t read from a script. I had a script, and I did not like it.

I resorted to the last resource: Dad. As a retired sales pro who has given a thousand presentations, he took one look at my presentation and told me the truth: “This will NOT work. You have to cut out all the extra words and just have keywords on the top of each page. You KNOW what you want to say – – that’s what you have been studying. If you read it to them with a script, you won’t be able to allow for an authentic conversation.”

 For all the writers out there, you know how hard it is to cut out words – especially the ones you LIKE! After three revisions with my dad, a 5-6 page paper/presentation became 6-7 key words with a few bullets underneath. Wow – what a change. I was still worried though. What if I forgot something? What if I didn’t anticipate their questions?

 Here are the main talking points in my prospectus defense (The font is large so I wouldn’t lose my place):


Why now:

Why Me:

Benefits for Academia:

The Hole in scholarship:

Questions to Answer:

5. Practice in your mind: Visualize. As you can see, there’s not a lot above. Granted, I’ve left out some bullet points, but I figure those are a moot point here. The point is that I had to rely on memory and conversational skills to get through the presentation.

So how to do you practice that?

I printed the above and took about 90 minutes to go through each talking point. I thought about what I would say, and I imagined what the panel would ask me. I tried to think of every hole in my argument, every point I had forgotten. It was interesting because as I put myself in the “voice” of the professors on the committee, I thought of issues that I hadn’t considered before. This mental rehearsal reminded me of when I used to prepare for violin recitals. My philosophy was that if you couldn’t play the entire concerto in your mind, you didn’t really have it down. So that’s what I did with this, and it worked!  

I hope you have found this helpful.


17 thoughts on “5 Tips for Successfully Defending a Dissertation Prospectus

  1. As a teacher who started a blog to figure out what I am going to concentrate a Ph.D on in a year or 2, this article was very helpful! Thank you, Matt.

      • NO IDEA!!! That’s why I have started this blog to narrow down my thoughts. RIght now my vague subject is education/psychology…I have a lot of niche finding to go until I have narrowed it down to a finite area.

    • I need to print this out for after I finish my Masters! I will say that in trying to find a topic for my Capstone (which is very different from a dissertation prospectus I guess), looking at every assignment as a possible topic is a great tip. This is good stuff :) BOOK worthy!!

  2. What kind of education? You know, there’s the psychology of writing, the psychology of language-learning, etc. What is your primary degree in? I have always loved reading about the psychology behind learning anything: one article I read the other day talked about how kids aren’t lazy, they are just rebelling against the strict rules and regulations. I have a blog post about it: resistant or compliant at http://dissertationgal.com/2012/11/21/writing-resistant-or-compliant-which-are-you/

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  11. I have seen loads of useful things on your site about pcs. However, I’ve got the viewpoint that laptop computers are still not quite powerful adequately to be a good selection if you generally do jobs that require loads of power, just like video touch-ups. But for world-wide-web surfing, word processing, and the majority of other common computer work they are fine, provided you never mind the tiny screen size. Thank you for sharing your thinking.

    • Thanks for reading! Where are you in your dissertation process? Right now I am slogging through the writing of it. I did archival research in February and now I’m turning that data into pages, which is harder than I thought.

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