Notes for dissertation prospectus writers

Spring 2005, updated 2010





A dissertation prospectus should set out three things: the sources (primary and secondary) that you think will shape your work; the issue (or issues) that will drive your project; and the structure of the dissertation (ie, a chapter outline) that you think will be the result of your labors. Obviously at the prospectus writing stage this is all subject to change, the archive you thought would have everything you needed might have very little, your understanding of the issues that you are investigating will probably (hopefully, in fact) change dramatically over the course of your work on your dissertation, and few chapter outlines survive writing the initial chapter. But while a prospectus’ shelf life is often not very long, its value lies in helping you and your committee get an initial handle on your project and its place in the historical literature.


While that is the formal explanation of a prospectus’ purpose, a cruder, but no less accurate way of thinking about the prospectus is to realize that ultimately it should provide answers to two questions (and even here, the answers it gives must be tentative): Why should anyone care about this project? Can it be done?


Preparing to write a prospectus:


Presumably by this point you have identified (and discussed with your dissertation advisor) a general research problem that you hope will be the focus of your dissertation. Getting from that problem (which presumably interests you to the extent you are willing to spend several years researching and writing about it) to a prospectus is a matter of refining your project by expanding your understanding of what is out there, in terms of secondary literature in the relevant field (or fields) and the available historical sources. It is often easiest to this by thinking in terms of the elements of a prospectus (see below), since those elements relate fairly precisely to the work that needs to be done in preparing a prospectus.


Element of a prospectus:


A variation of a prospectus often reappears as the introduction to your dissertation (and ultimately the book manuscript that derives from the dissertation) so a good place to start in terms of thinking about structure is to read a number of introductions to historical monographs. You will see that there is no single organizing principle, some introductions begin with a thesis statement, others begin with an historical anecdote, a few begin by posing a question, still others leap into an examination of the historical literature. The beginning of the introduction then, typically, dictates the order in which it proceeds. That having been said, there are basic elements of most introductions and those elements are also found in the dissertation prospectus.


  1. Thesis statement: Given the difference in size between a 15-20 page seminar paper and a 300 plus page dissertation, it should come as no surprise that your thesis statement for a dissertation prospectus should be more complicated than the single sentence or so that forms the basis of most papers. It is best, perhaps, to think of this statement as having several parts: it is a statement of the historical problem you are researching, the tentative conclusion about that problem you hope your research will support, and an explanation of why this problem, and your solution, are historically significant.


While this section should not be a sentence long, it should also not be 10 pages long. Brevity and clarity are key, for two reasons. If you can state your thesis in a succinct fashion you probably have a clear understanding of what it is, if, in contrast, you talk around it for pages, you probably are not sure what you are getting at. Likewise, if you can set your thesis statement out clearly and concisely you increase the likelihood that your committee will understand what you are hoping to do.


At this stage, a reasonable model for your thesis statement is the abstract found at the beginning of some journal articles. Think in terms of trying to set out the parts of your thesis statement in a page, or in 100 words. If it takes a bit more that’s not the end of the world; nor is it a disaster if it takes slightly less. But if your thesis statement is two sentences, or five or more pages, you need to reassess. For discussions of how to write an abstract, look here and here.


(NOTE: When you are further along in your project, giving papers at conferences and applying for jobs, you will need to be able to state your thesis in a sentence or two.)


  1. Literature review/historiographical essay: Here, you are demonstrating two different things, and the length of this typically fairly long section should be driven by those two concerns. First, you are showing that you are familiar with the relevant literature. Second, you are establishing that your work will not duplicate something that is already done, but instead will advance the field(s).


As that suggests, you may have to think in terms of several different fields of history, depending a bit on your project. A prospectus for a project intending to be a legal history of women in the 19th century west would have to engage, at the very least, the legal history of the nineteenth century generally, legal history of women, histories of women in the west, and the relationship between all those fields. Ideally, this section is a good historiographical essay that ties the literature review to your project and does not simply summarize book after book after book in mind numbing and, to your project, at least, irrelevant detail.


What you should do is read the relevant journal and monograph literature, focusing on recent works, of course, but you also need to pay attention to older studies (as far back as you can find them). Look at works that cover the same time period, or region, or general field of inquiry, to see what they can tell you about the subject of your research.  While you should concentrate on becoming expert on the literature related to your project, you should also think comparatively. If your interest is in the 20th century South, look at work in the 19th century South as well, and also at studies of the 20th century North. You need to do this to make sure you don’t make the error of concluding a phenomenon was unique to your time or place, when a quick check would reveal it was far more widespread, or long lasting. (Likewise, it is often wise to consider non-US historiography, sometimes there are interesting approaches or ideas set out in these works. Alternatively, you might want to focus on US literature in your prospectus, but glance at non US works as your research progresses, to get a larger perspective on your work.)


Think in terms of three things when considering the literature: What does it tell you about the time or place or phenomenon you are interested in studying? What archival sources that might be relevant to your project does it reveal? What method or methodologies does it utilize? Then, when positioning your project in the literature, make use of all this information.


There is one other thing to consider in writing this section on the relationship of your work to the other works in the relevant field(s). The temptation, particularly as you become more comfortable with (and enthused about) your own project is to treat the works of the historians who preceded you dismissively. And of course there is always the chance that your predecessors were fools who missed an obvious thing. But even in such a case, a bit of tact is not misplaced. For one thing, it may be that as you do more work in the field you see that the idiots that you dismissed took the positions that they took because they knew about things that you were unaware of until you began your research.  And, even if that is not the case, and your research reveals to you the folly of your predecessors was even graver than you imagined, tact in this and later stages is not a bad thing. If nothing else, it offers you excellent practice preparing for grading papers.


  1. Statement of primary sources: Obviously as you do your research you will expand and contract your plans relating to primary sources. Often initial plans are wildly unrealistic, reading all the cases from a particular court system may be the work of a lifetime, not a couple of years, conversely an historical society’s collection of papers may include two documents, not the twenty year diary you hoped would appear. This section must be, as a result, tentative.


At the same time, it is the core of your prospectus. A brilliant thesis, set off by a stunning literature review, is worthless if there is no evidence that will enable you to back up your claims. In this section you must show that it is at least more likely than not that there are sources out there that you expect to be able to use and you must offer some sense of how you will use them. If you hope to study ideas of justice in early seventeenth century Florida, you need to talk about what you expect will reveal those ideas—legal sources, literary sources, letters and reports, even structural remnants might be plausible bits of evidence to support your theory. So here is where you need to set those different sources out, indicate where they are (or where you think they are), how you hope to use them, and that you can use them (ie, prove that you can make good use of an archive full of Spanish language texts).


This is the section that will convince your committee there is something to your project, so be sure you spend time making it as strong as you can. That does not mean that you need to go to every archive before you present your prospectus, but it does mean you need to have some fairly coherent idea of what archives are relevant, what they contain, and how you hope to use the materials in them.


  1. Methodology:  Often this section will have considerable overlap with the section on primary sources, and so it might make sense to collapse the two sections together (though see below). In contrast to some fields (for example, sociology), most of the time history is not concerned with your precise methodology. That said,  one methodological issue, perhaps the only one, you need to address is how you will use the materials that are the basis of your research, but this may involve answering several questions. Some are basic: Can you understand the language that the materials are in? (Comparable questions arise in relation to non-literary sources: How do you plan to interpret the artwork, or music, or literary materials that you plan to use? How will you interpret that buildings and structures that give rise to your geographic theory of justice?) 


There are some other questions that you should consider that are more complicated variations on that theme:  How do you plan to test for or adjust for the bias of your sources? If you are studying the place of women in the criminal justice system and your only sources are written by the male officers of that system, what do you need to take into account in weighing that evidence and how do you plan to do so? 


Finally, you may want to address the relations between the various types of sources you plan to use: How will you weigh a literary source against a legal record, or use one to illuminate the other?


Again, much of this will have to be refined as you go along. At this stage, you need to consider these questions both to make sure they are on your radar screen and to be able to prove to your committee that you understand that there are issues about the reliability of historical evidence that you need to consider.


A discussion of methodology may also involve a discussion of the theory or theories that influence your work. If you propose a Marxist interpretation of tort law, you need to discuss that methodology and show it is appropriate to your inquiry. In this respect, your methodology may be closely related to your literature review, and you may want to put your discussion of it in that section. (You need not, of course, do so.)


  1. Research plan:  Do you expect to spend a year in the archives and another writing? If so, this is the section in which to outline those goals. Do you think it makes more sense to research two chapters, write for a while, and then research some more? If so, set that out. Are you applying for a fellowship or grant to do research with? If so, say so here, and also explain what you will do about your research if the grant falls through. While no one wants to be discouraging, the nature of fellowships and grants is such that a dissertation that depends on a $35,000 a year grant that is awarded to one person every decade may be a dissertation that needs to be reconsidered, on the remote chance that you are not the person who wins that coveted grant.


  1. Chapter outline: This is another bit of the prospectus that has value for a limited time only. No one expects that the final organization of your dissertation will resemble this outline. But at this stage, even the roughest outline helps you think through your project and helps your committee evaluate its balance. An outline can help catch issues of overreach and narrowness. Why are you claiming to write a history of criminal law in America when your chapters focus only on the nineteenth century? Why are you claiming to plan a study of tort law in Alachua County Florida when your chapters suggest you will look at the southeast United States? Why are you talking in terms of a dissertation on the interwar era when six of your proposed seven chapters are on the period 1920-1925, and the seventh is a conclusion?


But you also want to use this exercise to think a little about how you envision your dissertation. Are you planning on writing a narrative, which proceeds in chronological order? Are you interested, instead, in writing an analytic study that will be organized thematically? You may find it helpful to read (or re-read) some monographs to see how they are arranged. This is not only a way to find some models to borrow from as you write your chapter outline, but it will also encourage you to begin to think about how history can be written.


NOTE: You might find it helpful to sketch out your chapter outline first, before you write the rest of your prospectus, to give yourself an idea of where you hope to go with your prospectus, and then return to the chapter outline when you’ve finished the rest of the prospectus to see how it matches up. In its final form, a good chapter outline not only has tentative chapter titles that suggest what each chapter will cover, but also has a paragraph that summarizes the focus of the chapter and, perhaps, sets out the major sources of evidence for that chapter (ie, in chapter two you will look at trial records, while in chapter three you will look at appellate opinions).


Usually, this is the last text section in the prospectus, since it gives concrete shape to the airier ideas that you floated in the rest of the document.


  1. Bibliography: This should be the very end of your prospectus, and should contain not only secondary sources but also as many primary sources as you have identified and any archives that may be relevant to your project.  Here, you want to be as inclusive as you can be.





There are no hard and fast rules about this, the prospectus should be as long as it has to be. Ideally, you will show several drafts to your dissertation advisor and get feedback on whether material can be cut or needs to be added. It is better to be concise than rambling, but it is also better to treat every part of the prospectus as fully as necessary. Twenty-five pages are probably the minimum (plus a bibliography that lists both primary and secondary sources) and forty-five pages (not including the bibliography) is probably an outer limit. Much will depend on how many fields you need to engage in your literature review or how complicated your methodology is.