A less-than-modest proposal (1/2)

Back from a week’s vacation in Atlanta, and I must admit that I think I lied to you in my last post.  With my exams behind me, I think I may not actually do that many more reviews of books that were on my lists, mostly because I think I’ve covered most of the interesting ones already.  Hate me if you must.

Instead, I’m going to spend a little bit of time talking about my dissertation proposal in this post, before moving on to reviews of SF books that I’m reading this summer.  I don’t know how transferable my experience of the proposal writing and defense processes will be to others – since dissertations are all pretty idiosyncratic beasts – but hopefully this will at least give anyone in the pre-diss stages another data point by which to orient their own paths.  

What the hell does a dissertation proposal look like?  Until earlier this year, I really didn’t know, in any concrete sense.  I mean, sure, presumably it was a document in which you talk about the dissertation project you want to pursue and why it’s a good idea.  But how long should it be?  How should it be organized?  What else should you talk about besides the conceptual concerns of the project itself?  How fleshed out should your ideas be already?  I didn’t have any answers to any of these questions, and in many cases didn’t even know they were questions I should be asking.

As luck would have it, one of the graduate workshops at my institution hosted a roundtable on that very subject, and even though I didn’t get to attend it, I could at least peep the handout, which was helpful.  In addition, my department launched a website for its grad students in which exam lists and questions, as well as dissertation proposals, from the last few years are archived.  From looking at those examples, however, I found that there actually wasn’t much in the way of consistency to them on the surface level.  Some were extended narratives of the content, timing, and importance of the dissertation’s topic; some had detailed chapter breakdowns that felt almost as though the chapters were already written; some were almost entirely bibliography.

Faced with this profusion, I decided to simply start throwing words down on a page and worry about the rest later.  Throughout my first few years of grad school, I’d built toward a conceptualization of my project that involved examining SF at three moments in Japanese history, asking specifically how the body was imagined and contested in each of those moments.  So I started there, and talked about why I thought each moment was useful to consider, what I thought I might find in researching those moments, and why SF itself was a worthy object of study.  I talked a little about how I imagined I might structure the dissertation (spoiler alert: chronologically), threw in a rough bibliography, and ended up at around 18 pages, double-spaced, if memory serves.  This, I sent to my advisor for feedback.

The feedback I got was basically, “Starts off well, but then gets really muddled in the issues it’s discussing.  Needs a timeline.  Add these sources to your biblio.”  This was very useful feedback to get, and I almost entirely reworked the proposal as a result.  Much of what I had written became the “Topic Overview” section that led off the proposal, with bits and pieces filling in portions of the chapter outline that I added at this stage.  And it’s true: the proposal’s attention DID get really scattered in the back half, so I ended up cutting a bunch of it.  I added an illustrative example of the issues I wanted to discuss at the beginning, hoping a concrete case would make the abstract conceptual problems easier to grasp.  And, since by this point I had been notified that I received a fellowship to do archival work next year in Japan, I added in a timeline talking about what I’d do until then (i.e. right now), and how I’d structure my time once I was on the ground in Japan.  I talked about when I wanted to start writing chapters, and in what order, and what I’d do after I returned to the States, with a projected graduation date.

At this point, I threw the proposal in front of a graduate student workshop, where I received a barrage of incisive feedback that – while stinging slightly at the time – nevertheless helped me sharpen my terms, thinking, etc.  This is really the big takeaway of this post: show your proposal to a lot of people who are willing to give your their feedback.  Use whatever fora you have at your disposal to get every perspective you can.  The workshop process was one in which my proposal got torn apart, but far better to have that happen now, and with a friendly audience, than later, once I was already knee-deep in intractable problems.

Following the workshop, I again reworked the whole thing, though less drastically.  I changed terms, shifted discussions, highlighted interventions, and so on.  Most significantly, I added a section toward the end that basically amounted to, “Here are all the problems I know exist in the dissertation as proposed and what I intend to do about them.”  Key among those was the issue of focus, since it became very clear over the course of the workshop that I had a whole nest of terms and problems all pulling in slightly different directions.  In this section, I tried to make the case that I would be able to hold everything together in a coherent assemblage.  I added more items to the bibliography, and with my heart in my throat, sent it off to my committee.

Next time, I’ll talk about the proposal defense process and how a lot of things fell apart.  For now, though, if you’d like to have a look at the end product of my proposal writing process, you can access it here.  Hopefully it’s useful to you, but please don’t cite or circulate it without first getting my permission.


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