A dissertation in English is an original study that advances our understanding of literature, culture, or critical theory. A dissertation proposal is a research prospectus whose rhetorical purposes are as follows:
- To define the object of study in the dissertation;
- To formulate the argument that the author anticipates making;
- To justify the project on the basis of its significance and originality; and
- To outline the form that the project will take.
Any dissertation proposal should therefore include the following:
- A discussion of the project's focus, working hypotheses, and methodology;
- An overview of recent scholarly work in the field that demonstrates the student's familiarity with that work and shows how the dissertation will differ from or extend it;
- A chapter-by-chapter summary of the dissertation that anticipates its structure and articulates its tentative argument in some detail; and
- A selected bibliography.
The text of a proposal should generally be 2,500-3,000 words (or 8-10 double-spaced pages) in length; the bibliography is expected to contribute another 2-3 pages. Proposals that are significantly longer or shorter are to be discouraged. MLA style guidelines should be followed throughout the proposal, including the bibliography.
While dissertation proposals should benefit their authors (in fellowship competitions, on the academic job market, and in the drafting of the dissertation itself), they remain exploratory documents rather than conclusive accounts of the dissertation project. As the dissertation evolves, neither the student nor the committee should expect rigid adherence to the approved proposal. With the committee's approval, the student may have reason to add, drop, or significantly alter the content of a chapter. The project's thesis itself may change if the student's investigation warrants a rethinking of the original hypotheses. It is not necessary for a new proposal to be submitted under such circumstances unless the project changes so significantly that the dissertation is no longer recognizable as the project that was approved.
The writing of a dissertation proposal should be conceived as a finite process meant to jump-start the drafting of the dissertation itself, rather than as the production of a definitive and perfectly achieved statement. A proposal is important but entirely instrumental, and it should be accorded the time and labor appropriate to something useful that will soon be left behind.
For a student to remain in good standing, his or her proposal must be approved by the dissertation committee within six months after the completion of the Ph.D. Qualifying Examination. The student's committee must first be constituted using the Graduate School's Dissertation Committee Recommendation form. Next, the Ballot for the Approval of a Dissertation Proposal must be signed by all three readers. Finally, the approved proposal, together with a copy of the Dissertation Proposal form, must be submitted to the Graduate School.