are many different kinds
of prospectuses for different purposes. In the humanities, Ph.D.
asked to submit dissertation prospectuses to their committees; most
grant applications require them; academic job candidates often include
prospectuses with their application materials; and book publishers
as part of the process of considering a manuscript for publication.
journals and essay volumes may also request a prospectus of a proposed
These different kinds of prospectuses differ mostly in regard to the
detail with which the project is described. Dissertation prospectuses
anywhere from 5 to 30 pages, depending on the amount of detail
requested of the
student, while grant and job applications generally require brevity
single-spaced pages for a job application; 3-5 single-spaced pages for
grants). It is highly likely that before a major humanities project is
published, 3 or 4 different kinds of prospectuses will have been
A prospectus should answer the following questions:
Think about your audience. Most of the members of your dissertation committee will know a lot about your area of research. But this may not be true, for example, of committee members from outside the department. It is even less likely that readers of job or grant applications or book editors will be familiar with the particular area of scholarship in which you work. It is therefore important that your prospectus convey its subject matter in as clear a fashion as possible, and that it not make too many demands upon its readers in regard to knowing specialized terminology or about debates within a given field. Your prospectus should be meaningful and interesting to an intelligent general reader.
What readers look for in a good prospectus. In most cases, prospectuses are being reviewed because people are considering entrusting you with something: the freedom of advancing to candidacy; a job; grant money; a book contract. They need to know if their trust will be well placed, and that you are a good bet to follow through on your proposed work. Questions that often arise in this regard are as follows:
Dissertations are works in progress. If you have read these suggestions in preparation for writing a dissertation prospectus, you may be feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps you worry that you don't know how to address all the issues raised in the five key questions outlined above. This is probably because your dissertation topic and/or organization has not been thoroughly worked out yet. Indeed, many students find it hard to be decisive about the shape, topic, and issues in a dissertation until they are well into the writing (which is why more advanced students tend to write better prospectuses than those just starting their research, and, not coincidentally, compete better for jobs and grants). If your dissertation is still in its early stages, you may have to bluff a little to produce a cogent prospectus, and even resign yourself to remaining a bit speculative in places about features of your project. But you should also see whatever difficulties you have in writing your prospectus as diagnostic of the work have yet to do in planning your dissertation: if you are having trouble articulating the topic, you probably need to think it through more thoroughly; if you are uncomfortable with your rationale for undertaking the project, perhaps you need to do more research on previous approaches; if you have trouble summarizing your chapters, perhaps you need to spend some time on either the organization of the dissertation or on the content of the individual chapters. This exercise is worth the effort: a dissertation prospectus will probably be the first draft of all the other prospectuses to follow.
Some other resources:
Przeworski & Salomon, "On the Art of Writing Proposals"
Sydel Silverman, "Writing Grant Proposals for Anthropological Research"
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