Writing a Prospectus

There are many different kinds of prospectuses for different purposes. In the humanities, Ph.D. students are asked to submit dissertation prospectuses to their committees; most research grant applications require them; academic job candidates often include short prospectuses with their application materials; and book publishers request them as part of the process of considering a manuscript for publication. Editors of journals and essay volumes may also request a prospectus of a proposed article. These different kinds of prospectuses differ mostly in regard to the length and detail with which the project is described. Dissertation prospectuses can run anywhere from 5 to 30 pages, depending on the amount of detail requested of the student, while grant and job applications generally require brevity (1-2 single-spaced pages for a job application; 3-5 single-spaced pages for many grants). It is highly likely that before a major humanities project is published, 3 or 4 different kinds of prospectuses will have been written for it.

A prospectus should answer the following questions:
  1. What is the subject of the study? How is the subject defined (is there any special use of terminology or context)? What are the main research questions the study aims to answer?
  2. Why is the author addressing this topic? What have other scholars written about this subject, and how is this author's approach, information, or perspective different? What need or gap does this proposed study fill in the scholarly conversation? What new approach to a familiar topic does it propose to offer? What will be the study's original and special contributions to this subject?
  3. What are the main sources that will be used to explore this subject? Why are these sources appropriate?
  4. What is the proposed organization of the study?
  5.  Does the author have any special needs in order to complete this study? In particular, does s/he need funding to travel to archives, gain access to collections, or acquire technical equipment? Does s/he have the special skills (languages, technical expertise) that this project might require?
Organization:
  1. Title: it should be informative and helpful in pinpointing the topic and emphasis of your study
  2. The body of the prospectus: this section should concentrate on addressing questions 1-3 above. The goal of this section is both to describe the project and to "sell" the reader on its potential interest and scholarly significance.
  3. A chapter breakdown: This can either be a formal section, in which each chapter is described in turn in about a paragraph‚s worth of text, or it can be done more narratively, in which the whole project is outlined as a more seamless story. Either way, it should address question #4, above.
  4. (for grant applications, if applicable) a brief paragraph at the end addressing question #5.
  5. (for dissertation prospectuses) a bibliography is usually required.
  6. (for book prospectuses) a table of contents is usually requested.
Some further considerations:

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:
  • How interesting and important is this study? (will we have helped make an important contribution if we support this work?)
  • Is the study feasible? Can it be done in a reasonable time frame?
  • Can this author produce an excellent dissertation/book? (nobody wants to back a shoddy effort)
Your prospectus should address the first of these concerns head-on and show the reader exactly why your project is important, interesting, and, if possible, relevant to broad (human/social/political/cultural) concerns. The second two questions are a little tougher to address. Often, they emerge because the project appears to be too broad or ambitious in scope or not yet completely formulated. Or perhaps the readers have concerns about the author's scholarship. If you are concerned that your dissertation prospectus describes a project that appears too big to be successfully completed, you should discuss this with your dissertation director; this might be a signal that you need to reconsider your project's structure. As for the scholarship issue, you can best address this by making sure to show that you are completely in charge of the scholarly apparatus of your project: you know what you're talking about in regard to the scholarly debates, and you give sufficient (and the right) citations. (A negative example: if you say you're the first person to study a particular topic, you had better be right!)

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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