Dissertation Prospectus

Thesis and Dissertation Forms (English Dept. Graduate Studies Office)

Resources for Thesis & Dissertation Writing (list compiled by WPA-listserv)

What is the Prospectus?

The prospectus, either for the M.A. Thesis or Ph.D. Dissertation, is a written plan for the research the student intends to complete. At the Ph.D. level, students must defend the prospectus in an oral examination after passing the Ph.D. exams.

Goal: To position yourself within an academic conversation and define the methods for your research project. Your stance and voice dominate the entire discussion, including the literature review. Entering the conversation, or facilitating a new one, is the key, and having questions to ask, if not answers you hope to find.

Length: 20 – 25 pages of text, including a working bibliography, chapter outline, and timeline for completing the work.


  1. Why this research is important or necessary
  2. Focus of the project and / or specific research questions addressed by the research
  3. What you hope to discover, presented as a thesis statement or a hypothesis

Literature Review: Much of the prospectus should review the scholarly literature, whether divided into topical / thematic sections or as an ongoing discussion from theory to application, specific analyses to general reception, historical contexts to specific texts, or another organizational structure.

Methodology: How do you plan to conduct the research? Describe theoretical frameworks or the philosophy that underlies your methods. Then name your specific methods for analysis and/or data collection. Many projects use a mix of specific methods and draw upon specific inspirational sources as models.

Chapter Outline: Parse out the sections of the dissertation project based on specific texts, theoretical frameworks, themes, or topics to be addressed. Having logically distinct sections for completing your work allows you to shift from one section to another if you become stuck.

Schedule: A basic plan for when you plan to complete each section of work. This plan can be as detailed as the writer or committee thinks is necessary.

Working Bibliography: List the sources that directly support the literature review and models for your methodology, but include everything consulted at this point, not just those cited in the prospectus. Some projects separate the sources into sections that indicate which sources supports specific themes, topics or methods.

The Oral Defense (for dissertations): In a separate document, outline your talking points, select visuals or other examples, and anticipate challenges during the research process. Plan to explain these in a 15- or 20-minute presentation during the prospectus defense. A tentative writing schedule will be discussed so that the committee knows how the project will proceed and who will read which sections. You might end with questions or concerns to offer the committee.

Explanation from a Sample Dissertation Prospectus

Introduction sets the stage by identifying a “lack of conversation” and “dissonance” among scholarly discussions from Writing Center studies, Composition Pedagogy, professionalization literature, and pedagogical practices when she chose to focus on the lived professional and educational experiences of graduate student tutor / teachers. The writer first examines issues of definitions and words that fail to encompass the complexity of graduate students within their multiple professional identities and pedagogical spaces. This discussion leads to a key term, “reflexive reflection” that incorporates discourse communities and complicates current descriptions of what we think of as “good” pedagogical theory and goals.

Literature Review: Still within the Introductory section, these definitional research problems lead immediately to a review of literature about discourse communities and communities of practice in order to gather the strands or fragments that will be brought together in this new conversation about a subject that challenges and disrupts the individual bodies of scholarly conversation. The writer’s strategy is an organic one, with the literature discussed throughout her argument, that then forces scholars to talk to one another in a kind of musical retuning into counterpoint harmony. The introductory section offers many of the specific argument moves in miniature, within and against the literature, which will be developed and expanded by the empirical evidence collected during the research process.

Methodology makes the case for lore as a flexible, experience-based, narrative methodology and takes on the scholarly debates about lore’s value and how it supports the goals of the project to examine reflection and reflexivity in more fluid, community-based ways. The writer then moved into describing the specific methods, which are the specific tools for empirical and ethnographic teacher research: surveys, interviews, teaching portfolios and observations. Each stage of data collection is described and the planned sequence builds toward the necessary triangulation of data and the goals of building an interpretation.

Chapter Outline reminds us that the dissertation will take on scholarship throughout as it builds an argument based on the evidence collected about graduate student tutor/teachers. The Introductory chapter will answer the broad research questions by using a literature review as well as some of the research results. This chapter and all the subsequent chapters are driven by specific research questions that have data collection tools associated with them. Here’s where we find a specific statement of what the writer is planning to find, stated as hypotheses that will tested and proven by the data collected:

I believe these questions will lead me to find that graduate students develop the ability to reflexively reflect on teaching practices when they have a tutoring background and that teaching informs tutoring practices as tutoring informs teaching practices. Further, this study seeks to establish that a greater depth of professional development occurs when graduate students embody spaces of teaching and tutoring, as opposed to embodying one or the other throughout their graduate experience. Finally, the data collected will, theoretically, illustrate that a greater understanding of composition theory and pedagogy occurs when graduate students also act as tutors and also that a greater understanding of practitioner-researcher methodology occurs when graduate students function as both teacher and tutor during the graduate experience.

The subsequent chapters are thematic in terms of these expected findings: Teacher Education Theory, Teaching and Tutoring Practices Informing Each Other, Professional Development, Enactment/Embodiment of Multiple Spaces, and Implications for Research.