Guide to Writing a Dissertation Proposal

By Elizabeth Ferry, Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University

"If you use your mind, take a step at a time, you can do anything that you want to do." Steve, "Blue's Clues"

Once you have passed your qualifying exams, the time has come for you to complete the last few steps before commencing your fieldwork. These include the language exam, IRB approval (for those of you working with human subjects), grant proposals and dissertation proposal. The hardest of these, perhaps, is the dissertation proposal, and it will take the most time. (Grant proposals are also very difficult and time-consuming, but writing the dissertation proposal will help you considerably with them).

The dissertation proposal is a relatively new requirement in the department, and we think it is a marked improvement on the previous system. However, it is not an easy task. In this memo, I give you some of my thoughts on ways to make it less scary and more manageable. Also, I asked students who already completed the requirement to tell me what they wished they had been told beforehand, and have included some of their comments in this document.

Of course, since everyone's project, mind and life circumstances differ, not all of these suggestions will work for all of you. I have tried to write something that is sufficiently general to apply to many of you, but that still has practical, specific suggestions.

Final Thoughts

I hope that these thoughts and suggestions help some of you manage this rather stressful, but ultimately, we hope, rewarding exercise. I have two final points to emphasize. The first is simply to underscore what has been the main point of this memo, as summarized by Steve from "Blue's Clues" (far superior to his successor Joe): Break down the task into manageable steps and you will be far more likely to succeed. The second is also simple, and I hope, inspiring: the dissertation proposal is an extension of the qualifying exams. Where the qualifying established you as an expert in various fields of anthropological literature, the dissertation proposal establishes you as an expert in your particular project and its significance. You should feel free to enjoy and explore that sense of expertise.