Dissertation Help: Preparing for Defense of Proposal

One of the areas that many doctoral students need dissertation help with is regarding their defense of proposal. Going into any interview process is scary, and a Defense of Proposal amounts to the same thing. As you face your committee looking seriously at the work on which you have spent so much time, the whole process seems mysterious and fraught with danger. Students have told me it is helpful to prepare by understanding how their committee may be looking at their proposal, what it is that they are looking for, and standards they may hold. This article addresses this and continues the series of articles on doctoral dissertation help by offering insights into the “defense of proposal” process.

Building on a Solid Foundation

You need to have built your proposal on a solid foundation. Your committee and readers must be able to glance at your table of contents and a solid set of headings that add up naturally to the logic of the proposal. Therefore, there is a strong suggestion that you look carefully at many published dissertations and review their table of contents as compared to yours. If you are missing any of the commonly used sections or subsections then you should add them. The way your document is laid out, the logic of your headings and subheadings, are like a foundation to a building. Without a solid structure it will collapse under the pressure of your defense of proposal process.

Two Ways of Looking at It

Most committee members will read a proposal in one of two ways: either from beginning to end, in a linear pattern, or the methodology section first and proceed backwards reading Chapter 2 second and Chapter 1 last. Let’s look closely at the results of these two patterns.

If your committee reads your proposal from beginning to end, Chapter 1, the Introduction, usually reads very well. After all, they probably don’t know much about the research at hand, and will likely find the chapter is short and informative. Chapter 2 may be a different matter. The reader still is not completely sure what the research is, and so they read the literature review trying to gain more insight into what is being researched. Instead, all too often, they find a long treatise on a subject, and, even after reading it completely, may remain unsure as to what these ideas have to do with the research. Approximately halfway through the chapter, attention lags and the reader begins wondering what all this has to do with anything. Continuing on to Chapter 3 some, if not all of those questions may be answered, but there is also a likelihood that the reader instead gets caught up in the methodology issues. Unless the three chapters are very tight, if your committee reads your proposal from start to finish, there will be places where attention will lag and questions and judgment begin to come in. As a doctoral student you want to avoid this to the fullest extent that you can because at this point your committee members are likely to be filled with ideas for revisions, ready to scatter them across your document in their attempt to help you make it stronger.

The second way to read a dissertation proposal is to start with Chapter 3, get a good handle on what the person’s methodology is and how they intend to apply it to a certain subject. Then to read the review of literature with a critical eye of whether and to what extent it backs up the need for, and illuminates the ideas behind, the methodology. Finally, Chapter 1 should back up everything the reader thinks they understand from having perused the other chapters. At this point, your proposal either makes complete sense for it does not. To the extent that your committee members are logically minded individuals, they should be well prepared at this point to offer succinct and targeted comments.

Comments and Revisions

Since you have no control over which way your proposal will be read, it makes logical sense to prepare for both. Very few students, if any, make it through defense of proposal with no comments on how to improve it and revision requirements. Nevertheless, if you prepare by critically reading your document in the second manner described above, making revisions as come to light because of that approach, you stand a much better chance of making it past the first type of reader with fewer changes required. Let’s discuss in detail how that can be done.

Since Chapter 3, your methodology, is the linchpin around which the other two chapters rely, it needs to be well written, clear, with direct language and no extra detail. This chapter is also usually the chapter doctoral students find the most intimidating, as is natural because you have not done research before. Two suggestions seem to help: first, find model dissertations with easy-to-read methodology chapters and use them as guides throughout your writing, second, write this chapter early and rewrite it often until you know what it says so well that you can tell a friend about it without stumbling around. At that point, rewrite it again, and you will have taken out much of the language, citations of noted authors, etc. that get in the way of a reader understanding what it is you’re doing. Remember, your committee is there for you because they want to help you make your dissertation research stronger. No one reads looking for mistakes. Instead what they need is to fully understand what it is you are proposing to do, with whom you’re going to do it, how you will protect human subjects, what tactics you use with your data, etc.

The purpose of your review of literature, Chapter 2, is not for you to defend to the reader how much you know about the subject. Rather the purpose of Chapter 2 is to support your methodology and the questions you are asking. Therefore, after reading a tight methodology, the reader should be able to cruise through the review of literature, reading just enough to pick out details of why you chose certain variables etc. Headings and subheadings will do much to build the logical progress you need to be able to make this happen. As has been said elsewhere in the series, if it doesn’t relate to your methodology, don’t put it in your review of the literature. Chapter 2 should contain: an overview of your topic (which may include history), all the subtopics that relate to the questions you are asking in your methodology, or the variables your study, an overview of the theoretical or methodological choices you made, the discussions in the field around choices similar to the ones you made, and gaps between what people are writing and doing and your ideas.

The problems which surface when you read Chapter 1, your Introduction, have to do with the fact that often it is the first thing a doctoral student writes. Because this is so, you have often included background material that you would then repeat in much greater detail in the second chapter, the review of literature. When you logically approach your proposal in a 3, 2, 1 fashion you won’t find the need for such background detail at the start. Nevertheless, few revisions that are required after defense focus on chapter 1. Hopefully by going through this process and tightening up your work in relation to it, you will be able to avoid many if not most of the entanglements and revisions that are sometimes required after a less successful defense of proposal.

This article is one of a series meant to be helpful to doctoral students as they work their way through the dissertation process. While always a rite of passage, the thesis or dissertation does not need to be mysterious as well. As is stated in our mission and motto: Doctoral Students Finished Faster! and of course we mean with that, with less trauma as well. Good luck to you as you make your way towards your graduation and your degree.

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