Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How to Write a Dissertation Prospectus

Before beginning work on a dissertation, one has to put together and submit a prospectus, which is from the ancient Greek pro, meaning "Stuff," and spectus, meaning "One who writes." A prospectus is, in condensed form, what you will be writing about in your dissertation. This provides your dissertation committee, over a period of roughly two presidential administrations, a chance to read a brief, concise, single-spaced 50-page report about whether they should take the trouble to read a future dissertation that, for practical purposes, is measured not in pages but metric tons. Some students, knowing that a picture is worth a thousand words, merely substitute a diagram to helpfully outline what will be covered in their dissertation:

For those of us who aren't savvy enough with Google Images to produce an informative picture, however, we will need to rely on good, old-fashioned scientific prose. But first, let's cover the basic structure of your prospectus. Remember, by following these time-tested principles and recommendations, you will at least somewhat entertain your committee before they reject your dissertation proposal as completely ridiculous and holding about as much scientific merit as a can of Cheez-Whiz.

1. The Cover Page

A strong prospectus starts out with a cover page, containing the title of your dissertation, the names of the members of your dissertation committee, and possibly a dedication to someone who has had an immense and positive influence on your life, such as your parents, your girlfriend, or Tony Soprano. Feel free to embellish your cover page with depictions of cherubs and muses.

Example cover page from Edward Grieg's dissertation prospectus.

2. Personal Photo

Even after four years of working with your adviser, you shouldn't make any rash assumptions, such as that he or she will know what you look like. In order to help out your adviser, you should attach a professionally done personal photo showing you looking as serious and scientific as possible. This can score you major points with your committee, as they will now have a mental image of you as a serious, cultured individual, unlike all the other hirsute weirdos wandering around the department:

Source: Calvin Klein

3. Body of the Prospectus

Once you have successfully completed your cover page and personal photo, you're now ready for the most important and weightiest section of your prospectus - by which I mean, of course, that you actually have to write something related to the work that you have been doing over the past several years. A good prospectus should start out with something that immediately entices and intrigues the reader, such as the following:

Most honorable, sovereign, and magnificent lords,

I herewith enclose the following enclosements; a prospectus designed to please both one's innate curiosity and satisfy his critical faculties, by expounding upon the work of my graduate career, which has definitely involved reading only scientific articles and books, and not bootlegged copies of Humungo Garbanzo BOLD Responses. It is my utmost belief, penetrating my entire being and reaching even so far as the pyloric sphincter, that this prospectus will contribute to the PUBLIC WEAL and common good of academia and the scientific committee, viz., all of you, etc., et al, ora pro nobis.

The dissertation which I hereafter propose is that, in order to determine the neural mechanisms and correlates of prospective model-free decision-making, one must bring to bear several unique methodologies, such as functional and structural connectivity, multivoxel pattern analysis, univariate mastication, seed-based cortical peristalsis, dynamic CSF segmentation and haustral movements, computational modeling region of interest corrected thresholding bread milk Astroglide tortillas refried beans.

Deign, most honourable, magnificent and sovereign lords, to receive, and with equal goodness, this respectful testimony of the interest I take in whatever it is I have been studying the past several years. And, if I have been so unhappy as to be guilty of any indiscreet transport in this glowing effusion of my heart, I beseech you to pardon me, and to attribute it to the tender affection of a true student, and to the ardent and legitimate zeal of a man, who can imagine for himself no greater felicity than to see you happy.

Also, if somehow one of you manages to come across one of my old issues of Humungo Garbanzo stuffed in the back of the lowest drawer of my filing cabinet, I know nothing about that.

Most honourable, magnificent and sovereign lords, I am, with the most profound respect,

Your most humble and obedient servant and fellow-citizen,

Don't worry if you have a difficult time coming up with anything that sounds remotely plausible or scientific; if you've written a prospectus like the one above, odds are that your committee, satisfied that you are fluent in academic bullshit, will stop reading somewhere around the second paragraph, and fail to note that once you ran out of buzzwords you started supplying items from your grocery shopping list.


  1. Do you know what software was used for the initial image in this post?


    1. Hi George,

      That's actually just a figure taken from Felleman & Van Essen's 1991 paper on vision in the primate cortex. I didn't make it; sorry!