Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse - Chapter 36: What Have You Been Doing All This Time? (The Thesis Proposal, Part 2)


Hello folks, Micella again, teetering on the brink of a Ph.D. We're back for Chapter 36 to talk about a specific requirement for my own Ph.D., the thesis proposal.

In my department, we write an extensive thesis proposal -- 25-30 pages -- and defend it orally as the second part of our qualifying exam process. The thesis proposal consists of three main parts:

  • Introduction: Introductory material that reflects your knowledge of your field and how your work will relate to your field.

  • Current Work: An overview of the work you have currently done on the project. Depending on your level of immersion in your project, this section varies widely in length.

  • Proposed Work: What you propose you will do to complete your thesis. Again, depending on how much work you may (or may not) have done, the length of this section varies widely.

  • In theory, the thesis proposal should be submitted and defended soon after the qualifying exams but in practice it comes well after most students in the department have begun work on what will probably become their thesis research.

    In other departments, the qualifying process consists only of writing and defending the thesis proposal with no written exam. Often this "proposing" takes place relatively early on in the Ph.D. process. Still other departments require their students to propose thesis research without writing a thesis proposal; instead, they just give an oral presentation or submit to an oral exam. Hopefully you'll manage to ferret out your department's requirements without too much stress, though some stress is inevitable.

    For those of you who don't have to submit a written thesis, keep reading anyway, because (1) I need all the readers I can get, and (2) writing your thesis proposal is really just the first step in writing your thesis, especially if, like me, you propose your project when you're fairly far along in your research. Even if it isn't required, writing a proposal is great thesis-writing practice; it will help you get your act together, and it can be, in fact, the seed from which your thesis will grow.

    Chapter 35 covered the first major steps for getting together your thesis/dissertation proposal -- doing (or re-doing) that literature search and getting your reading done. Now it's time to get to the heart of the matter: collecting your ideas and data and figuring out what you're going to write.

    For many of us, the thought of having to gather all our ideas and data together and present them coherently to others -- a panel of experts in fact -- is truly frightening. We may find ourselves pondering the following questions:

    • Are my ideas good enough? (Hopefully -- probably -- yes.)

    • Will I be able to answer all of their questions? (Um . . . no.)

    • Is my research going to work out the way I've proposed it? (Probably not.)

    • Will my committee give me useful input on how to construct my research? (Input? Yes . . . probably a lot more than you want. Useful input? Maybe.)

    • Will I be able to complete everything and accomplish enough to actually graduate? (Everything? Maybe not. Enough? That's up to you!)

    The thesis proposal is a delicate matter. As I wrote in part 1, we grad students are seeking admission to a new level of learning on the strength of our ability to ask thought-provoking questions and perform research to find some answers. The committee we ourselves have chosen -- our gatekeepers -- is charged with "guiding" (or is it grinding?) us through this process. They have dual, even contradictory roles, assisting us but at the same time judging our readiness to enter their ranks. Let us not forget, therefore, that although there are times in our lives when we should fight to the death for our ideas and how we want to accomplish our research, this is NOT one of them. Right now we're focused on one thing: finishing the Ph.D., with the least stress and psychological trauma possible. So choose your battles wisely.

    Cohesive Culling of Data and/or Ideas (All that glitters isn't good data)

    Hopefully you've been keeping an excellent record of what you've been doing with your time as a graduate student (and no, surfing the Internet for a free iPod doesn't count).

    What's that? You haven't been keeping an excellent record? Then it's time to make up for lost time by taking stock of what you've accomplished, or if you're at one of those institutions where you propose early in your graduate school career, what you would like to accomplish, and how. Most grad students are pretty far along when they propose their thesis work; they've done a lot of work already, but have more to do. So in the discussion that follows I'll assume that you're pretty far along already.

    This record/plan you're assembling will include some or all of the following things (all of this is field-dependant, of course):

    • Lists and/or schematics of things that you have made or plan to make, and projects that you've contributed to and intend to contribute to.

    • Lists of experiments you have done, and what do you plan to do. What story does/could this list tell?

    • Descriptions of the theories/hypotheses you are trying to prove/disprove.

    • Given your interests and your advisor interests and the lab's funding, how do your ideas contribute to the forward movement of the lab?

    • What steps does the research you want to do further the field of knowledge you currently study?

    Once you've gotten all of these things together it's time to cull-separate the good, from the bad, from the ugly. Do you have enough information to tell a good story? Where are the holes in your story?

    Certain experiments or pieces of data are shining examples of how fabulous you, your work, and your ideas are. Others are just details or detours on the way to your goal. Learn the difference. Simple experiments to verify the composition of a surface, for example, are irrelevant if the result is well known and published (though a reference and citation may belong in your introduction). New and interesting nuggets of knowledge you've stumbled upon are thesis worthy, assuming that they're relevant. Of course, you'll need backup in deciding what is good and what is garbage. This is where an advisor comes in handy. Use him or her liberally. That's what they're there for. (What, you didn't know?)

    Gather together all your data and ideas and consider them in context of the other work that has been done in the field. Put it into a form where you can determine what is worth pursuing and what isn't. Take all of this information to your advisor, discuss it with him or her, and ask for input as you formulate what work you'd like to do and present. Do not leave your advisor in the dark; it will make both of you unhappy in the end. The goal here is to tell a story using the data and information that you currently have available -- yours or what's in the literature -- in a manner that shows the committee that you have thought about all of the items related to your project in depth and in detail.

    Writers Block, Anyone?

    Now that you have assessed all your resources -- and therefore have a clue -- it's time to get to the heart of the matter, which is writing. Or, rather, it's getting ready to write, and then writing. Notice that the list that follows has five items, and that the actual writing part doesn't come until number four. Trying to write before you've done the other three things is useless. Trying to write when you're distracted is pointless. And trying to write without guidance is a waste of time. So:

    • OUTLINE! OUTLINE! OUTLINE! Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT attempt to start writing without a coherent, advisor-approved roadmap. You'll get lost and end up in some desert, with no water and no gas and with no gas station in sight. Your advisor is your advisor for a reason: to advise. Hopefully (if you have a sane and competent advisor) suggestions will be offered, probing questions will be asked, and direction may be given if you get too far off track. Your advisor probably has a better view of the big picture than you do, so use that to your advantage and ask for insight. Even if your advisor has little to offer, you still need her or his buy-in. Yes, it's your dissertation, but it's really a collaborative effort with your advisor. (Who is the corresponding author on all of your publications? I thought so . . .) Which leads us to our next point:

    • Discuss! Discuss! Discuss! DO NOT SUFFER ALONE. You need guidance and support from your committee as well as your colleagues. If there are older students working on similar projects or using similar techniques, ask for their advice and input. Don't reinvent the wheel.

    • What is critical? And what is not? Gradually fill in the outline with pertinent figures, data, theorems, or code so that you have a story to tell that isn't full of fluff and unnecessary details. Keep it lean and simple at first; you can always decide to add something later.

    • Write! As you fill in the outline and flesh out what you'd like to do, I find that sometimes a brain dump to get everything in your head out can be helpful. Once you've puked all the words onto a page (no, that isn't your outline) you can see what ideas and sentences you have and see how they fit into the story that you're trying to tell. Everything you write down won't make it to the final cut.

    • A little red pen won't hurt! My advisor doesn't like to be the first person to see a document. He expects that another group member will read it first and offer you feedback. This is an excellent idea. When you're advisor reads the document you want them to be focused on overall content and flow, not grammatical errors or technical errors that a fellow graduate student could catch. Besides, you want your advisor to see you at your best.

    Finally, a few general words as you descend into the joys of proposing:

    • Be realistic. Stop trying to be a super hero and do it in five minutes.

    • Give yourself time to get frustrated.

    • It won't be perfect the first time, or the second time, so revise it, and revise it again.

    • Set a deadline and try to stick to it. It may help you keep things under control.

    That's all for now folks. Again, if anyone out there has advice on getting through this part of the Ph.D. process, I'd be happy to disseminate it as I will be the first to admit that I don't know everything. Please send comments and suggestions to: Good luck to those out there proposing! Keep the insanity within reasonable bounds?

    Next time well cover presentations, wo hoo!

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