Doctoral Dissertation Proposals

Proposals constitute a specific genre of academic writing. A proposal presents a brief but explicit argument or claim that a particular subject of inquiry has merit. It also implicitly argues that the author of the proposal has enough command of the subject to pursue it successfully. Scholars in the arts and humanities typically write short proposals to join conference panels and to place essays in journals and collections. In addition to the dissertation proposal, scholars write longer proposals to obtain grants and to persuade publishers to take an interest in a book-length project.

Proposals assume an audience of educated readers who are not necessarily specialists in the proposal's specific subject of inquiry. The author's aim is to persuade this audience that the project will make an original and valuable contribution to some already on-going discussion or problem in one or more fields, or that it will break entirely new ground and even revise the existing structure of disciplinary fields.

The dissertation proposal is thus a persuasive rhetorical form, one that seeks to gain readers' assent to the proposition that the proposed study is well-founded and will advance inquiry or discussion in some important way.

Proposals can take many forms but strong proposals share certain characteristics:

  • A strong proposal makes a central claim and exhibits a clear focus.
  • A strong proposal makes clear the scope of the project. Many, though by no means all, strong proposals do so early in the text.
  • A strong proposal demonstrates both that the project grows out of rich scholarly, theoretical, and/or aesthetic grounds and that it develops these grounds in a new way or towards a new fruition.
These two elements together constitute what the guidelines refer to as a "literature review." That is, the purpose of mentioning the scholarly, theoretical, and aesthetic traditions within which the project is situated is not merely to show that the author of the proposal has undertaken a search of the relevant work in the proposed field(s). Rather it is to show how the current project fits within or contests an already on-going discourse and how it will contribute to, amend, or displace that discourse.

Thus the "review of the literature" and the "contribution to the field" are both parts of a single effort: to make and support the claim that the proposed project is worthwhile because it grows out of and then extends or revises work currently under way in the arts and humanities and related disciplines. A dissertation supports its claim to originality by positioning its argument both within and against prior scholarship and practices.
  • A strong proposal integrates the discussion of its methods into its claims to be presenting a new or distinct approach to some material or issue. Keep in mind that a method is not a technique: a strong proposal suggests the intellectual or creative perspectives it will employ (for example, close readings of original texts, "thick description" of social phenomena, or elaboration of a genre of writing) not the procedures the author will need to use (for example, collection of data or the searching of bibliographic databases).

Sample Doctoral Dissertation Proposals

The following dissertation proposals have been selected and annotated by members of the Graduate Studies Committee to suggest the various ways in which a successful proposal can be formulated.

These sample proposals should be considered as resources or models rather than as templates. Note that the samples may not conform to the current 2500-word limit.

Additional proposals will be added periodically.

Aesthetic Studies

The Simpsons and American Culture

History of Ideas

Public Voices, Public Selves: Self-Fashioning and Gender in the Eighteenth Century

Studies in Literature

The Quest for a Home: Acculturation, Social Formations, and Agency in British Fiction, 1816-1911