How to Write a Prospectus

April 2014

A dissertation prospectus is an essay arguing that you have found a research problem whose solution merits thousands of hours of your time; hundreds of hours of the time of your various advisors and committee members as well as that of librarians, archivists, and other people of good will; and, if you are lucky, some public or foundation funds toward your research expenses. Though the dissertation you complete will likely differ significantly from the one you conceive, you should be able at least to sketch out a viable project before attempting to write one.

The prospectus also functions as the rough draft of a dissertation introduction, so by reading the introductions of monographs (especially historians’ first books, which are typically based on their dissertations), you can get a good idea of the form. Here I have drawn examples from such works.

Specifically, the prospectus must answer a series of questions. Though the questions are simple, answering them will require you to become a leading expert in the historiography of a given topic. Crafting your prospectus, then, should be hard work. But if done right, it will pay off in the end, for each hour devoted to the prospectus will save multiple hours by helping you research and write your dissertation more efficiently.

What question do you want to answer?

A major function of a prospectus, and ultimately the introduction of your dissertation, is to explain what question you seek to answer. This will keep you on track as you do your research, and it will help your reader understand why you are telling the stories you do.

Consider, for example, Bradford Hunt’s introduction to Blueprint for Disaster. He gives his introduction its own title: “What Went Wrong with Public Housing in Chicago?” This leaves no doubt about his goal in conducting the research he did. Put a question like that in your prospectus, and your committee will know exactly what you seek to accomplish.

In general, or perhaps always, the question should present a comparison, or dialectic. Hunt’s question,—what went wrong?—implies a comparison between the optimistic plans for public housing and the disappointing outcome. For other forms of dialectics used by historians, see “Dialectical Thesis Statements.”

What have others written about your subject generally?

Whether or not previous historians have investigate the specific events you will discuss in your research, you should explain what they have said about the broader themes you will explore. For example, Kate Masur (An Example for All the Land, 4.) explains the significance of her study of Reconstruction in Washington, D.C., by discussing scholarship about Reconstruction in general, and arguing that it has paid insufficient attention to ideas about equality:

Historians have shown how meanings of freedom differed not only between blacks and whites and between northerners and southerners, but also among African Americans, across lines of sex, class, and region of origin. The meanings of freedom were myriad, and it mattered immensely whose definitions won out. But the focus on freedom has left other important concepts relatively unexplored. Equality is one of them.

What have others written about your subject specifically?

Having framed a question, you need to explain why you think answering it will take years of primary-source research, rather than a few hours reading a book that someone else has already written. For some topics, this will mean addressing one or more accounts of pretty much the same events that you will explore.

Hunt, for example, knows he must explain why anyone would read his work rather a previous, and acclaimed, account of public housing in Chicago: Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto. Hunt’s introduction devotes three paragraphs to summarizing Hirsch’s work, noting its contributions and limits, and explaining how his account will differ. (More on this below.)

What is new about your approach?

In “Reverse Engineering for Historians,” I quote passages from book reviews to show how historians gauge the contributions of each other’s work. In introducing their books, historians make similar claims about their own work. Your prospectus should do the same.

Here are some examples of claims to novelty:

I am telling an untold or neglected story

Margarete Sandelowski, Devices & Desires: Gender, Technology, and American Nursing, 9:

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fundamental but confusing link between nursing and technology, it has yet to be the subject of much formal exploration. Technology can be seen in longstanding debates concerning the relative dominance of the hands, mind, and spirit of the nurse and whether nursing is an art, science, and/or (woman)craft, but is has rarely taken center stage. The nursing/technology relation has been the subject largely of anecdotes and speculation rather than the focus of formal research or critique.

Darren Dochuck, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, xxii.

Few subjects have received more scholarly treatment lately than modern conservatism, and rightfully so. Whereas a previous generation of historians assumed liberal consensus in post-World War II America, the current one sees a contested political climate in which conservatism occupies a central role. Local studies of its activists, biographies of its leaders, analyses of its core ideas, and appraisals of its partisan maneuvers have all brought this diffuse and complicated movement into clearer focus. Yet, with few exceptions, these studies have cordoned off evangelicalism as an interest that nudged politicians and inflected politics only sporadically as a voice of protest from the periphery . . . From Bible Belt to Sunbelt will challenge this notion and help fill these gaps by demonstrating how southern evangelicalism was, from the very beginning, aligned with the forces that created the Sunbelt and embedded in the political processes that upset this region’s Democratic allegiances and constructed its Republican Right.

I am presenting new voices

Robin Bachin, Building the South Side, 12:

This book . . . pushes the boundaries of historical definitions of urban planning and design. Recent historians of planning have illuminated the complex process of urban development. Yet much of planning history remains focused on the planner as the primary shaper of urban growth, often ignoring the roles played by urban communities in challenging both the design and the use of city spaces. Other studies emphasize the promotional and regulatory nature of the state in shaping urban growth. In addition, some recent scholars have demonstrated the strong connections between private interests and public policy in structuring city development. This book offers a more expansive view of planning history, examining how various urban residents sought to imprint their identities and interests on city spaces through the ways they both designed and used them.

I am combining previously separate historiographies

Meg Jacobs, Pocketbook Politics, 6:

This book encourages a new way of studying state power by integrating popular politics and elite policymaking. The functioning of large administrative states can be understood only by exploring the ways that they legitimize their authority, which can include delegating power to citizens. Conversely, popular movements have succeeded in effecting change only to the extent that they win support at elite levels. Unlike most social historians who focus exclusively on consumers at the grass roots, Pocketbook Politics breaks new methodological ground by insisting on the centrality of national politics and the state in the nearly century-long fight to fulfill the American Dream of abundance. We know a good deal about the business and culture of the mass market. We also know about the rise of the modern welfare state and postwar Keynesian tax-and-spend fiscal policies, which sought to smooth the rough edges of modern capitalism. But we know less about the intersection of what consumer advocate Caroline Ware called “concrete daily economic experience” and economic policy-making. It was this powerful dialectic that Ware understood by her use of the phrase “economic citizenship.” Thus, this book combines political and social history, drawiing on government documents and presidential records as well as on grassroots sources and popular periodicals, in order to show the dynamic interplay between the state and its citizenry over marketplace issues during the twentieth century.

I am redefining categories

Similarly, David Stradling (Smokestacks and Progressives, 5) explains how his specific study of debates over urban air quality complicates our broader understanding of environmental thought.

The story of the anti-smoke movement complicates not only the argument concerning postwar origins of environmentalism, but also the definition of conservationism. Generally historians have defined conservationism as a progressive movement to improve the nation’s use of important natural resources, especially water and timber. Most conservation histories do not look far beyond the rivers and forests of the American West. While in most histories conservationism remains almost exclusively a Western, rural, and sylvan movement, in actuality it entailed much more than the direction of Western watersheds through government management of forests and grasslands. It was a broad-based crusade designed to manage efficiently all of the nation’s resources, both in public and in private hands. The rhetoric that dominated the later anti-smoke movement, with its emphasis on the promotion of efficiency and conservation of coal for smoke reduction, serves as an obvious example of how conservationism penetrated progressive cities. Indeed, conservation included a myriad of movements in cities to conserve resources, health, and beauty. Conservationism inhabited progressive cities as well as Western lands.

Whose story will you tell?

As noted above, one way to make an original contribution is to tell an old story with new protagonists. And even if you are telling an untold story, you still need to know who your main actors will be, since tracking them will be the main part of your research, and your choice of protagonists will determine the sources you seek and the organization of your dissertation.

The prospectus must therefore make clear whose story you will tell. If the answer changes part by part, or chapter by chapter, make that explicit.

What sources will you use?

A sad truth is that historians can only answer a small fraction of the questions we can conceive. The historical record—archives, publications, interviews—represents just a fragment of the information we wish we had. If the answers to your questions burned in a library fire, died two years before you started grad school, or just were never recorded in the first place, you may need to find new questions.

Thus, a prospectus must show that you can access a critical mass of sources for your work. This means assembling a bibliography of primary sources in some detail. If you plan to rely on newspapers, list them by title. If you plan to use archives, identify the record groups or collections.

With any luck, you will find many more sources as your work progresses, but your prospectus should demonstrate that you have enough to complete the project even if you find nothing else.

The sources should correspond to your protagonists. If your protagonists did not leave any sources, explain how you will track their voices and deeds through sources created by others.

How will you tell your story?

Finally, the prospectus should give some sense of the organization of the dissertation. Will it be primarily chronological or thematic? If the former, how will you periodize your story? If the latter, what are the key themes? How will you divide the work in to chapters? What question will each chapter answer? Who are the major actors in each? What sources will you use to tell their stories?

Many monographs give models of this in the form of chapter summaries. For example, Eric Yellin outlines Racism in the Nation’s Service (8) at both the section and chapter levels. Note how the organization is both chronological (particularly the section divisions) and thematic (with chapters 4, 5, and 6 tracing discrimination from thought to deed to reaction).

This book traces the rise and fall of African American civil servants in three sections. The first section establishes the world of black politics and federal employment in Washington, D.C., before Woodrow Wilson’s election in November 1912. Chapter 1 takes us on a walk through Washington and its federal offices around the turn of the twentieth century, and chapters 2 and 3 follow national politics and its connection to federal employment from Abraham Lincoln’s administration to William Howard Taft’s. The next section charts the rise of the Wilsonian regime between 1913 and 1917. Chapter 4 explores the ideologies and discourse swirling around the Wilson administration, in particular the relationship between progressive politics and white supremacy. Chapter 5 lays out the ways in which Wilson’s administrators went about discriminating against African American federal employees in Washington, from separating and isolating employees to limiting career prospects. Chapter 6 examines the methods of resistance and protest deployed by black employees and civil rights activists, as well as Woodrow Wilson’s response to the protests. Finally, the last section, chapter 7, follows the story into the late 1920s, when the generation of federal employees who experienced Wilsonian discrimination began to die out. This chapter returns us to ordinary life in federal offices and in Washington’s streets, to see the ways in which the changes under Wilson’s administration became institutionalized after Republicans returned to national power.

You can swap, but you can’t abandon

Once you have answers to all these questions, you can change them as you proceed in your research. But you can only discard an answer if you have a new one to put in its place.

It’s like buying a bicycle, then swapping out the rims, handlebars, saddle, cranks, cables, cassette, and so on, until the machine you are riding bears little resemblance to the one on which you began your voyage. That’s fine, but at any given moment, the bike must have two wheels, some handlebars, and all the rest, or it’s not a bicycle. And like a good bicycle, whatever happens down the road, your prospectus should support your weight and keep you moving forward.