After the Exams … Writing and Defending the Prospectus

Reading and preparing for the comprehensive exams feels like the most daunting task we undertake as doctoral students, but what happens after we take the exams? What happens after we spend months, sometimes a year, on edge, full stress, constantly questioning if we are doing enough, reading enough, are we ready enough to pass our exams? And then—we do. We pass; we hear the congratulatory statements from our committee members and our peers. But what happens next?

“Noon – Rest from Work (after Millet)” (1890) by Van Gogh

All I wanted to do when I finished the comprehensive exams was breathe. Breathe air that wasn’t tainted by the constant nervousness or questions of whether or not I was prepared enough. I wanted to sit down, change my email signature to PhD Candidate in English and move on to the dissertation. But at Arizona State University, our exam process is three-part and the oral comprehensives is only part two. The exams start with a written exam, once you pass the written with committee approval, you move on to the traditional oral comprehensive exams. The last and final portion of the three-part exam process is the prospectus defense. Before we receive the final stamp of candidacy and ABD, we have to defend our dissertation prospectus in a two-hour colloquy.

Writing the prospectus after the high of passing the comprehensive exams was incredibly difficult for me. I wanted to celebrate and enjoy the success of having completed the most difficult and daunting task that I had faced as a PhD student. And I tried, but the nagging feeling that I wasn’t quite done yet kept me from being able to fully let go of the stress and anxiety. I still had one more step.

The dissertation prospectus by definition is a daunting document to write. This one paper is supposed to set up the next two years of research and writing. In one document, I am supposed to outline my dissertation argument and chapters, provide a literature review of my specific area of study, and prove that my dissertation will contribute to my field, all while proving that I am capable of completing the task in a specified amount of time. The other difficulty that I encountered with the prospectus is that the specific expectations for content, style and format were ambiguous. Everyone that I talked to that had completed the full exam process had different expectations for what the prospectus should do. Is it 10-15 pages? 15-20 pages? 25-30 pages? Should it be an informal discussion of my project ideas or a formal paper that easily can transition into an introduction? What portion of the project should be a review of the literature and scholarship? How long should each of the chapter descriptions be? Should the chapter descriptions be abstract length or should they be more detailed? These questions and hundreds more plagued my prospectus writing process. I let the questions and the uncertainties halt my ability to move forward and complete the document. I met with my committee members multiple times, but it never fully helped to clear up what exactly it was that I was supposed to do.

Hand Prospectus
“Hand Prospectus” (2014) by Kaitlin Gowan Southerly

One day, about two months after my comprehensive exam when I was so overwhelmed and ready to give up on my idea for my dissertation, I went in to talk to my good friend in the program, Kent, and it turned into me venting about my inability to just write this document. I frustratingly opened up about my struggle to overcome the block and anxiety associated with the document itself. I ended up sitting in Kent’s office for about an hour and we mapped out my project together. I bounced my ideas off of him (something we regularly all do together in our 19th Century Colloquium) and it finally hit me. I just needed to talk about my project out loud; I needed to share my ideas and get them out of my head. I needed to make my project something real rather than an idea or figment of my imagination. And once I did this, once I talked with my friends and shared my ideas and had an intelligent conversation about my project—I wrote my prospectus. Literally, over the next three days I wrote my prospectus. I frantically emailed my committee, miraculously found a date that everyone could meet, and two and a half weeks later, I walked out of a two-hour colloquy ABD.

Okay, I know that this story and process is unique to me, but here is the best advice that I received and learned throughout the prospectus process. Maybe some of it can help you…

  1. Breathe after your comprehensives. Take a specified amount of time to celebrate and relax and enjoy life without worrying about what comes next. I didn’t do this and immediately after the comps, all I could think about was what I still had to do and that really took away from my ability to celebrate the incredible accomplishment that passing comprehensive exams is.
  2. Don’t be afraid to tell your committee that you are struggling. As soon as I opened up about my writer’s block, my committee was incredibly helpful and understanding and supported me.
  3. Instead of worrying about what specific format the prospectus should follow, just write your ideas for your project down. As soon as you get your ideas down, the rest will come. And don’t worry, your chair (who will go over your document first before you send it out to the rest of your committee) will let you know exactly what he or she is looking for once you send the first draft. The most important aspect of this document is your project, your ideas, and your argument, so focus on that.
  4. Don’t worry that you don’t have all of the details figured out yet. Your committee expects your project to change as you begin to write, so it doesn’t have to be perfect now.
  5. And the absolute best advice I can give: SHARE. Share your ideas with your peers, with friends and family. Share with anyone who will listen. Share with the old man sitting next to you at the bar while you attempt to drink away the writer’s block. The more you talk about your project and ideas for chapters, the easier it becomes to write them down, even if you are sharing with someone who knows nothing about your area of study. When you share your ideas, you get excited about them. Harness that excitement and writing becomes easy.

The last thing to say is as cliché as it sounds, remember that you love this. You are putting yourself through a PhD program because you are passionate about what you study. I don’t think we could make it through programs like ours without a crazy amount of passion for what we study. But sometimes we lose that and forget how excited we are about these texts when we get stuck in the rut of jumping through the necessary hoops—especially when the hoops appear to be rings of fire. When I remembered that I loved what I was studying and was excited about what I had to say, I discovered that I was completely capable of writing the prospectus and finishing that last step of my exams. And I did. And if I can do it, you can do it too. And then you can hurry up and change your email signature from PhD Student to PhD Candidate.

Kaitlin Gowan Southerly
PhD CANDIDATE in Literature
19th Century Colloquium
Arizona State University

One thought on “After the Exams … Writing and Defending the Prospectus”

Comments are closed.