“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Thursday, January 27, 2011

How to Plan a Ph.D. 4: Planning your Prospectus

If you work in a place like the place I work, you will have to produce a prospectus at some point, and be examined and interviewed and all that. Now at my place, we front-load everything by not having a defense.

Disaster! It means that students look at the prospectus as a fait accompli, practically a dissertation already, if not a book pitch. We've cleared the air about books vs. dissertations (see my previous posts on that). Now it's time to examine what a prospectus is, in particular, how to make it work for you.

What are you aiming for? A Ph.D. What is that? At least two decades' of future expertise, books, essays, a treasure trove of research.

What is your prospectus? A map for producing this treasure trove. NOT an argument, NOT a thesis of any kind (how could you have one at all? Let alone an original one?).

A prospectus outlines a basic theme you want to explore. It delineates the state of the field(s) in that exploratory work. It discusses methods. It describes your ARCHIVES (why caps? This is the important bit!). It lays out a chapter outline.

So at my place, there are five parts, each of which is about 2-3 pages long:

1 Statement of purpose
2 State of the field
3 Method(ology)
4 Archives
5 Chapter Summary

However, producing this document in a way that will work for you means you compose it in this order: 4, 3, 2, 5, 1. Archive comes FIRST. It's the beginning and the end of Ph.D. work.

Here's an analogy: A BA Honors thesis is written from a hot air balloon at 10 000 feet. An MA thesis is written from the top of Parnassus. A Ph.D. is written from the ground.

Your archives are MINES of information. You are a dwarf, for now. When you get tenure you can be an elf. For now, you are toiling in the mines, finding ore and potential jewels. You MIGHT turn some of these into jewelery (essays, books) but it's entirely unnecessary.

Each chapter is a FACTORY that goes to work on ONE of these mines. What does the factory produce? Expertise. Not an amazing thesis. Not an incredible book chapter that makes you want to spend money to buy the whole thing. It produces YOU, the expert in Archive X.

How does the factory work? By using HYPOTHESES. Once you've figured out your archives, you build hypotheses to test the ore you will dig out of each one. You need 2-3 for each archive (at least to put in your prospectus. Your prospectus is a toy, but it's a helpful toy version of the real plan, which evolves as you go.)

What's the difference between a hypothesis and a thesis? Hypo means "under." You can prove or disprove a hypothesis. The result is your thesis. Get it? In a dissertation that explores four archives, given two or three hypotheses each you will have about 10-12 to explore.

A hypothesis should be RIGOROUS. What does that mean? It means you could program a robot or an undergrad researcher to test it. Until you've broken your questions down into rigorous hypotheses—if you have to think for more than a few seconds to figure out what you're after—it's not rigorous enough yet.

We'll talk more about this soon. For now, think about what archives you'll want to explore. I'll give you some examples in the next post.


Z said...

These are helpful. I look forward to reading what an archive means to you. I just started a M.A. program at Santa Cruz and find your post useful for navigating this academic terrain. thanks.

Gabriel said...

Mr. Morton, thank you so much for that! Not just helpful but also inspiring.

Unknown said...

Hi there. I'm a fresh PhD student doing arts-practice work. I've really been appreciating your posts (thank you) - albeit with a little disciplinary translation (whenever I see the word "Book" I replace it with "Artwork"). One thing I don't quite understand is "Archives", what are archives in the sense you're describing?

Thank you!