Department of Demography

Guidelines for Writing a Dissertation Prospectus

The dissertation prospectus is an important step toward completing a doctoral degree in Demography. It is generally the final requirement that a student must complete before being approved for “advancement to candidacy” for the Ph.D. (see also “Guidelines for Advancement to Candidacy, Normative Time, and Filing Fee”). This document describes procedures and suggests a format for the prospectus.

The prospectus must be approved by the faculty member who will serve as chair of the studentĒs dissertation committee. Signed approval of the prospectus by the dissertation chair is needed before the Graduate Advisor can sign the forms for advancement to candidacy. All decisions about the appropriate form, length, and content of a dissertation prospectus lie with the dissertation chair, not the Graduate Advisor. Thus, the guidelines provided here are merely suggestions, which may serve as a starting point for discussion with the dissertation chair about directions and requirements for a successful prospectus. In making plans for the dissertation prospectus, the student and her/his chair should keep in mind the deadline for advancement to candidacy that will qualify the student for the normative time fee reduction.

As a suggestion, the form and content of the dissertation prospectus should follow (roughly) the specifications for a standard NIH grant application (i.e., an R01 award). The Research Plan in such an application has four essential parts, which are intended to answer the following questions: (1) What do you intend to do? (2) Why is this work important? (3) What has already been done? (4) How are you going to do the work? Thus, the four sections of an NIH grant application, modified as appropriate for a dissertation prospectus, are as follows:

  1. Specific Aims. List the research objectives and specific goals of the dissertation research project. State the hypotheses to be tested. 1 page is recommended.
  2. Background and Significance. Briefly sketch the background leading to the proposed dissertation, critically evaluate existing knowledge, and specifically identify the gaps which the project is intended to fill. 2-3 pages are recommended.
  3. Preliminary Studies. Describe previous studies by the student that are relevant to the proposed project. This could include a summary of a class paper, other preliminary data analyses, results of a pilot survey, etc. 6-8 pages are recommended.
  4. Research design and methods. Describe the research design and procedures to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Include how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Describe any new methodology and its advantage over existing methodologies. Discuss the potential difficulties and limitations of the proposed procedures and alternative approaches to achieve the aims. Provide also a tentative sequence or time-table for completing the research and writing the dissertation. 14-16 pages are recommended.

The research plan for an NIH grant application may not exceed 25 single-spaced pages, although the distribution of pages within these four section may vary. A dissertation prospectus should be no longer than this, although it could be somewhat shorter (25 double-spaced pages, for example). In any event, the proportional distribution between the four sections should be maintained at least approximately. In particular, it is very important for the fourth section to be the most prominent.