VII. Dissertation Prospectus

The dissertation prospectus is a document intended to allow you to formulate the foundation for the work that will lead to the writing of a doctoral thesis. Work on the prospectus should begin in the G3 and G4 years, around the same time as the student begins teaching (see Section VIII). This represents a new phase in one’s graduate education.

In developing the prospectus, some students find it useful to spend some time carrying out preliminary research abroad. In some fields this is necessary in order to determine the location and availability of certain source materials, to establish contact with foreign scholars and institutions, and in general to gather enough information to ascertain the viability of a proposed research project. The student should consult her or his academic advisor about the viability of such research trips. Funds for such short-term research travel are available from a variety of University sources, including the different regional institutes, the Asia Center, and FAS (see Section II above).

COVID-19 and the Dissertation



Cynthia Verba,  2020 (GSAS fellowship adviser, retired Director of Fellowships)

There is an increasing awareness of a crucial need for adjusting dissertation plans and proposals that take into account the restrictions on travel and library access that have come with the pandemic, along with the severe damage to our economy, which could have an impact for an even longer period. 

The first question people have been asking:  Given the current travel restrictions and the growing spread of covid-19, should I apply for the traveling fellowship competitions that are now open, such as the Fulbright and other traveling fellowships? The answer is yes:  Next year is a long way off, but application deadlines are around the corner.  However, to live with the inevitable uncertainties, please read the accompanying advice below that also suggests having a Plan B.

Don’t be discouraged by pandemic restrictions, try to produce a strong dissertation plan and proposal, but also be ready with alternative paths to reach your goals. 

The good news, presumably for your dissertation, is that you can and MUST continue to ask the research questions that matter most to you and, hopefully, to the field as well.  What you may have to adjust is how you go about addressing the questions that matter, especially if traveling abroad is a central part of your current plan or if your plan entails high costs to accomplish.  Before you decide that you must jettison your topic, take a fresh look, working closely with your advisors, to see if you can get at the favored questions from another direction, relying on resources many of which have come into fairly common use during the recent decades.

In all probability your alternative plan will be a more modest one, but with the possible advantage of reducing cost and time spent.   I would quickly emphasize that this reduction does not have to mean a more modest or less significant set of questions for your potential dissertation.  It is possible and even desirable to approach questions with a new sharper attention to feasibility, keeping the scope within more reasonable bounds.  It can well lead to a more highly polished finished product that is more compelling in its findings, precisely because of the more reasonable bounds.   

There are positive developments that facilitate alternative research plans.  Hand in hand with the digitization of resources, there is a new spirit among scholars, even prior to the pandemic, of sharing research data that they have acquired.  Typically, scholars collect more data than they can use for their own projects, data that often can be used for other purposes.  Harvard scholars have already been engaged in this sharing, using a newly created computer platform that facilitate this sharing in a highly efficient and economic manner.

Going beyond working closely with your advisor, you can consult with other experienced scholars who have had ample and recent experience in those countries that are integral to your project, not necessarily confined to the Harvard faculty. Above all, be sure to avail yourself of the splendid services of Harvard research librarians, who can make you more fully aware of resources relevant to your project and also guide you in how to use them.  (Note that since research practices are often discipline-specific, find your liaison librarian at or send an inquiry to Ask A Librarian at and request an appointment.) Finally, and this may lie in a more distant future, hopefully we will see a reorientation of present fellowships to match the new realities, placing less emphasis on travel per se, and recognizing that “field work” may have a new meaning.

Whether it’s Plan A or Plan B, don’t neglect the more timeless aspects of designing a dissertation plan and writing a fellowship proposal.  Look at what should be retained, and what may need to be adjusted to respond to the restrictions of the pandemic.

I have already emphasized the importance of posing research questions that can make a contribution to the field.  When you get to proposal writing it is equally important to articulate your questions in a manner that is reader friendly, which means creating a highly polished and persuasive argument of why the topic matters. While this is timeless advice, it acquires special force in the context of the pandemic, where there may be required shifts in implementation. Below are some of the key strategies  that focus on writing a compelling proposal, including pandemic impact adjustments .  Much of it has to do with Do’s and Dont’s, with the Dont’s based on some of the more common tendencies that are anything but user friendly. (Many of these points are presented in greater detail and with samples of winning proposals in my online publication, Scholarly Pursuits: A Guide to Professional Development During the Graduate Years, available at the GSAS Fellowship web site.)

A well structured argument is a must. 

The structure of the proposal, the ordering of items, plays an important role in the strength of the proposal; it can help to overcome any draw-backs caused by the pandemic restrictions.  Build a strong foundation by telling the reader as early as your opening paragraph all the major points of your project as a whole, doing so in succinct not-shell fashion, with further elaboration, as needed, in subsequent paragraphs.  The first major point should be the topic of your research, which essentially entails posing your central question and argument.  (You may need a lead-in if the subject of your research is an obscure one, but be sure to keep it brief.) The next point should be how you will address the question, what is your methodology.  It is on this point that pandemic restrictions might come into play if you have been obliged to adopt an alternative path to your destination.  Once you have presented your topic and methodology you are ready to say how it fits into the field and contributes to it.  This is the key item that often determines the outcome of the fellowship competition. People are often taught that good writing means building gradually so that the main point comes at a climactic moment towards the very end.  Not so with the proposal genre.  The opening should be so compelling that the reader will want to read further.

With the opening paragraph doing its job of laying out the whole in concise fashion, it can then serve as an outline for the rest of the proposal. Just follow the main points that need elaboration and you will have a clear and well structured formulation of your project.  It should  also include any needed explanations of the path chosen if determined by pandemic restrictions.  You can describe it as offering a new lens for addressing your questions. 

When elaborating on the existing literature and your contribution to the field, make sure that you cover all the scholarly areas to which your project will contribute, since projects often contribute to more than one  field. This may prove helpful if your methodology departs from a business as usual approach, whether determined by the pandemic or not. If there are multiple relevant fields, a unified treatment is the most effective. As a Don’t there is a common tendency to scatter references to the literature throughout the proposal, which makes it harder for the reader to get a complete grasp of your contributions.

When discussing methodology state the HOW, make it match the WHAT. 

You may need to elaborate further on the methodology after the opening, especially if you are forced to circumvent forbidden travel. In this case, it is even more important to make sure the methodology matches the stated topic; keep looking back to the introduction. As another Don’t there is a common tendency to leave a disconnect between the HOW and the WHAT: a topic is presented, but the method for implementation is poorly matched with the stated topic.

Limit the number of questions posed and distinguish between the main central question and subsidiary ones.

This advice is timeless but of particularly importance when the proposal hinges to a greater extent on the questions or arguments than it does on access to original materials that may not be available. There is another common tendency for the writer to present a multitude of specific questions in neutral fashion, scattered throughout the proposal, without distinguishing between the main central question and those that are subsidiary. You need to do the hard work yourself of determining which is which rather than leaving it to the reader.  Furthermore, if you pose 20 questions you don’t yet have a topic, or if you do, it is too buried in secondary questions to identify.

Be concise and precise, present one version of the topic

It is important to make all statements concise. The use of fewer words is the best path to clarity. There is a common tendency of adding clause after clause, burying the main point of a statement and making it unmanageable for both reader and writer. Another common tendency is to present the main topic in multiple versions that are just different enough from one another to leave the reader confused (all too frequently, there are even versions that contradict one another).  Once a topic is clearly and concisely presented at the opening, there is no need to repeatedly tell what the topic is. When further elaboration is presented subsequently, stay as close as possible to your opening formulation.  For the same reason, it is

is far better to avoid synonyms or pronouns, often used for the sake of avoiding repeating the same key words. Synonyms  seldom are a perfect or clear match for the original noun; they make life harder for the reader.

Finally, there is an admission to make: that producing a compelling plan and highly polished proposal  is indeed hard work, especially if there are the further challenges posed by the pandemic restrictions.  It is hoped that the suggestions offered here will prepare you to meet the challenges and set your engines going so that you produce a work that meets the challenging demands of the time.

The Dissertation Committee

Like the examination committee, the dissertation committee is normally composed of three, and sometimes four, members of the faculty. In ordinary circumstances, a candidate’s principal advisor will be the chair of the dissertation committee (“dissertation director”). The membership of the rest of the dissertation committee may be the same as the membership of the examination committee, significantly overlap with it, or differ substantially. Professors from outside EALC or outside Harvard may be asked to serve on the committee, but the Department requires that the chair of the committee belong to EALC. GSAS rules require at least two Harvard faculty on any PhD dissertation committee.

If, after the dissertation committee has been formed, the candidate wishes to alter its membership, s/he may do so after first consulting with the chair of the dissertation committee. Students who wish to replace the chair of the dissertation committee are asked to consult first with the DGS. In unusual circumstances, it is possible to ask two faculty members to be co-chairs of the dissertation committee.

Approval of the Prospectus

The deadline for submitting the dissertation prospectus is March 31.

Post-generals students are encouraged to get to work on the prospectus as soon as possible. This is for two reasons. One is that the development of the prospectus typically involves revision of numerous drafts and may take a few months. The other is that, as funding deadlines for most fellowships occur in the fall, students will find it to their advantage to be well along by then in their thinking about the dissertation. In many cases, grant proposals may be thought of as condensed versions of the prospectus.

How best to go about putting together a prospectus is a matter of choice, and it is vital to talk first with one’s advisor. Some students will want to consult with the principal advisor, the rest of the dissertation committee, and/or other faculty members to discuss potential topic(s), research methods, and schedule before writing anything. Others may prefer to work up a first draft and then meet.

After submitting the prospectus on March 31, the Graduate Program Coordinator will schedule hour-long prospectus meetings wherein the students will discuss their projects with all members of their dissertation committees.  This is not an examination.  It is just an opportunity for everyone involved to exchange ideas, suggestions, and concerns. 

Upon agreement of committee members, the committee chair signs the Approval Form and sends it to the Graduate Program Coordinator.  The final version of the prospectus should be submitted to the Graduate Program Coordinator for inclusion in the student’s file. Once these steps are completed, the Department will notify the Registrar that the student has completed all the requirements for the degree save the dissertation. At this point the student is formally advanced to candidacy and may claim ABD (“All But Dissertation”) status.

After the prospectus is approved, students should remain in regular contact with the dissertation committee. The Department recommends that updates be provided at least twice a term (preferably more frequently); check with your advisor. Frequent communication becomes particularly important in the final stages of research and writing or when research difficulties unexpectedly arise that may force a change of plans.


It is understood that the organization and substance of any dissertation is subject to revision during the process of research and writing; it is also recognized that individual faculty may vary in their specific expectations. Candidates are urged to consult closely with their advisors and dissertation committee members in formulating a satisfactory prospectus. The student may wish to consider the following issues in drafting the prospectus.

1. Thesis statement. Present a clear and concise account of the questions you intend to address in your dissertation and explain their significance. You are not expected to have complete answers for all the questions you will be asking, nor a fully worked-out argument, although you are encouraged to propose hypotheses where appropriate. Explain as clearly as possible your own perspective and approach. Include (if you can – many do not) a tentative chapter outline, with chapter titles and brief one-paragraph descriptions of the material you intend to cover in each chapter.

2. Previous scholarship. Place the dissertation problem in its broad scholarly context, critically assessing existing secondary works of relevance to the project. This section should reflect a thorough review of writings in both Western and Asian languages. Indicate how your dissertation may build upon, or challenge, prior work.

3. Methodological and theoretical considerations. Describe the basic methodology for accomplishing the project. Review relevant literature that suggests critical approaches to analogous questions. It may be helpful also to identify relevant literatures from outside disciplines.

4. Sources. Assess and cite the relevant primary and secondary sources you have identified to date to support the project. In preliminary fashion, identify and describe the key libraries and/or archival repositories you plan to visit, what they hold in terms of anticipated source materials, both published and unpublished. Cite other unpublished sources such as MA and PhD theses. Where appropriate, indicate if you will be making use of interviews, oral histories, and participant observation and other sources, and if so, whether you have completed training for research using human subjects as required by the University.

5. Schedule. Devise a preliminary schedule outlining plans for stages in researching and writing the dissertation. Include realistic estimates of time needed for research, travel, writing and revision of the manuscript.

6. Bibliography. Include a list of primary and secondary sources your have used to date in designing the dissertation. This section may be long, and is not included in the page limit for the prospectus.

Most prospectuses end up being between 15 and 25 pages in length, double-spaced, not including the bibliography.

Please note that the Graduate Coordinator maintains a file of approved proposals as a resource for students. After it is approved, yours may be added to this file.

G4 Prospectus Conference

An important milestone in the prospectus phase is the presentation by the student at the Department’s G4 Prospectus Conference, which is held the second Monday in May. In 2023, the Prospectus Conference will be held on May 1. At the end of March, all students with approved prospectuses will be contacted by the Graduate Coordinator, and asked to provide a title and abstract for inclusion in the event program. This must be done by April 28.  Presenters are grouped into panels moderated by the DGS.  Each panelist is given thirty minutes. Keep your presentation to ten to fifteen minutes to allow fifteen to twenty minutes for questions and disscussion. All members of the Department are invited to this event, which lasts all day and is open to the entire University community.

While the Prospectus Conference is primarily designed for G4 students, G3 students who have passed generals are welcome to present in consultation with advisors and the DGS, and G5 students who have missed their opportunities to present at the end of their G4 year due to extenuating circumstances (such as doing research abroad) are also encouraged to participate. Please contact the DGS and the Graduate Coordinator with questions about the process or about your particular situation well in advance of the conference.