Chapter 3: Writing and Revising the Proposal Chapters 

A doctoral proposal usually consists of early drafts of what will ultimately become the first chapters of the thesis. As a general rule, three chapters are required for the proposal: an introduction, a review of relevant literature or previous scholarship and a chapter outlining the research methodology that will be used. This is the format I assume here, but in some cases only one or two chapters are required. The literature review might be included in the introduction, for instance, or ultimately be spread throughout a thesis, and the methodology might be blended with the introduction or the literature review, particularly if methodology or a review of scholarship is the main topic of the research. A somewhat different structure might be required if the research methods are particularly innovative or the thesis is interdisciplinary, but the basic purpose of the proposal – to make it clear what is being investigated, why it is significant and how the student intends to explore it – remains the same. These chapters along with supporting text, such as a list of references and table of contents, are submitted for evaluation, which is carried out in a proposal meeting involving the student, his or her supervisor and the other members of the thesis committee. Approval of the student’s proposal is required for the student to continue the research outlined in the proposal and the writing of the thesis itself.

Although this proposal process is not a required element of earning a doctoral degree in all universities and departments, some kinds of upgrading or approval procedures do take place in many doctoral programmes, often in a form much like the proposal process. For this reason, I assume in this book that a doctoral student may have to submit a proposal, and I therefore discuss in this chapter the first three main parts of a thesis (the introduction, literature review and description of methodology: see Sections 3.1–3.3) specifically in the context of the proposal process. In the following chapter, I revisit these initial parts of the thesis briefly and discuss the remaining chapters (results, discussion and conclusions: see Sections 4.4 and 4.5), the overall structure and content of the thesis, and the final examination. If you do not need to produce and submit a proposal for evaluation and are instead moving directly ahead with drafting your thesis, Chapters 3 and 4 of this book can be used as a single unit by focussing on the sections that apply to your particular thesis. Much of the advice offered about preliminary and final matter for your proposal and the preparation required for a successful proposal meeting may also prove helpful when preparing the entire thesis for submission and examination.

Without a doubt, working effectively with all the members of your thesis committee as you draft your chapters is essential whether you are initially drafting them for a proposal or not. Yet the process of sharing your work and receiving feedback becomes more complicated once you begin writing for your thesis committee as a whole, if for no other reason than because you need to please more than one person, and each committee member will have his or her own ideas about your topic and project. The number of members required to make up a thesis committee can differ depending on the university, the discipline, the department and the thesis itself. As a bare minimum, at least one permanent member beyond the supervisor is necessary; a common scenario features two or three members beyond the supervisor; and for some interdisciplinary theses, that number may climb a little higher. Both small and large committees have their pros and cons.

Small ones mean that you have very few people to write for, so there is less opportunity for contradictory advice, potentially more space for your own ideas and practices to flourish and ideally a better chance of arranging for group meetings of overly busy professors, but you also benefit from less and less diverse advice, and if a member of your committee becomes unavailable the impact can be greater than it is with a larger committee. Large committees, on the other hand, mean that you need to please more people, which can present many contradictions and, in some cases, become somewhat stifling as well as presenting significant challenges when trying to arrange meetings of the whole group, but you will benefit from a broader range of readers and opinions. Whatever the constitution of your thesis committee may be, however, it was no doubt designed to meet your anticipated needs (interdisciplinary theses sometimes require more experts to cover the fields of study concerned, for instance), and almost every thesis committee has the potential to guide you through a successful thesis.

In most cases, you will in practice be working with the members of your committee individually: generally speaking, only at the proposal meeting (if this is required for your thesis) and the thesis examination will the entire committee be present. This means that as you prepare the chapters for your proposal you can work with each additional member much as you do with your supervisor, though as a second stage in the process. A traditional approach is to construct a basic proposal outline (according to university or department guidelines if there are any) and have your supervisor look over it and suggest changes for the better. In some cases you may need to have additional committee members look at the outline as well, but in others this process may not be necessary unless you want their input. Then you would draft each chapter, sharing it with your supervisor for written commentary and face-to-face discussion once it is ready for reading.

Usually, a chapter is passed along to other committee members for their feedback only after your supervisor’s suggestions have been incorporated as revisions. Your supervisor may want to check your revisions before each chapter goes to other members of the committee, or he or she may prefer that all three chapters be drafted, discussed and revised before the other members read any of them. Some committee members beyond your supervisor may want to meet with you to discuss your chapters and some may wish to see the changes you make in response to their comments before the proposal meeting. Since all committee members are supposed to be available to you, you can certainly request a meeting with or a second reading from any member to discuss feedback and check revisions if you think it would be helpful. The process can, then, take different forms, but the essential point is that you and your committee work out procedures that enable the productive exchange of writing and commentary and therefore provide you with the practical guidance you need to begin and continue composing a successful proposal.

With so much helpful advice from different individuals, there cannot help but be contradiction, and you will certainly encounter contradictions as you write your thesis: contradiction among the sources you consult; contradiction between your own work and those sources; contradiction among your committee members in terms of their advice as readers and scholars; and contradiction between your ideas and practices and those of your committee members. Occasionally, you will even find contradiction in the feedback offered by a single committee member, and while this can be frustrating, it is important to remember that the scholars on your committee are in almost all cases incredibly busy and often unable or unwilling to prioritise reading your proposal or thesis chapters.

It is not rare, for instance, for a doctoral candidate’s work to receive its marginal comments from an exhausted scholar while he or she is flying home from a weekend conference. This reality is an effective indication of the fact that no one knows your research and arguments as well as you do, and no one – not even your supervisor – cares as much as you do about your thesis. The differences in the feedback you receive also serve as a reminder that contradiction lies at the heart of academic and scientific writing and debate, so encountering and effectively dealing with it while working on your thesis is simply part of the degree process and very likely of your future career as well.

In fact, one of the most useful aspects of the proposal process is that it reveals differences of opinion and provides the perfect opportunity to make the decisions and compromises that will find middle ground, resolve problems and improve the thesis you ultimately write in a variety of ways. Almost certainly some refinement of both your research topic and your methodology will take place in the course of the proposal process, and some adjustment to your literature review may be required as well: refinement, clarification and elaboration of your work are, after all, main objectives of the proposal process. This does not mean that you should completely change your plans for your thesis, but that you should be flexible and recognise that your committee members, while perhaps not as focussed on or as familiar with your topic as you are, have more experience than you do and are providing expert critical advice that can help you sharpen your thinking, improve your methodology and clarify your argument. Such advice can enable you to meet the requirements of scholarly writing at the doctoral level and the needs of anticipated readers beyond your thesis committee.

You will find it necessary to be a critical reader yourself, however, by considering the comments and ideas provided by your committee members from as objective a perspective as possible and using their advice carefully to benefit as fully as possible from it while continuing undaunted on your own unique research path. If you find that a member of your committee disagrees with your approach or perhaps misunderstands your intentions, it is best to give the matter some careful thought before discussing it with that individual, and although it is ultimately your thesis and most of the decisions must be your own, working diplomatically to reconcile (as much as possible) differences in perspective and clarify your explanations (and thus your writing) will usually enable more efficient progress from that point on. If significant problems associated with conflicting advice from your various committee members arise as you work through preparing the proposal chapters, it is a good idea to discuss them with your supervisor initially, since he or she may have helpful advice, and then with other committee members if necessary.

You should clearly state your own ideas and concerns in such meetings, point out contradictions in the advice you received, specify what you do not understand or what you think will not work and, if possible, suggest compromises that may lead to solutions with which everyone can feel satisfied. Most issues can be resolved in this way as long as you aim for honest and straightforward communication, maintain good manners, show respect for the ideas of others, demonstrate an open mind and combine it with a persistent focus on what you want your thesis to do and be. Whether your thesis committee enables or disables your progress is, then, determined by you as much as (if not more than) it is by the committee members, and learning to work effectively with all members of your committee is an essential aspect of successfully completing a doctoral thesis.

Please note that if you (and your supervisor) have not yet decided on the referencing, editorial and formatting styles to follow in your thesis, it is wise to make these decisions before you begin drafting your proposal chapters, so do check for university and department guidelines, consult successful theses as models and discuss these matters with your supervisor and perhaps other members of your thesis committee. It is impossible to emphasise how much time and effort is saved by recording references and presenting other elements of your writing in the correct styles and formats at once, and you will also save yourself work down the road by knowing exactly what the length requirements for separate parts of your thesis and the thesis as a whole are and accommodating these requirements while drafting your initial chapters.

Why PhD Success?

To Graduate Successfully

This article is part of a book called "PhD Success" which focuses on the writing process of a phd thesis, with its aim being to provide sound practices and principles for reporting and formatting in text the methods, results and discussion of even the most innovative and unique research in ways that are clear, correct, professional and persuasive.

The assumption of the book is that the doctoral candidate reading it is both eager to write and more than capable of doing so, but nonetheless requires information and guidance on exactly what he or she should be writing and how best to approach the task. The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples.

The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples. PhD Success provides guidance for students familiar with English and the procedures of English universities, but it also acknowledges that many theses in the English language are now written by candidates whose first language is not English, so it carefully explains the scholarly styles, conventions and standards expected of a successful doctoral thesis in the English language.

Individual chapters of this book address reflective and critical writing early in the thesis process; working successfully with thesis supervisors and benefiting from commentary and criticism; drafting and revising effective thesis chapters and developing an academic or scientific argument; writing and formatting a thesis in clear and correct scholarly English; citing, quoting and documenting sources thoroughly and accurately; and preparing for and excelling in thesis meetings and examinations. 

Completing a doctoral thesis successfully requires long and penetrating thought, intellectual rigour and creativity, original research and sound methods (whether established or innovative), precision in recording detail and a wide-ranging thoroughness, as much perseverance and mental toughness as insight and brilliance, and, no matter how many helpful writing guides are consulted, a great deal of hard work over a significant period of time. Writing a thesis can be an enjoyable as well as a challenging experience, however, and even if it is not always so, the personal and professional rewards of achieving such an enormous goal are considerable, as all doctoral candidates no doubt realise, and will last a great deal longer than any problems that may be encountered during the process.

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