You’re on your own. No more classes, no more exams; and pep talks with faculty and friends only help so much. So the first step toward writing your proposal, and indeed, writing the dissertation, is:
Organize your time effectively
Keep a calendar. If you find days passing and you feel you’re achieving little or nothing, try tracking 48 hours in an ordered list, like an astronaut. Write down every 2 hours exactly how you’ve spent your time; at the end of the two days, evaluate the report. Don’t waste time berating yourself for wasting time. Just know and avoid your time-wasters: the internet, videogames, cleaning, TV, novel-reading, grading or preparing to teach, having long phone conversations. Try varying your workspace: work at home, or move to the library for a few days. Being surrounded by people in a library or department can keep your brain sharper and limit the sense of isolation that inevitably arises when one undertakes a long, solitary writing project.
Don’t underestimate the time it takes to think through a topic before the actual business of producing pages starts. But set a firm deadline for the proposal submission and stick to it.
Make the mental transition to ABD status
Though you probably need it now more than ever, don’t expect faculty to badger you. Just as you are preparing for the next stage of your career, whether it’s an assistant professorship, post-doc, or a schoolteaching job, so they are accustoming themselves to that transition, moving from thinking of you as a student to considering you a junior colleague of sorts. Consequently they will exert far less control over your time and how you spend it.
Without developing a hefty case of paranoia, remember that how you present yourself at this stage will directly affect your faculty’s opinion of you (and their letters of recommendation). It’s one thing to pass in every single seminar paper late (a fault to which I remorsefully confess); it’s another to wander aimlessly through the dissertation process, complaining to everyone you meet, broadcasting every moment of despair and hopelessness. Those moments will come; they will pass. Not everyone needs to know about them. So strengthen your self-confidence and sense of direction. Remember your successes in the past: ideas you mastered, books you read, exams you aced.
Choose an adviser, and be sure that s/he knows that s/he is your adviser. You may need or prefer to keep talking with several people—I did, and found it immensely stimulating—but you need to identify a single person as an adviser. Consult with the DGS or chair for advice.
Choosing a topic
Only a few people will actually read your dissertation, but it is your springboard into full membership in the field as a professional. It will help get you a job. You’ll mine it for articles or turn it into a book. It’s your chance to expand your mind, develop your writing style, and hone an area of expertise. Start by asking yourself: what do I want to accomplish with this work? What scholarly question in my field do I feel absolutely must be answered, and how can I whittle that down or expand it up into a question others will want answered? Must I work alone, or is this topic a chance to experiment with collaborative work? Who will read this study? Why do I think it’s worth writing about?
That last question: if you can’t answer it, you may as well start filling out applications for the foreign service tonight. When you go on the academic market, and for some non-academic jobs too, you’ll have to explain over and over again why you chose the topic you did. If your best answer is “no one had done it yet” or “my adviser thought it was a good idea” or “well, I just happened to be interested in it,” it’s likely that your interviewers will, rightly or wrongly, think less of you. The humanities are suffering in today’s academy, and tomorrow’s academics need to be more than nice gentleman or lady scholars. Employers outside academia want to meet smart job applicants who can explain succinctly and persuasively why they devoted two years or more to a major project. We all need to convince students and people outside the academy that ideas matter, and the best way to prove that you can pull that off—to your potential hirers and to yourself—is to choose a dissertation topic that matters to you. Then it’s up to you to make it matter to others.
Know that your final choice will involve the trauma of closing doors to other topics that interest you, but this is just a temporary situation. You’ll be able to work on other things soon: in fact, if you organize your time efficiently enough, you can give papers or try writing something short on your secondary topic right away. If you find yourself hopelessly torn between two totally disparate topics: say, Sophocles and civic ideology or metaphor in Seneca, ask yourself: with whom will I work on this topic? In which area do I want to teach for my first few years out of grad school? Has one of these topics been worked to death in the scholarship? Which topic connects up with interesting research undertaken in other disciplines?
What kind of scholar do I want to be: a cultural theorist or a literary critic? a papyrologist or a historian? a well-informed traditionalist or a well-informed innovator? Do I want to be the kind of intellectual that likes to read Critical Inquiry, AJP, n+1 or JRS? How does the topic fit into my sense of myself as a thinker?
Look at recent dissertations in your department and in departments near you. Ask your faculty for examples of dissertation abstracts. Scan the SCS or MLA newsletter for announcements of dissertations completed. What kinds of questions are your peers asking? How are your ideas similar or different? Check out the forthcoming publications from major presses in your field (if you don’t know what these are, you have your work cut out for you: begin with Princeton, California, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Routledge, Chapel Hill). Read work published by young scholars: their first books are often based on their dissertations. Can you imagine your work being developed in such a way?
Feeling boxed in by conventional expectations and constraints? You’re in luck: fascinating experimentation with the format of the dissertation is being undertaken these days. Check out, for example, CUNY Graduate Center Professor Cathy Davidson’s Futures Initiative, which features deep discussion about alternative formats, how to write for interdisciplinary audiences, how to reach a non-scholarly readership, and related topics.
Steps toward writing a proposal
Keep a journal of what you’re reading and the ideas that come to you as you read. It serves you well years into your teaching career. I keep three types: a commonplace book filled with provocative quotations that stick in my mind (from scholarship, film, novels, poetry, essays, news articles); a weekly list of what I’m reading and why I find it interesting, which I keep in my appointments calendar; and an ongoing book of ideas, successive volumes of which I’ve been scrawling since 1995 and which inspire me when my brain feels soft.
Create an ideal timeline of your planned progress, keeping in mind the dates of coming Annual Meetings or other conferences where you might present your work or go on the market.
Do not sit down to write the proposal until you can do the following:
1) State your argument in two sentences. Try two versions: one for your colleagues and one for your college-educated but non-academic friends or family. Both should be lucid and compelling. Like any writing exercise, even the 10 page paper, your argument must have a thesis. “Patterns of praise in Latin panegyric” is not enough. “Patterns of praise in Latin panegyric reveal the evolution of conceptions of virtue in aristocratic Roman culture” is better. “Coin imagery from second century Sicily” is not enough. “Coin imagery from third century Sicily demonstrate the following major change in east-west patterns of trade and social thought...” is better.
2) List the 1-3 most important primary texts and 10 most important secondary texts for your research.
3) Describe your methodology in 1 sentence: e.g., psychoanalytic theory; epigraphical analysis; prosopography; speech- act theory; New Historicism. If you have no method, keep reading and thinking, and talk to your adviser. Combining methodologies is fine.
4) List the types of scholars who will find your project interesting. If it’s just Homerists or Vergilians, you’ve got a problem. Broaden your thinking so that you can frame the question in a way that will speak to Latinists, or people working on archaic Greece, or people in another discipline (English, history, anthropology) who might find your work relevant to their interests.
5) List the 2-3 articles or books that you find most inspiring and useful; in two sentences for each, explain why. At least one should be from outside your direct area of research.
Final steps before writing the proposal
Erase your brain of narrow-mindedness. You’re a graduate student, and unlike many of the people whose work you’ll be reading, you haven’t been doing this job for very long. Deciding that X methodology is hopelessly stupid or Y scholar is an idiot smacks of immaturity and mental laziness. So don’t formulate your thinking from a negative base.
Instead, focus on the joys of idea-making. Consider how your work will make a positive impact, not just to your field but to the humanities at large. It might help to imagine what direction you’d ideally like the field to move toward and how your work will help do this.
Develop an ideal table of contents.
Structuring the proposal
Your institution will have rules that you must follow. But a good proposal does four things:
1) It states the thesis in 1-2 sentences, and then expands the explanation to 1-2 paragraphs.
2) It provides a clear and honest chapter outline.
3) It sets the context for the research by briefly reviewing the scholarly literature and intellectual trends relevant to the topic, making clear the dissertation’s contribution to the tradition or where the dissertation breaks new ground.
4) It gives the dissertation a clear and helpful title (even if it changes, and it probably will).