The Dissertation Prospectus

The Dissertation Prospectus


Because it describes work that you have yet to complete, the dissertation prospectus is an unfamiliar sort of academic genre.  So what should you try to accomplish in this document?

Put most simply, the dissertation prospectus should offer a provisional account of (1) what your argument is, (2) why it matters, and (3) what body of evidence you will draw on to substantiate it.  Your “argument” might be expressed as a focused research question, as a hypothesis, or as a tentative thesis.  In explaining why it matters, you should outline how your dissertation will contribute to, or change, the existing scholarship on the topic.  And in describing a body of evidence, you should indicate which primary and secondary texts are essential to your project.

In addition to these general aims, your prospectus should provide answers to the following questions:

  • Why are you addressing this topic? How does it build upon your previous work and how is your approach, archive, or perspective significant?
  • Do you make use of any special methodological or theoretical perspective? How is it appropriate to your topic and body of evidence?
  • What is the proposed organization of the dissertation?

If these are its intellectual goals, what practical elements should the dissertation prospectus include?

  • A title: Don’t be too cute, it should indicate the topic and emphasis of your project.
  •  The body of the prospectus: This should describe your project, outline its potential interest and scholarly significance, and identify your core objects of study.
  •  A chapter breakdown: write tentative accounts of each chapter, dedicating a page or less to each.
  •  A timeline: outlining what you intend to complete and when.
  •  If applicable, a description of special needs: e.g., do you need to travel or conduct specific archival research, develop new linguistic or technical skills, or use special equipment?
  •  A working bibliography:  although this might include a few important works you have not yet read, it mostly should represent the research you have done so far.

Your prospectus should be between 1500-3000 words or 7-10 double-spaced pages in length, not counting the tentative schedule, description of special needs, and working bibliography. Longer prospectuses will not be approved.

You should complete a first draft of the prospectus by September 15 of your fourth year and submit it to your dissertation committee to review.  When the student and committee are agreed that the prospectus is in the nearly final draft, the student should take the initiative to schedule a prospectus meeting. This meeting, to be attended by the student and her/his entire committee, should occur not later than October 1.  The purpose of the prospectus meeting is to provide you with a forum for discussion of the dissertation's conception and development. It is not a defense of the prospectus. Rather, it is an occasion for the student to get coordinated feedback before he/she completes a final revision.

Before filing the prospectus with the department, you need to complete any essential revisions recommended at the prospectus meeting, Next, complete the online Report of the Dissertation Proposal Committee  in  typeface only. Then download and take  it to your  committee members  to sign. Once the form is completed, submit it to the Graduate Studies Coordinator . If one or more of your committee members cannot sign, the printed approval email may be included in the hardcopy packet. The DGS will decide whether to approve it or recommend further revision. You will be notified of the DGS’s decision via email if there is a problem. The department will forward the 'Report' form to GSAS once it is approved. October 25th is the deadline for filing approved prospectus with the department.


  • May-September: Independent work on dissertation prospectus, with prospectus workshops in early May and late August
  • September 15: Final date for first draft to be submitted to dissertation committee
  • October 1: Deadline for prospectus meeting with dissertation committee

Several prospectuses have been selected as examples of the genre. They have been chosen from a variety of fields and represent the diversity of methodological and theoretical approaches to doctoral research in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia. 

These prospectuses have been uploaded to a collaboration site for graduate students in CourseWorks (Canvas Resources for Graduate Students).  Please request access from the English department administrator.