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Dissertation proposal prep

Well I’ve done it, sort of. I’ve submitted my revised proposal to school-PI and I’m hoping to hear back soon regarding his feedback. In the meantime I’m going to have to start working on the sides for my proposal. I think this is an important step, so today I’m going to discuss the dissertation proposal and what goes into it. Because somehow I can’t find a post where I talked about this… oops.

From the archives, it looks like the last time I discussed my proposal was mid January… wow (here). I guess I talked about it in passing just recently (here), but in both cases I have been so wrapped up in getting the stuff done, it appears (again from what I can find) that I’ve forgotten to bother explaining what the heck is going on. The best case scenario is that if I have, it’s been so long that I should probably run through it one more time. So what the heck is a dissertation proposal anyway?

Like the name suggests your dissertation proposal is where you put forth your proposed contribution to science (in my case, as a neuroengineer). You will need to defend this proposal in front of a committee if your choosing, but the school will (and does) have it’s own regulations on who can and cannot be on your committee (more on committee selection here). I guess in that post I do talk a little about the proposal defense, but not really.

The proposal defense, at least in my case and in the general case from what I’ve seen, is broken into two parts. The first part is the written proposal. Again, coming at this from an engineering perspective, the written portion of the proposal is just a document in a similar format to that of a journal paper that outlines what you are planning on doing. In my case and the case of my peers, that document is anywhere from 10-15 pages long (not including references), but yours may or may not be that involved.

In my case, the proposal covers what I want to do, work I’ve previously done to support this effort, the potential problems that could come from the work, and the timeline for getting it all done. It’s a detailed outline that gives your committee the scope of the work you’re planning on doing. This helps your committee understand what you’re planning, but let’s face it, it also helps you as a student plan. So all in all, it’s not a bad step because you may realize you didn’t take certain things into consideration that you really should have.

For example, with my first proposal draft, there was a small gap in my proposed work that school-PI pointed out and suggested I fill, which I did. The written portion of the proposal did its job in other words. But that’s not all it is for, it also helps answer questions that your committee may have regarding the work, preempting these questions will save a lot of headache and hassle when you reach the next step of the process, which is — as you may have guessed — the defense part of the proposal defense.

One by one you fight your committee in a steel, or sometimes wooden, cage the size of a small classroom until there’s only one person standing.

I’m kidding and I hope that was obvious.

The defense portion of your proposal defense is literally an oral presentation on the work you’re proposing. During which time the committee members, and other people in attendance, will have the chance to ask you questions, offer words of encouragement, or even suggestions on what to do or how to do something. In the end it’s more about making sure your committee understands what you’re proposing and that they are comfortable with the work you’re suggesting for the timeframe you’ve given.

In the course of my PhD, I’ve attended a handful of these proposal defense presentations and the trick is that they are almost always approved. This is because of the committee chair, or the PI of the lab you work in. They will review everything prior to your defense (like I’m doing now) to help make sure you don’t have to modify or completely redo something. It saves both you and your committee precious time. The last thing you want to do is waste people’s time and the job of your committee chair is to make sure you’re ready.

As a good reminder, none of the stuff you’re doing from your qualifying exam to your actual PhD defense is designed to make you fail. It’s all designed to help set milestones for you to hit along the way so you succeed in your goal of getting your PhD. Generally speaking (because there’s always individuals who will fall outside this) your committee doesn’t want to see you fail, they don’t want to fail you, and they agree to be part of your committee because it’s genuinely exciting for them to see people succeed.

Now where am I in this process?

Well I have my IRB, which may or may not be the only IRB I need… (more) I still don’t have any update regarding that yet, but soon I hope. I have a second draft of my proposal freshly written and sent off to school-PI for review, I have my committee fully finalized (again), and I am currently working on the slides for my proposal defense. This process is taking slightly longer than I had hoped, but I still feel fairly confident I’ll finish on time if nothing goes completely sideways. I hope that the next post I write on this will be that I have my written proposal approved by school-PI so I can send it off to my committee members and start the clock on scheduling my defense.

That’s another thing I should mention (to have it all in one place). There are requirements for time between when I send my written proposal to my committee members and when I can do my defense. In my case that requirement is two weeks, so I need to give my committee at least two weeks to review my proposal before my scheduled defense. I can schedule whenever I feel like it, but it has to be at LEAST two weeks after they get my written proposal.

Things are slowly moving forward for me and I’ve built in a lot of extra time for the data processing side of things in case things get hung up, so I’m not panicking quite yet. If it takes a little longer than I’ll live, but it doesn’t hurt to keep trying to do it in the five years I set out to do it in.

It feels a little surreal to be at this point, even though it also feels like this step is dragging. It’s weird, but I can live with weird. For now I just need to wait until school-PI gives me his approval and work on making a good presentation. It’s all prep work until the big day from here on out.

For anyone else at this point, good luck!


2 responses

  1. The “one by one you fight your committee” comment made me laugh. It probably feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it.

    Thanks for the update. I’m happy to see it all seems to be going okay.

    Liked by 1 person

    March 28, 2022 at 8:55 pm

    • Yeah it really does some times! But seriously, so far so good and things are moving QUICK now so I’m very excited.


      March 29, 2022 at 3:01 pm

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