Process & Parameters

Process & Parameters
The Holy Grail: In Pursuit of the Dissertation Proposal
Michael Watts
Institute of International Studies
University of California, Berkeley
"[T]here is too little emphasis ... on what it means to do independent research."
- William Bowen and Neil Rudenstein
In Pursuit of the Ph.D. 1992
One of the great curiosities of academia is that the art of writing a research proposal -- arguably one of the most difficult and demanding tasks confronting any research student -- is so weakly institutionalized within graduate programs. The same, incidentally, might be said of fieldwork, whether the site is a village in northern Uganda or an archive in Pittsburgh. My experience is that fieldwork has all of the aura (and anxiety) of any rite of passage. But with a difference. It is a Darwinian learning-by-doing ordeal for which there is presumed to be no body of preparatory knowledge that can be passed on in advance; those that succeed return, and those that don't are never seen again. It is perhaps for such reasons that Bowen and Rudenstein in their important book In Pursuit of the Ph.D. see the period between the end of coursework and the engagement of a dissertation topic as one of the most fraught and difficult in graduate formation. The selection of a topic they say is 'a formidable task', and students must be -- but in practice rarely are in the social sciences and the humanities -- encouraged to engage with their dissertation project in their first and second years. All of this is to say that the transition -- another rite of passage -- from course work to dissertation project is often paralyzing ("How exactly am I going to operationalize my crypto-Foucauldian study of the micro-physics of political power in San Francsico's credit unions?") and typically a source of bewilderment, anxiety and yes, even depression. It is always worth recalling the old adage that in its most demanding forms, writing and doing research, requires a state of mind and a way of being that most people in the world spend their lives trying to avoid: withdrawal, obsession, panic. This is the stuff of research and yet is it surprising how many classic monographs cover their tracks, obfuscate the mistakes, errors and panic, and forget the lived realities of working in the 'field', however defined. To be blunt: fieldwork is important, but it ain't necessarily pretty.
It is interesting to reflect on why the research proposal, and research design, has become a sort of public secret on campuses and indeed why it has become less an object of scrutiny in the last couple of decades. Perhaps the post-structural skepticism to toward method and 'truth', and the attraction of the conditions under which knowledge is produced has contributed to a sort of flight from research design. While an important consideration, I want to use this opportunity to introduce a number of issues pertaining to research design and proposal writing and to lay out in broad terms a number of concerns and knotty problems that enter into the long and complicated process of framing, designing and conducting a researchable project...