Year Four: Th.D. Dissertation Prospectus

Within, at most, twelve months of passing generals, every doctoral candidate is expected to submit a Dissertation Prospectus. The prospectus is a proposal formulated by the student about the doctoral dissertation that he or she intends to write. Acceptance of the prospectus by the Standing Committee constitutes a kind of contract by which the full Committee agrees that if the student completes a successful dissertation that is in accord with, or a reasonable development from, what the prospectus delineates, it will recommend the degree.


Student Responsibilities

The responsibility of the student to formulate, with as much advice and consultation as seem appropriate, a dissertation project that seems to him or her significant and worthwhile, and that others will recognize as a solid contribution both to his or her subfield and to the study of religion more generally. In this regard please refer to the section below, On Drafting a Dissertation Prospectus, and keep well in mind the following statement in the Supplement: "Each dissertation, in making a contribution to knowledge, should also illuminate our understanding of religion."

Each student must choose a member of the Harvard faculty to supervise the writing of the prospectus. Such a faculty member will most likely, but not necessarily, be the advisor who has been supervising the student‘s program to that point. The student must also propose two or three other faculty members to serve on his or her prospectus committee. It is important that these professors have also READ the draft and conveyed their thoughts to the student and main advisor before it is submitted to the CSR.

In composing the prospectus the student should be mindful that he or she is writing it for The Standing Committee on the Study of Religion as a whole, to whom it must be intelligible and cogent. Most Committee members will not be experts in the student's particular specialty.

The prospectus should be brief (not more than 3000 words, excluding bibliography and notes; a model title page is enclosed), and must be double-spaced. It is to be submitted electronically to the Ph.D. Program Administrator 2 weeks in advance of the Standing Committee meeting at which it will be considered. The student should submit 25 hard copies of the prospectus to the CSR two days before the meeting at which it will be considered for approval.

The CSR will accept prospectuses at all of its meetings up to and including the April meeting. If a larger number of prospectuses is received at the April meeting, some may be tabled and discussed at the May CSR meeting. No new prospectuses will be accepted for the May meeting.


Advisor Responsibilities

Advisors are expected to be involved actively in the development of the prospectus—especially with regard to its scope and purpose—and to guide the student through early drafts.

When the prospectus is ready to be submitted to the Standing Committee, the student’s advisor should confirm that all of the formal guidelines for the prospectus have been met, by signing the "Prospectus Checklist". If the student's advisor will not be able to attend the CSR meeting in which the prospectus is being discussed, he or she should write a covering letter to the CSR Chair of the Committee, indicating an evaluation of the project and a willingness to supervise the work. This letter also proposes two or three faculty members, in addition to the advisor, to serve as members of a prospectus committee. While the majority of the prospectus committee will be scholars in the student's particular specialty, others outside his or her field might be included as well. The advisor should ascertain that these other scholars have read the draft of the prospectus, and be prepared to represent their views at the CSR meeting.

The advisor may discuss changes with the student before the prospectus comes before the committee; although it is rarely necessary, the student may opt to withdraw the draft for later submission, for example.


Standing Committee Responsibilities

The DGS or other appropriate faculty meets with doctoral students at the beginning of each academic year to discuss the prospectus process in detail.

There will also be a discussion of the entire prospectus process among faculty at the beginning of each academic year in a CSR meeting. This discussion will review the ethos and culture of the process, including the responsibility of all CSR faculty to read each prospectus carefully in advance, with the larger expectation that all theses address issues in the Study of Religion.

CSR members are strongly encouraged to alert the advisor to any substantive concerns one week in advance of the CSR meeting in which his or her advisee’s prospectus is discussed. (This recommendation does not discourage robust discussion and possible rejection of the prospectus at the CSR meeting.)

Once the prospectus is submitted, it will be considered, along with comments of the advisor, by the Standing Committee at its earliest scheduled meeting. When the CSR approves the prospectus, it also approves the thesis committee, on occasion making recommendations for additions or adjustments. In every case, the advisor is a member of the prospectus committee.

Please note that additional substantive questions may be raised during the discussion of the prospectus at the CSR meeting; there is no obligation on the part of the Standing Committee to pass a prospectus.

If a prospectus is turned back to the student for revisions, it will be resubmitted to the doctoral subcommittee for approval and approval of the thesis committee.

Once the Standing Committee approves a prospectus, it will then refer it to the prospectus committee who will meet with the student to discuss the project in depth. Normally this is a two-hour meeting. The prospectus committee then reports back to the Standing Committee, recommending final approval of the proposal. In some cases the prospectus committee may indicate that it has asked the student to make some revisions and that it will delay its formal recommendation until they have been received. The prospectus committee, once its recommendation has been approved by the Standing Committee, is disbanded.

The purpose of a prospectus is to enable students: (1) to clarify what they conceive to be the nature and significance of their prospective dissertation work, and (2) to receive constructive criticism, advice and approval from both the full Committee on the Study of Religion and members of a prospectus committee. Formulating a prospectus for the faculty represents a significant stage in the course of dissertation work, and its importance should not be underestimated. Not only does it allow students to come to a fuller and more adequate understanding of their own project; it also enlists the active support of the faculty who are expected to provide significant advice and criticism at this crucial stage in its development.

While there are no well-established formulas or models for writing a prospectus, every prospectus should attend to the following issues:

1. Topic and thesis. There is an important distinction between a topic and a thesis. A topic represents the issue which the dissertation addresses. A thesis constitutes the position which the student takes in relation to the topic; i.e., the central hypothesis which is to be examined. For example:

Topic: Barth’s theological method

Thesis: Barth's theological method results from his interpretation of the Word of God as an act which is not subject to human manipulation.

In the prospectus, students should carefully circumscribe the topic of their dissertation, including historical and conceptual analyses of the topic (to the extent that such analyses clarify what the student takes to be at issue). The aim is not only to show how the dissertation will be done, but that the student is familiar enough with the topic that the project can be done and done within a reasonable amount of time. The CSR strongly recommends that students be thinking about possible dissertation topics as they work on their General exams, with the hope that the exam process will move easily, and fairly expeditiously, into the writing of the prospectus.

2. Sources, Method, and Theory. The prospectus must also be clear about the sources upon which the dissertation will depend, the method(s) the student will be using, and where appropriate, the theoretical resources that will be relevant to their work. Consequently, in discussing method, it is especially important to attend to any special problems that might occur in the course of research and to note how these problems might be addressed.

3. Contribution to scholarship. Students should specify as carefully as they can what they consider to be the various ways their project will contribute to the field of study in which they work. In particular, it is helpful to a brief statement of the current status of their topic within their larger field of study, to indicate the various problems at issue, and to show how their project will advance the discussion. It is also important to know that prospectuses are read by the full Standing Committee before they are considered by Prospectus Committees and that the concern of the members of the full Committee, with respect to this aspect of the prospectus, is the extent to which dissertation work can be understood to contribute not only to particular fields of study but also to the broader study of religion, continuing the intellectual work begun in Religion 2001 and 2002. Students are encouraged to articulate the contribution of their research to a future horizon of the community concerned with the study of religion in connection to the received heritage of religious studies and on contemporary discussions and debates, as topic and thesis are formulated and developed and as the worth of the project for scholarship is stated.

4. Chapter Outline. The prospectus must also provide an outline of the projected chapter divisions and a brief description of how the argument will be developed from chapter to chapter.

5. Bibliography. In addition the prospectus should include a brief bibliography indicating the principal primary and secondary sources upon which the theses is expected to be based. This need not be exhaustive, but representative.

Revised November 2011