How to Write a Ph.D. Proposal for English Literature

Dissertation writing means many hours in the library.
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When considering researching and writing your dissertation in literature, you will need to find an original topic. Unless you are doing original archival research, you may find many topics have already been covered. Once you have decided on an original angle or have found an author or literary theme that has gone virtually unstudied, you are ready to draft the dissertation proposal.

1 Know the Rules

While researching published literature in your area, take careful notes.
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All institutions have formatting standards for the proposal. Familiarize yourself with these, as you will be expected to follow them. Among the standards will be the required length, which can range from 2,000 words to almost 100 pages if a sample chapter and bibliography are required. Institutions are also strict with pagination and format standards; some have individuals whose jobs involve verifying your adherence to standards. When you have questions, consult your dissertation director or talk to the graduate school.

2 Be Objective and Original

A good literature dissertation proposal will be sufficiently specific. You cannot simply write that you plan to examine Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories; you would be better served to identify a story or group of stories and possibly even a common theme within these for analysis. The website Dissertation Tips suggests that you should choose a topic that can sustain your interest for a long time but with which you can remain objective. Your logic should be easy to follow. Your proposal should build on published research but show promise of originality -- your contribution to literature scholarship.

3 Include a Working Title

Proposal standards will likely differ per institution, but various elements are universal. You will be asked to provide a working title. Some institutions and English departments may want a short, descriptive title that summarizes your argument. You may be allowed by some advisers to use a longer title, since a multi-part title better suits a complex topic. For example, if you examine the sociological or psychological implications of a recurring metaphor in the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates and Angela Carter or perhaps three or more authors, a short title will not suffice.

4 Create Sections

Consult your dissertation director if you have any questions.
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The working title is typically followed by an introduction, which is an overview of the proposal. A list of research questions may be helpful, as it makes you consider the feasibility of your research. The next section, the review of literature, demonstrates that you know the published work of other scholars in your specialty area. For example, if John Hawkes’ imagery is your topic, you would discuss -- in essay format -- any of the published literature on Hawkes or imagery that either affects your proposal or shows the lack of research done in your specific area, thereby justifying your dissertation.

5 Final Considerations

Some professors may require an explanation of your research methodology, which will help you determine what potentially helpful research seems to be missing so that you can seek it out. Remember, the proposal is a working version of the dissertation topic and should help you determine what your next research steps should be.

Anthony Fonseca is the library director at Elms College in Massachusetts. He has a doctorate in English and has taught various writing courses and literature survey courses. His books include readers' advisory guides, pop culture encyclopedias and academic librarianship studies.