The dissertation prospectus is a proposal for the PhD student’s dissertation work. The purpose of the prospectus process is to help the student formulate and refine the contents of the dissertation. The faculty aim is to be constructive in considering the scope, viability, and details of the students’ planned research. An approved dissertation prospectus signifies that there is a shared understanding between the student and the committee of the scope of work that (assuming it is completed to a high quality) would result in a successful completion of a PhD.

This guide describes the components of the dissertation prospectus, and the steps that need to be completed during the prospectus process. We will also comment on the timeline of the dissertation prospectus, although there is substantial variability across students in exactly when these steps are completed.

I. Establish committee. Students will eventually identify a committee of four faculty members to comprise their dissertation committee. At least three of these individuals should participate in the dissertation prospectus process. A fourth member of the dissertation committee can be added after the prospectus is complete; this member is called the “external examiner”. It is also allowable for all four of the committee members to participate in the dissertation prospectus evaluation, but this is not required.

In considering committee members, the student’s primary mentor is always included and will serve as the Committee Chair. Two committee members must be members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), including FAS emeriti. Beyond that, students have options of whom they can invite to be a part of their dissertation committee as they can include faculty in other Harvard departments or schools, or faculty members at other universities. See below for information about steps needed to gain approval of committee members.

Action item: Students should invite potential committee members to join your dissertation committee, following consultation with your primary mentor. When inviting faculty members, note that their agreement entails a) evaluating your dissertation prospectus, b) reading your dissertation and taking part in your eventual dissertation defense, and c) being available for guidance/input on your dissertation work. Please note that faculty members are not required to say yes. There are valid reasons a particular faculty member might not be available for your committee (e.g., an impending leave). If any student is having difficulty finding committee members, please consult with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS).

Before inviting potential committee members, students are required to work with the Graduate Program Coordinator to make sure their desired committee members are approved by the Department. All ladder faculty in the Psychology department (with Assistant, Associate, or Full Professor rank) are approved automatically. Outside scholars require approval from your primary advisor and from the CHD. Students may ask the Graduate Program Coordinator if a particular scholar had already been approved in the past; if so, there is no further action needed by the student. If they have not been, students should petition the CHD via email to the Graduate Program Coordinator; describe briefly why you are requesting the scholar and what they will add to the committee, i.e. "for their expertise in..." and include a copy of the scholar's CV.

Timeline: There is no exact time this is required. However, students need to establish their committee before submitting their dissertation prospectus.


II. Prepare and submit written dissertation prospectus. The prospectus itself should be in as polished form as possible, using APA journal article style. The goal of the prospectus is to provide the committee a full plan of the scope of research activities the student plans to complete as their dissertation. Students should discuss the scope of research that should comprise a dissertation with their mentor. A typical prospectus will not exceed 30 pages (excluding appendices), but the length should be sufficient to cover the steps detailed below.

  • Describe the general context. How does the area of study fit into broader issues, and why are they significant? The review of literature starts here. 
  • Describe the particular area in detail. This section should state the need for research in the area. 
  • Pose the specific research question and hypothesize the results that will be found. 
  • Describe the proposed methodology, including all important details: what needs to be controlled for, what kind of data analysis will be used, etc. Give information on the characteristics of subjects to be recruited. Any pilot data should be included here. The proposals in the methods section should be specific, rather than options; it is recognized that many changes may happen in the prospectus meeting, but committee members need to be given the student's best ideas rather than several avenues that could be taken. Include as an appendix copies of any measures planned.
  • Predicted results and theoretical interpretation
  • References

Action item: Students should write a dissertation prospectus and disseminate it to their committee and to the Graduate Program Coordinator. Students are welcome to seek feedback on drafts of the proposal and engage in discussions with their mentor and/or committee members (or others) as they are preparing the proposal.

Timeline: Students should submit the written proposal to their advising committee at least two weeks before their scheduled prospectus meeting (see Item III).


III. Hold prospectus meeting. Students should hold a prospectus meeting attended by their advising committee (remote attendance such as via Zoom is allowable, especially for out-of-town committee members or during COVID surges). This meeting is an opportunity for students to receive feedback from their committee about the content, quality, and scope of their dissertation. The meeting is also intended for faculty to evaluate whether the dissertation, as proposed, is well-suited for attainment of a PhD or whether it needs to be revised. Faculty will have read the written proposal before the meeting (having received it two weeks before the meeting).

The meeting starts with a short presentation by the student describing the proposed research and including any "fine tuning" that the student has done since the written prospectus was submitted. The presentation should be considered semi-formal, and students may find slides helpful. Students often bring discussion about specific questions or challenges associated with the project for committee input. Committee members often bring questions they had when reading the proposal for clarification or open discussion. Note that there is some variability in this meeting’s length and format, so students should consult their mentors on specific expectations.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the committee will judge whether the project is satisfactory for a dissertation, and what kinds of revisions the student should consider to their research plan. Since the purpose of the prospectus meeting is to help students do as high-quality research as possible, it is likely that at least some modifications will be made. In some cases, the modifications will be so extensive that the committee needs to reconvene for another meeting with the student, but it is expected that only in extreme cases will the student have to "go back to the drawing board." The committee will complete and sign a Prospectus Approval Form, which will also list any required modifications. After the meeting, the student will draft a memo of understanding describing the results of the prospectus meeting and stating how they will incorporate the modifications and suggestions made by the committee. This memo will be reviewed and signed by the student's mentor.

If a student takes a leave of absence or withdraws from graduate study after getting the prospectus approved, they should consult with the CHD to make certain that the previously-approved prospectus still stands.

Action items: a. Schedule meeting. Students are responsible for scheduling the meeting and providing confirmation of the meeting’s date, time, and location. If remote participation is needed, students should coordinate that as well. Note that coordinating faculty schedules can be challenging, and faculty often schedule meetings weeks in advance. Therefore, students should work to schedule this meeting several weeks before the target meeting date.

b. Prepare for meeting. Students should speak with their mentors about the expected format for their meeting and prepare accordingly. Students are expected to answer questions about all details of their proposed project, report on its progress to date, any roadblocks, and comment on a timeline for the project’s completion. Students should also expect to receive extensive feedback from their committee which often entails revisions to the dissertation prospectus.

c. Paperwork. Students should bring the Prospectus Approval Form to the meeting and should collect their advising committee’s signatures indicating whether they “sign off” on the proposal as-is or require revisions. This form should be returned to the Graduate Program Coordinator.

Timeline: The timeline for prospectus completion depends on the student’s planned timeline for completing the program. Many students apply for the GSAS Dissertation Completion Fellowship (DCF) to fund their final year in the program. The DCF pays full year tuition and a 10-month living stipend, typically August - May. Students must obtain dissertation prospectus approval before they can apply for the DCF. As such, the timeline for DCF application often guides students’ prospectus timelines. Note that prospectus meetings often do result in same-day approval (with or without revisions), but some meetings result in approval pending the need for more extensive revisions that would need to be re-reviewed by the committee. Students should consider this possibility when setting their dissertation prospectus timeline and should appreciate the substantial risk involved with holding their committee meetings in very close proximity to the DCF application deadline.

The deadline to apply for the DCF is typically in February of the penultimate year of study in the program. For example, if a student wishes to obtain a DCF for the 2023-2024 year and graduate in 2024 (May or November), then students will need to apply for the DCF by February 10, 2023. Students should consult the Graduate Program Coordinator or the GSAS website for the specific DCF deadline as it varies year to year.


VI. Committee evaluation. During the prospectus meeting, after the student presentation and discussion, the committee will ask the student to leave the room and discuss the work and level of student preparedness. They will use the Prospectus Approval Form to guide this discussion. The committee can decide among the following actions:

  • The prospectus is approved without required revisions.
  • The prospectus is approved with required revisions, as detailed on the form. The primary mentor will be responsible for overseeing these revisions. No subsequent meetings or committee-level reviews are necessary.
  • The prospectus has potential but is not approved yet as it requires major revisions, as detailed on the form. The committee will need to meet again once the revisions have been addressed by the student. At this subsequent meeting, the committee will judge the revisions and whether they have resulted in an approvable prospectus.
  • The prospectus is not approved and is not on track to be approvable even if revisions were made. In this case, the Prospectus Committee Chair will work with the CHD to determine the appropriate next-steps.

If students would like to make substantive changes to the content and/or format of the dissertation after prospectus approval, they must revise their prospectus and obtain approval of the revised version from all committee members. Another meeting of the prospectus committee may be required if the changes are substantial.

prospectus_approval_form.pdf68 KB