Where, Oh Where, to Begin? Expert Advice on Starting Your Proposal -->

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Where, Oh Where, to Begin? Expert Advice on Starting Your Proposal

This month on the blog, we're featuring a guest post by dissertation editor, coach, and author Noelle Sterne.

You’ve reached the first dissertation milestone—approval of your prospectus. Great! And you can’t wait to plunge into the next step, writing the proposal. But now, somehow, it’s not working. With all the best intentions and surrounded by all the scholarly materials, you may be spending long fruitless hours in your study or the library. The days are slipping away, your friends are out eating pizza, and your family wonders what you’re really doing in all those solitary hours. You feel paralyzed.
To cheer yourself up, you remember that the proposal becomes the first three chapters of the real dissertation or doctoral study. But this fact offers little consolation. A completed proposal seems like a sky-high wall with not even a step stool in sight. Where is that danged first step?

Break the Rules

Here is one remedy. Contrary to the King's advice to the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you don't have to start at the beginning and keep going until you reach the end. If you follow this dictum, you may only increase your fears and tremors.

In my academic coaching practice, I advise clients not to start at the beginning--that is, with Chapter 1, the introduction. Why? This chapter requires a concise overview of your topic and the literature. You must be highly familiar with both. But many students don't get to know what they're really writing about until they've been living with their capstone for several months.

How to Start         

So, here’s first trick to break your paralysis: Make separate files for each chapter. Use the university’s requisite chapter names and headings (from the capstone manual or handbook), or the templates in the capstone section of the university website. Once you create the files you’ll feel more organized. You’ll also gain a sense of accomplishment. You can keep throwing notes into these files as new materials surface and brilliant thoughts occur to you for each chapter.

The second trick: Start writing by choosing something relatively straightforward. No doctoral divine lightening will strike if you start in the middle, or later.  I often recommend that students start with Chapter 3: Methods. In this chapter you describe who's in the study and how you will study them—your population and sample, and what you're going to put them through (experiments, questionnaires, or interviews). Your writing style here should be direct, with precise descriptions of the steps you'll take to gather information for your later conclusions.

Dissertation Brownies

It's kind of like a recipe for dissertation brownies—as in this example student’s paragraph:

First, I will create a flyer for recruiting students to complete my questionnaire on their most effective study habits. Then, I will seek permission from the Office of Student Affairs to post the flyer on campus bulletin boards. When students respond to my contact information, I will send them the letter of introduction to the study and the informed consent to participate. Next, I will . . . 

In the margin of the paragraph above, the student's chair commented, "What's your authority for bypassing the university's institutional review board?" The student hastened to add this information in the next draft. What you write may not be the final draft, and shouldn't be. Accept this, and recognize that you’ve made progress in writing something. 

The Advantages

Writing anything loosens your fear-frozen mind so you think more creatively about the steps you need to take. Let’s say you were writing the example paragraph from above—you need to think about where to recruit, who to recruit, when, and many other considerations. As you visualize the actual steps, think about what your actual recruitment flyer and letter of intro to the study will say. This is a great opportunity to actually draft the flyer, letter, and informed consent form—you're going to need them as appendices. Then, possibly to your elated shock, you'll have written more!

When you see the paragraphs mounting, you will feel greater confidence to keep writing. A few days after I guided my client Rod to start with his third chapter, he emailed me: "I finally got to a double digit page numbers! A miracle!" I congratulated him for reaching page 10. Practice makes progress.

As you keep going, you'll likely find that related ideas pop up. Say you’ve decided to study the study habits of red-headed students over six feet tall. You suddenly realize that another study could be done on the study habits of enrolled redheads under six feet. Here's where you click to your largely empty file of Chapter 5: Discussion, Conclusions, and Recommendations, and type the new idea under the subhead of suggestions for future research. You’ve written more!

Starting your proposal with something easier isn't a black mark on your moral fiber. It's simply a way to get moving. So, choose a section or subsection that feels doable, even obvious. Tell yourself, "It's all got to get done anyway." Now . . . start writing.


For 30 years, dissertation editor, coach, and author Noelle Sterne, Ph.D. (Columbia University) has helped doctoral candidates complete their dissertations. Her new handbook addresses their overlooked but crucial nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowmand & Littlefield Education, September 2015). Visit her website at trustyourlifenow.com.

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  1. I am sharing this with my Professor and calling this page the the Anti-Paralysis Rx (prescription)

    1. The "Anti-Paralysis Rx"--love that! Thanks for reading, Dr. Foote!