For the last few Saturdays, we’ve been working through some advice from Daniel Treier, who works with me in the doctoral program at Wheaton College. So far we’ve looked at his advice on “Should I Apply for a Ph.D. Program?,” “Knowing Where and When to Apply for a Ph.D. Program,” and “How to Apply to a Ph.D. Program.” If you’ve made it this far, the last topic we need to address is how to develop the kind of Ph.D. proposal idea that most schools want to see during the application stage.
As Dr. Treier mentioned in our last post, the level of detail you need for the Ph.d. proposal varies by program. Programs that need students to be ready to start working on their dissertations right away (e.g. Wheaton’s program and UK programs) will expect more involved proposals than those U.S. programs that require two years of coursework before you start on the dissertation. But, as he noted, even the latter kind of program typically expects a Ph.D. proposal of some kind so they can assess your fit for the program and your ability to develop a quality research idea.
And he also mentioned that supervisors/programs differ on how much they want to interact with you as you develop your proposal idea. Most want to hear from you before you submit an application so they can at least give you a thumbs up/down before you bother to apply. Others (Wheaton included) prefer to interact with at least a bit as you shape the proposal itself.
So here are a few thoughts on how clarify your idea for a research proposal. For guidance on how to write the proposal itself, check out Wheaton’s Guidelines for Writing a Ph.D. Proposal.
4 Steps to Clarifying Your Research Idea
Wheaton wants to hear from applicants at least once in advance. But some initial emails indicate that applicants are so unfamiliar with the concept of writing a dissertation that I basically cross them off my mental list of prospects. Others are so hopelessly broad (e.g., “I want to do something on theological hermeneutics”) that a professor can’t imagine a reasonable process for getting the applicant from broader A to narrower B.
A better initial email is one step more focused (e.g., “I want to engage dogmatically a key biblical-theological theme about readers of Scripture”) and may even propose a couple of options (e.g., “I want to work on a theology of an intellectual virtue or vice, such as humility or curiosity” or “I want to work on a contemporary dispute in Jonathan Edwards studies, such as his doctrine of justification or whether he had a dispositional ontology”). In an even more ideal world, you have an angle on how to go about this (e.g., my key theme for readers of Scripture involves royal priesthood; or, my key angle on intellectual humility involves Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine re the Incarnation; or, my key contribution on this Edwards dispute involves doing new work on his sermons—those are all real examples from dissertations I’ve supervised).
(By the way, many evangelical students become interested in biblical theology and/or narrative approaches. As a result they propose to throw out more traditional systematic theology or “dogmatic” approaches and to develop a “whole-Bible” redemptive-historical synthesis on a subject. This is almost never possible within the narrow scope of a dissertation. It also usually reflects a lack of understanding and appreciation of systematic theology as an academic discipline, of what counts as a contribution to scholarship therein.)
1. Narrow the Scope of Your Research
The first step is recognizing the acceptable scope of a reading area for beginning dissertation work. Such a reading area is not simply a subject of interest—say, the arts— but includes a more particular manner of approaching the subject: say, Wolterstorff’s theory of art; the arts and evangelism; the Bible and music; the arts as rhetoric; etc.
Other students send in writing samples and/or proposals that contain long bibliographies indicating they read extensively within such an area. But these students provide only description—a survey of literary territory. Often they think that such a description—of, say, a biblical narrative approach to the arts—would be tremendously helpful to the church. And it might, but it may already have been done in the academy. Sometimes master’s theses don’t go much farther than this either; their argument consists in providing the state of scholarship on a given question.
2. Identify Your Research Question
A dissertation, however, must press on to a second step: a research question that either no one has asked before, or else no one has answered satisfactorily, or about which people currently disagree, or about which people have not talked in a while. (In this regard see helpful guides such as Booth/Colomb/Williams’s The Craft of Research. An especially useful resource is Graff/Birkenstein’s “They Say/I Say”—run, don’t walk, to get it if you struggle in this area!)
In systematic theology the descriptive/analytic work that some might call “history of doctrine” can be a major methodological component of a project. But usually you will need to press on, developing implications of the new historical understanding. Let’s say you establish what Wolterstorff says: So what? Is he right? And on what basis? What new insight does he provide relative to others’ approaches or in this new area of conversation?
3. Find Your Disciplinary “Home”
You cannot read everything relevant to an area before framing a research question, let alone writing a dissertation. Yet you must do significant reconnaissance: What may help the move from a reading area to a research question is to understand the disciplinary structure of academic organization. Reading areas may overlap with several academic disciplines or subdisciplines. An original contribution to scholarship answers a research question about a reading area from a particular methodological perspective and for a particular disciplinary audience, even if still others might be interested. Thus, if you propose to “describe” or “analyze” Wolterstorff’s theory of art in some new fashion, your project is a “historical” one; if you propose to “appropriate” or “apply” Wolterstorff’s theory of art in some new fashion, your project is a more “systematic” or “philosophical” one. Of course these are fuzzy boundaries, as indicated by the way a task like “evaluate” falls in the middle, but boundaries they are—at least in the academy.
4. Clarify Your Approach
Accordingly, your thesis proposal needs to be clear about the primary method(s) by which you can answer the research question in a distinctively new way. At a broad level, to describe/analyze Wolterstorff’s theory of art is of interest in the field of “historical theology.” However, it might also be of interest within a larger project of “systematic theology,” if for example you need a theory of art as action to form part of your approach to the role of the arts in evangelism. The crucial issue is what methods will be convincing to what audiences at what parts of your thesis.
Between the Idea and the Proposal
The upshot of all this is that you cannot simply send in a dissertation reading area; yet, probably, you are not able to prepare a fully developed research question. In between, however, manifest that you have done enough reading and reconnaissance to know who some major players are and what issue you want to tackle. A research question will emerge more fully formed once you discern the primary method(s) by which you contribute to the discipline of systematic theology.
At the application stage, you should minimally work to indicate that what you’re proposing has not yet been done or needs to be done anew or at the very least contains areas for further exploration in which to find such a proposed focus. So, for instance, if there were several analyses of Wolterstorff’s theory of art, but few or no instances of its application to the arts in evangelism, is this a more specific project worth a dissertation, or only a journal article? If the latter, can you find a way of expanding the material—via other authors, a fuller defense of the theory dealing with Scripture and/or recent responses to Wolterstorff, implications for concrete practices, or perhaps expansion from evangelism to a broader motif such as mission or the church’s cultural engagement?
If all this seems very fuzzy, then go to the library and obtain (via interlibrary loan if necessary) dissertations to examine—ideally from the school(s) and supervisor(s) in question. Read renowned books in your field, especially for their structure and methodological setup—notably, books that began life as dissertations. Accept the fact that most of your master’s level papers—and maybe even a thesis—did not demand the kind of work a dissertation does. Sit still with scratch paper—and think creatively at random moments—about your own approach to material before or alongside dealing mostly descriptively with what others give you. Dissertations don’t leave analytical exposition behind, but gain size and scope via argumentative summaries and transitions that stitch more descriptive elements together with (we hope) your fundamental creative insight.
This insight may seem quite modest relative to the time and paper devoted to the project. Yet even the dissertation legwork involved in proving what is fairly predictable or obvious may constitute a creative contribution, because these contributions are not made simply to a subject area but to the state of scholarship on a given subject area. That is why, if you don’t already understand how the theological academy works, to do so is your first step in crafting a dissertation proposal.
Don’t Go Overboard
All of the above is outstanding advice from Dr. Treier. But be careful. Some might read this as suggesting that you need to have your research proposal basically done before you even try to contact a potential supervisor. That will lead you to either/both of the following errors.
On the one hand, some will get stuck in “research mode,” never feeling like they’ve gotten enough done to actually contact a potential supervisor. That state of debilitating intimidation is both unhelpful and unnecessary. What Dr. Treier has sketched above does not require you to be an expert on your topic or to have worked out in advance everything you intend to say in the dissertation. You just need to have done enough research to give a potential supervisor an indication of what you want to study, how you will approach it, and why it matters. Then sit back and let the potential supervisor give you some feedback on whether they interested/qualified and how they might sharpen your approach.
The second mistake is one that Dr. Treier mentioned earlier. You don’t want to refine your idea/approach to such an extent that it comes across as set in stone. If you do that, you run the risk of being perceived as borderline arrogant/unteachable, and you might also get a mere yes/no response rather than a more helpfully constructive one. Of course, if you have landed clearly on an idea/approach and you’re not really interested in doing anything else, don’t hide that fact. But that’s pretty unusual.