Pre-Proposal is Hell


A while back I wrote about the three stages of earning a PhD. But I was wrong. There are in fact, FOUR stages: Coursework, PRE-PROPOSAL, Proposal, and Dissertation. After talking with a lot of other PhD students, I have concluded that it is the most challenging stage in the process by far. Pre-proposal, in one word, is hell.

What is the Pre-Proposal Stage?

This is the time after your coursework, but before you have officially settled on an idea to develop into your dissertation proposal. And just as importantly, before your committee chair has accepted your idea to be developed into a proposal.

I think that this stage is very much like dating. You find an idea, you try it on, and figure out if it is a good fit. If it isn’t, then you move on to the next. The point is to try a few different ideas before you commit to one. It can take a while, but eventually you find an idea you want to settle down with. Once you do, you get ready to propose and eventually marry this idea.

Unlike dating, however, you can’t propose your ideas if they do not have the stamp of approval from your committee. If you were dating someone you really liked and wanted to think about proposing to, and then your bosses said no, you would not have to listen to them. You could go on and marry that person against their wishes.

But if you present an idea to your committee, and they say no, you do not have much of a choice. Sure, you could fight them, but that would make it almost impossible to finish your degree. So, wise students say goodbye to their potential dissertation ideas and go back to the dating pool. Which can feel like being dumped.

Why is it so bad?

This stage is fraught with uncertainty:

  • When will you find an idea that is dissertation-worthy?
  • When you finally find it, will your chair agree?
  • If your chair disagrees, what do you do?
  • What if your chair does not like any of your ideas?
  • What if your committee makes you change your idea so much you end up hating it?

In addition, by the time you have written something good enough for your chair to evaluate, you have spent some time working on the idea. It is very easy to get attached. and it can be very frustrating and even painful to see your ideas morph into something that you did not want them to be.

More experienced researchers are familiar with this process as part and parcel of peer review. But this is usually the first time PhD students experience this. For example, in seminars, we usually write an idea we like in order to get some feedback – but rarely do these ideas go through the entire review cycle.

There is little guidance and education on how to really go through and find a worthy idea. One of the main reasons a PhD is still mostly an apprenticeship is that you need to do in order to learn.

Last, this stage is where most of the self-doubt and the imposter syndrome take hold of you. You question your ability to complete a dissertation and your sanity for continuing in this process. You wonder if you are good enough and if you have the strength to continue. You might think about quitting every hour instead of every day. You hate yourself. You could even lose motivation.

How long does it last?

It can last a few months to a few years. It depends on you, the relationship you have with your chair and your committee, and the unique and almost impossible to predict path you take as you explore the literature and formulate ideas.

How do you know it is over?

I knew I finished the pre-proposal when the conversations I had with my chair changed from discussing what other theories and constructs I could study to discussing how I would measure, operationalize, and model the relationships between the constructs I wanted to study.

Instead of being told that my dissertation was not viable, that my idea was not meaningful enough for a dissertation, that my proposal would not make a relevant contribution, etc… I was told to further develop the idea; to include other potential moderators; to clarify the concepts.

The change was clear. After that conversation, there was more progress towards that idea. Sure, with changes. But I was finally building on my previous ideas to move forward.

What can you do to survive it?

I did not follow this, but I wish I had. I also wish someone had given me this list:

  1. Do not get overly attached to your ideas.
  2. Listen VERY CAREFULLY to the feedback your chair and your committee are giving you.
  3. Make as many changes as you reasonably can in order to address that feedback. NOTE: this does not mean that you must do all the things your chair asks without thinking critically.
  4. Learn to have a conversation about where your ideas come from.
  5. Lean to justify your reasoning about where you think your ideas are going and why.
  6. Remember to highlight the potential theoretical contributions of your studies. In other words, tell your chair why they should care.
  7. Talk to your peers, but mostly, talk to your chair.
  8. Read – a lot. Both academic papers and relevant press about the setting/problem/phenomenon you are studying.
  9. Take care of yourself when you have a hard day. You are learning to do something very hard – it is OK to take some time for self-care.
  10. Be kind to yourself. If you catch yourself saying mean things about your abilities, forgive yourself. Do not let your inner-self be mean to the most important person in your life: you!

Closing Thoughts

When I was dating, I hated people telling me that when I met “the one” I would “just know.” And I am reluctant to make a similar statement now, but I do not have a better way to say it:

When you finally finish this stage, you just know.

And suddenly, just like that, the rest of your dissertation feels possible. A lot (not all) of the self-doubt begins to melt away, and the dark cloud hanging over your head begins to dissipate. During the pre-proposal, you are effectively lost: you walk around in circles, and in twisted paths. But once you finish the pre-proposal process, you have a heading. You know where you are going. All you have to do is figure out how to get there, and then do it. And as daunting as it may seem, it is much better than being lost.

So to all of you just finishing your comps and feeling like you are in a rut: this is normal! If you just keep pushing, you will find a way.


4 Replies to “Pre-Proposal is Hell”

  1. Uncertainty..yes. I need to move from this stage – I’m too embarrassed and uncertain of my ideas to share. I will try your advice on self care – its the hardest but I love the sound of it. Like always – thank you so much for sharing.


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