Prospectus Writing Tips

Prospectus Writing Tips 

What is a satisfactory prospectus?   The History honors program traditionally allows the student and primary advisor a lot of freedom to define a topic and frame it appropriately, but the following steps summarize a process that has been helpful to students in HIST 1992.  

  • Remind yourself about what subjects have interested you.  What lingering interests do you have from your previous courses or general historical education? 
  • Inform yourself about possible subjects.  Start reading on your subject to learn about how historians have framed it (secondary sources) and also to look for your own original evidence (primary sources).  If you need a primer on the difference between primary and secondary sources, look at Mary Lynn Rampolla’s book, Pocket Guide to Writing History(New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009).
  • Begin working on your statement of a research problem.  A good guide to defining a research topic is found in Wayne C. Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams, The Craft of Research, pp. 37-74 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008).  This book is available as an ebook on Josiah.   You will be far along in your prospectus work when you can summarize your research problem according to the model inThe Craft of Research.  For a prospectus, you may tweak their recommendations by putting them in the future tense and making them more provisional:  

TOPIC: “I will study...” 

CONCEPTUAL QUESTION: “Because I want to find out how ...”

CONCEPTUAL SIGNIFICANCE: “In order to help readers understand whether...”

While it may seem premature to answer these questions so early in the process, the steps outlined in The Craft of Research are useful because they will help you write a prospectus that is focused and analytical. They also orient you toward an audience who won’t share your ideas about the intrinsic interest of your subject.  Following the exercises in this book, you will repeatedly ask yourself “so what?” and thus make a stronger case for your research topic.  A good grounding in the secondary literature is the best way to establish conceptual significance. It takes time and reflection to work out a research problem, so be sure to start early.

  • Produce an annotated bibliography on the relevant secondary research.   In HIST 1992 students are required to annotate pieces by 10 different authors.  Your advisor may require you to submit an annotated bibliography early in the process. For tips on annotation, see Rampolla, Pocket Guide to Writing History.
  • Settle on a primary source or sources.  It’s imperative that you consult closely with your advisor as you make this decision. 
  • Familiarize yourself with the genre of prospectus/proposal writing. Read Adam Przeworski and Frank Salomon, “The Art of Writing Proposals,” available on the Social Sciences Research Council website.  This pamphlet is written for professional scholars, not undergraduate students, so you should read it advisedly.  Unlike a professional scholar, an undergraduate honors student won’t be sunk for missing one reference and no one expects a thesis to transform the field. But, this pamphlet will help you with orientation, tone, and emphasis. 
  • Write a prospectus of about 15 pages including the following sections.

Introduction  - We recommend one paragraph that draws the reader in, with questions, an anecdote, or a scene-setting description.   The next paragraph should give a statement of your research topic as described in step #3 above, but stated in less provisional terms using the present tense. 1-2 pages.

Intellectual Context – (See Przeworski and Salomon, pp. 3-6.) In essence, this section constitutes a literature review.  Use the annotated bibliography (step #4 above) as the basis for this section. Reorganize the annotations into a narrative that guides your reader through your understandings of the field. If you have an unfamiliar or complicated narrative, you may wish to begin the intellectual context section with a section on “Historical Background.” Or, you can fold background information in the “Intellectual Context” section. If you do write a separate section on background, make it as concise as possible and keep it well connected to your research problem.

The major work of the Intellectual Context section is to classify the historiography according to topics and approaches.  When you survey the field, what common tendencies and unanswered questions stand out? Why are these questions significant? For each work or author cited, identify productive insights and remaining questions that will inform your research. Restate your research topic in the conclusion to this section. The work on this section can be recycled for the first introductory chapter of the thesis itself.  4-6 pages.

Project Description - (See Przeworski and Salomon pp. 6-7.) Here you address your primary source, your own proposed research, and its significance.  Given your familiarity with the intellectual context, what questions will you ask of the primary source that will help you write a convincing and significant analysis of your research problem? Przeworski and Salomon demand that the findings be original, but for an undergraduate honors thesis, the requirements are more modest.  Tell how you can contribute to the ongoing conversation between other historians by conducting an analysis of your chosen primary source.  The more you know about your primary source, the easier it will be to describe your source in detail. If you have a sense of how the topic cleaves into sub-topics, you can identify a few possible chapters.  If you will be doing interviews, describe your interview methodology in the light of the Evaluation Guidelines by the Oral History Association. All Brown History Department Thesis must conform to the university’s IRB regulations.

Conclusion - (See Przeworski and Salomon p. 7.)  Return to your research problem and assure us that your research plan will add value to others’ understanding of it.  If you believe that your research has a potential practical application as in Booth, Colomb, and Williams, Craft of Research, p. 61, here is the place to bring it up. 1-2 pages.

Bibliography – Divide your bibliography into two sections under the headings: “Primary Sources” and “Secondary Sources.”  Check with your advisor, but if you’ve written your intellectual context well, it should not be necessary to annotate your bibliography in the prospectus. Just list all sources you’ve cited.  Don’t pad the bibliography with sources you haven’t discussed in the prospectus.  Consider using EndNote or RefWorks to manage your citations.  If you use one of these software programs, you’ll only have to type the particulars of each book once.  You can enter references into the thesis with a few keystrokes and your bibliography will format automatically.

We expect you to cite all references thoroughly with pertinent page numbers in footnotes (preferred over endnotes) according to the Chicago (or Turabian) style. We require a full bibliography in addition to the footnotes.  For the format click here.

        Finally, be sure to number the pages.

Evaluation of the Prospectus

Your prospectus advisor will evaluate the prospectus and submit comments and a grade to the Director of Undergraduate Studies.  Prospectuses are graded according to the following rubric:

A            No concerns about the viability of the project

A-         No concerns about the viability of the project, but minor weaknesses in execution

B+        Concerns about the viability of the project, but a willingness to reevaluate before the beginning of the 7th semester.

B/B-     Reservations that the prospectus does not describe an honors-quality project

C          Poorly conceived and shoddy work