Friday, January 2, 2015

On Completing a PhD Proposal

In Mid-December, my PhD thesis proposal was accepted, leaving me ABD ("all but dissertation"). It was quite the journey to get there, and I have some hopefully useful insights to share from the experience.

if you've ever wondered... / toby

If you're curious, much of the information about the doctoral proposal for our School is likely widely applicable. We are supposed to finish the proposal within 6 terms of registration, but in reality that's not very common. Many students do their proposal much later in the process, after completing most of the work needed for the thesis. We tried to do my proposal a bit sooner so we could get some solid feedback earlier in the process. I'm really glad we did, but more on that later.

The Document

The first step of the proposal is to write the document. I started working on this during the summer while also developing a prototype game using my interactive storytelling framework, then part-time in the fall when I went back to teaching. However, several iterations were required, the first being on the general structure of the document. This is what we settled on in terms of chapter layout:
  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Project Goals and Design
  • Work Completed
  • Future Work Plan
  • Conclusion

I put most of my effort into the second and third chapters. The background is where you have to not only show that you have a good grasp on what's out there, but also clearly show the gaps you are trying to fill. I used the Project Goals chapter to really spell out what I was trying to accomplish, and describe the storytelling framework we had published at Foundations of Digital Games.

Both of these chapters needed multiple iterations even after I fixed the overall structure of the document. We tried to bring them as close to final thesis-level quality as we could in the time we had, hoping we could reuse a lot of it again later. This is what I spent most of the fall doing.

My process for the background section is interesting to look back on: although I knew from the beginning what the text in that chapter had to accomplish, it still took me three to four iterations to get there. I fixed one problem each iteration. First, I improved the organization of the chapter so each major section had a clear organizing principle. Then I analyzed the literature more critically, then more effectively highlighted the gaps. I reorganized the sections again, and finally added better conclusions to tie up each section. The final product actually ended up being decent!

In some ways I would have liked to spend more time on the document. I noticed a few too many problems when re-reading it a few weeks after giving it to the proposal committee. For example, I cut back my introduction just before submitting, and later I realized just how... bad it was. But, to be honest, the end result — passing the proposal — would not have changed. Sometimes you have to know when to stop, even if that reason is that you simply can't spend any more time on it.

The Oral Examination

Three weeks after submitting the document to the committee, we had our proposal examination. It started with me giving a 15-20 minute talk, followed by two rounds of questions from the committee.

When preparing for the talk, I re-used a technique that helped me with a past conference presentation: I wrote a script to figure out what I wanted to say. After some feedback from my supervisor on that, , I ended up iterating on that, too.  I ended up finishing my slides a little too close to the actual presentation time. I had originally hoped to run through the talk at home at least a few times (once with my husband), as well as take notes about my background section and key project information so I would be really well prepared for questions. I did none of that. Although I still passed, I think those with some more time might really benefit from trying these ideas.

These are the slides from my talk, which give a decent enough idea of how I structured it in the end. As you can see, I centred the organization around the proposed contributions of the thesis.

Because of my lack of planned practice, I ended up being pretty nervous for the talk, and it showed.  Which is a shame, because I'm generally pretty good at presentations and keeping nerves in check.  But I guess it turned out well anyway, since some of the committee understood what I was trying to do better after the presentation.

The question portion of the exam was... interesting.  I feel like I was barely asked any questions at all.  I mostly got feedback about the proposal document (lots of constructive criticism!) and suggestions for where to go from here.  The committee suggested some ways to narrow the scope of our work and suggested ways to avoid having to make an entire game to test our designs.  This was incredibly relieving! Nothing I've done so far has been wasted effort, and future plans now look more achievable somehow.  The plan is to meet back up with the committee in six months to go over an updated plan since things are likely to change enough that we don't yet know what the final thesis will look like.

Based on this outcome, I am very glad we did an "early" proposal.  I highly recommend biting the bullet and proposing your thesis as early as you can.  Your supervisor should know if you've got enough to pass.  Get valuable feedback early and perhaps even save yourself some work, as happened in my case.


Christian Muise said...

Congrats! Sad face for slide 16 :(. And everything after 18 seems to be missing. Plan on making your document available? Good luck with the final phase!

Anonymous said...


Our department (biomolecular engineering) has a similar process, but we require the the thesis proposal before the end of the third year. If students can finish their proposal by the end of the second year, we waive an oral exam requirement at the beginning of the third year.

Our "advancement to candidacy" requires a public presentation of the proposal, which is attended by almost all the faculty and grad students, as well as some undergrads and postdocs. Other departments have a semi-public presentation (no one attends) or even just a private presentation to the committee. Was your presentation public, semi-public ,or private?

Gail Carmichael said...

I think my original response didn't post...

Christian: Thanks! Planners can be great for IS, they just didn't fit our goal. All the slides show up for me... I don't think I'll put the full document up because of the editing issues, but I might instead pull interesting excerpts and post them here.

gasstationwithoutpumps: Thanks! I'd say the proposal can technically be public but usually isn't. It's not posted like the final defences. Do you guys have comprehensive exams as part of your process too?

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