On narrowing focus for dissertation proposal


One of the biggest challenges in writing a proposal is to narrow down our interests to choose a topic

In three days, I would have defended my dissertaion proposal, and it feels good to think that I’ll get it out of my way. It looks like the proposal is one of the biggest time killers among Ph.D. students; it is indeed a challenge to move from a variety of ideas to a defendable proposal.

Most of us come to a Ph.D. with a broad set of interests and it feels awkward to narrow it down into a topic that almost looks meaningless. Naturally, it is unlikely that any of our intellectual dreams would have been about fishing in some obscure Canadian lake, or bargaining over quality of wheat in some shantytown in Nigeria. We dream of issues and questions that are bound to have some impact in the world. It is a humbling experience to start from our broad dreams into a narrow study. But this is a decision most of us have to make.

Luckily for me, many of my friends had either completed Ph.D. or were about to finish it when I got started. I knew from start that I have a tough decision to make in palating the research topic. The question then boiled down to one of choosing a narrow topic that suited my interests and goals most. I knew a few things when I started: the topic had to be around the right to food; collective action should be an important component of study; my work should be multidisciplinary but without throwing away all the economics I had done; and finally, it had to be based on some sort of field work. From this point on my topic got determined quite rapidly.

Initially, I wanted to do a comparitive study of India and Brazil. I started meeting people who were doing field-based studies and found that they were studying anything between 4 & 9 villages. Comparing 4 villages in Brazil and four in India seemed wierd – and I threw the idea out. Then I thought of a three state study in India, but ruled it out in favour of doing an intense study in one location. So, from an idea of looking at two countries, I narrowed down to one Block (County).

I then had to decide on the particular programme to study. I had worked on child care issues earlier, but the new employment guarantee act seemed more challengeing. That then became the focus. I now had to thorw in my basket of concerns and I got my topic: a case study on the key dynamics that determine the performance of employment guarantee act in one Block of Villupuram district in Tamil Nadu.

I had talked to a lot of people when I was working on my proposal. It looks like this is one of the strategies that a lot of people use in arriving at their proposal i.e. assemble all your priorities and then examine what may be feasible. Once we put our priorities in place (see below) we can play with various methods and concepts that would sustain these priorities. The proposal will start taking shape from these quickly.

What could be our priorities

    1. What’s the broad issue of interest
    2. What do you want to do after Ph.D. and what will be expected of you
    3. Where do you want to do it
    4. Is there something about the method you are committed to (data analysis, field work, textual analysis, etc.)
    5. Is there a body of theories that you are fond of
    6. What are the data sources
    7. What are the methods that you are adequately trained in
    8. Is there something in your educational or employment background that you wish to use for the Ph.D.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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