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Ph.D. Proposal

What is it

The proposal is the first step to your dissertation – the moment where you start to think of your research as a cohesive work.  Since this is a pretty vague concept, most people’s proposals end up as entirely different beasts.  

On the most basic level, the proposal consists of a presentation (typically 30-40 minutes) and document that covers the research that you have completed and the research that you propose to complete before you graduate.  A committee of four (which includes your advisor), whose expertise you and your advisor have deemed relevant to your project, will give feedback on your plans and help guide you to the completion of your PhD.  This same group of people will also be the committee for your dissertation and defense.

How should I structure my proposal?

Generally, the proposal is a well-organized plan of what you intend to do in the rest of your PhD program.  Its structure depends largely on when you are submitting it and what your advisor’s vision is.  Often, the proposal may begin with your papers stitched together in a cohesive way, leading to a plan for future work.  The breakdown of intro/completed research/future work varies with the timing of your proposal with respect to your degree progress.

When should I do it?

Since the proposal is so flexible, it depends on professor and project.  Some people may propose about a year after they have passed quals, while some may wait until shortly before their defense.  Because it is such a great opportunity for feedback from a committee of experts, you should consider proposing when you are far enough in your research that you are sure of your research direction, but not so far that feedback is no longer useful.

How do I choose a Thesis Committee?

Your Committee will be involved with your project from your proposal until your defense.  They can provide different expertise and perspectives than your research advisor, and can also serve to keep your project goals realistic.  You should meet several times before your defense to keep your project on track.

You are required to select four committee members, including at least two CMU MechE faculty, and one from outside MechE.  They should be diverse, but relevant to your work.  You might pick professors who you have taken classes with, but you can pick people with whom you don’t have a prior relationship. In that case, you might consider having your advisor reach out. It is helpful to consider how involved potential committee members may be, but keep in mind a big name on your committee may also help advance your career.  With regards to meeting with your committee members, there are no hard rules; every committee is different regarding their involvement in the process.

Can I fail?

Failure is uncommon but not impossible.  The proposal is less of a roast than quals, and is organized to give you feedback in addition to testing your competency.  They may, however, ask for revisions, like clarification of certain goals, if they notice any glaring problems with your proposal.

How do I choose a Thesis Committee?

Your Committee will be involved with your project from your proposal until your defense.  They can provide different expertise and perspectives than your research advisor, and can also serve to keep your project goals realistic.  You should meet several times before your defense to keep your project on track.

You are required to select four committee members, including at least two CMU MechE faculty, and one from outside MechE.  They should be diverse, but relevant to your work.  You might pick professors who you have taken classes with, but you can pick people with whom you don’t have a prior relationship. In that case, you might consider having your advisor reach out. It is helpful to consider how involved potential committee members may be, but keep in mind a big name on your committee may also help advance your career.  With regards to meeting with your committee members, there are no hard rules; every committee is different regarding their involvement in the process.

How do I prepare?

Fortunately, your proposal is usually the logical extension of your current work.  Preparation may require up to a month of work, spent writing and synthesizing past work into a cohesive narrative and deciding on the next steps.  Obviously, the proposal should be thoroughly edited and streamlined, and the presentation finely tuned and heavily practiced.  Your advisor and labmates should give you important feedback on both the presentation and paper, but try to attend other students proposals to get an idea of what it should look like.  Be sure to schedule your proposal a few months in advance to make sure that all the members of your committee will be present.  Finally, you should also plan a small snack to give your committee at the presentation; it will make the experience more pleasant for all five of you!