This is the fifth in a series of posts on selecting a finishing exams and finding a doctoral dissertation topic. All of our five participants have participated in Mormon Studies in the past, but not all of them chose to pursue a Mormon Studies topic for their dissertation. If you’d like to contribute a post that addresses this topic in future, please send me an email at joseph [dot] stuart [at] utah [dot] e dee ewe.
When writing your prospectus and choosing a topic, I would encourage you to consider three things:
- How do you want to be categorized in your field?
- What is the thread that ties your analysis together?
- Who are the people that you trust to help you do your best? And are those people invested in you and your wellbeing?
On the first point: I do not want to be pigeonholed as a religious historian. I am interested in much more than religion. My dissertation will be framed in terms of race and gender, though religion will form a major component of my analysis.
Frame your prospectus in a way that speaks to the literature you want to contribute to. Don’t expect to write your prospectus in a few weeks, even if you know what you want to do. Knowing the historiography doesn’t mean you know how to articulate your contribution to it (this is exponentially true as you include further historiographies). A prospectus is not a finished dissertation. It is not a published book. It is not what you put on a CV or send to a tenure review committee. It is a document that helps you think of your place in the field and how you want to contribute to it.
On the second point: I want to expand on Judith Weisenfeld’s term “religio-racial identity” and add gender as a component of my analysis. This meant that I had to turn from my original idea (studying religious opposition to civil rights) to focus on the idea of respectability in relation to race, religion, and gender in the Civil Rights Movement. I read several books and articles to get a grasp of whether “respectability” was a feasible lens for my work. Fortunately, it is.
It took a lot of reading to recognize a methodology that would work for me. Keep reading and talking to people about what you want to do, even when you’re not sure what it is. Build and maintain a network of people that you love to help and that love to help you in return.
On the third point:
I chose my adviser for a number of reasons, but one is universal to all those that are forming their committee: she helps me to see what I need to improve without making me feel worthless. Choose your adviser in the same way. You will rely on their letters of recommendation, their red pens, and your relationship with them for a very long time.
I also chose my adviser because she is not a religious historian. I want my work to be read by historians of race and gender. I am a historian of race, gender, and religion. All three categories. I don’t want a single affiliation to overshadow all of my work.
I am fortunate to call every person on my committee a friend. That won’t be the case for many graduate students. And friendship can’t get in the way of tough love or pointed critique when it’s needed. BUT. Grad school is hard enough without the people on your team actually rooting for your success.