Dissertating in the Open: Writing and Defending the Dissertation Proposal

I successfully defended my dissertation proposal on February 3, 2020.

I have one huge piece of advice for writing your dissertation proposal: buy or borrow Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches by John W. Creswell and J. David Creswell, and do what it says. It will guide you through the proposal-writing process down to the sentence level. It is expensive. It is worth it. It is the most useful graduate school textbook I’ve ever bought.

It’s possible you’ll discover at this point that you haven’t made as many decisions about your methods as you thought you had. That’s fine. Make them now.

For example, I realized that I had no idea where online I wanted to do my observation. This stalled me out for a few days, until I remembered that figuring that out was the whole point of the sustained, systematic observation part of affinity space ethnography (PDF). So I wrote about how I didn’t know that yet, about how my design is emergent, and about how I imagined that observation might play out.

In November and December 2019, I wrote the first draft of my dissertation proposal. I submitted it to my committee ahead of my comps, so they were able to quickly peruse it and offer me some feedback during the oral exam.

At first, some of the feedback overwhelmed me. Dr. Casey Rawson suggested that rather than a wide-scale ethnographic approach, I might take a case study approach, following just a few cosplayers through their process and attending to their information practices. This was an intriguing possibility, but the logistics overwhelmed me, as I’d have to know a few cosplayers well enough that they would allow me to actually physically be with them throughout their process, plus I would have to manage the time (i.e., childcare) to actually be with them. I decided that this was a cool idea, but it was a different study than my dissertation, so I ended up putting it in my suggestions for future research in the second draft of my dissertation proposal. Now I had a research program, not just one study.

I sent this second draft to my committee right before the winter holidays, starting the clock on the 30 days I was required to give them with the proposal before the proposal defense. We scheduled the defense for February 3, and I spent January creating my proposal defense slides. (As always, if you are a cosplayer whose photo I used and you would like it removed, please let me know and I’ll oblige ASAP.)

As I was working on the slides, I read through the proposal and asked myself what questions I would ask if I were a committee member, and then set out to answer them in the slides.

First, I realized that there were some terms I mentioned in the proposal and had defined in the literature review, but that probably needed to be defined again at the proposal defense:

  • Collective intelligence
  • Information literacy
  • Affinity space
  • Blended affinity space
  • Constellation of information

Then, I realized that my research methods were still not as detailed as I would like. I wanted to be able to show the committee what my research would actually look like, in practice. I remembered that for my theory development class, I had created a grounded theory proposal and included sample data that I had actually coded. I decided to do something similar for this presentation.

First, I demonstrated what the sustained, systematic observation would look like, using a librarian-recommended cosplay resource as my starting point. I created a specific observation protocol for this stage based on the affinity space ethnography literature, and applied that observation protocol to the resource. I evaluated that resource to determine if it was information-rich, and it was. I followed links out from it to other resources, evaluating them as well. I determined that the original resource was information-rich, and showed what it would look like to pull down data (in this case, YouTube comments) and code them using both my information literacy and collective intelligence coding schemes.

I put all of this stuff in my slides:

(I’ll say it again: if you are a cosplayer whose photo I used and you would like it removed, please let me know and I’ll oblige ASAP.)

The proposal defense went really well. I felt very prepared, having done all of this. My committee members said it was a thorough proposal and appreciated the demonstration of the methods. They also gave me several helpful suggestions for revising the proposal further before I submitted it to the Institutional Review Board. I submitted my final dissertation proposal to the review board on February 5, and a copy of it went to the SILS library, as well.

After one round of revisions and one correction of a typo, my IRB application was approved and determined exempt from further review. Time to get to work!

Kimberly Hirsh @kimberlyhirsh