Rachel writes: ALM thesis proposal approved; thesis director assigned!

Thrilled to say that I am about to set off upon the final stretch of my ALM degree.

Last week Dean Schopf, humanities research advisor, let me know that she had approved my proposal, a second draft of which I had submitted on Oct 3, about a month after the initial submission. Dean Schopf rightly sent the first draft back to me for revision, having given me a very useful critique.

She reminded me that the potential thesis director, a professor who doesn’t necessarily know me or any of my previous academic work, will likely be reading the proposal, and that what he or she will see first is the “research problem” outlined in the proposal’s first pages–hence it behooves us to imagine the writing’s impact from the perspective of the eyes of such a reader. In a sense, you are making a pitch to someone who has never given any thought to the subject at hand–or at least in the way you are framing it–therefore you’ll need to write with the notion of making your case to the uninitiated.

I advise everyone, first, to carefully follow the instructions in the ALM guide regarding all aspects of the thesis-proposal submission process, including both formatting and issues of substance. Don’t simply model your proposal upon the example proposals included in the ALM guide–I found enough variation among these to cause me to question what was appropriate in my case, especially since my subject is on the interdisciplinary side. If you have questions about format, consult your research advisor rather than attempting a best guess–format mistakes too can cause your proposal to be sent back for more mustard, and that can consume big blocks of time in your schedule.

I’ll also mention, regarding schedule, that you should be prepared for waiting the full month or so which it takes to have the proposal read, commented upon, and returned for revision. Aside from routine matters, research advisors’ schedules can be affected by the unforeseen–illness, travel, office demands–which can also eat into one’s schedule. “Tentative” schedules are just that.

Luckily, within a day or so of hearing that my proposal was approved, Dean Schopf submitted it to a potential thesis director, who agreed to serve that very day. Part luck, yes, but Dean Schopf has an excellent sense of who among the Harvard faculty would be an appropriate match for a particular subject. So I suggest relying upon your research advisor’s knowledge of the lay of the land.

I work full time, so as with coursework, managing my schedule will be a challenge–I wonder at this point if I will be able complete the thesis in time for graduation in May 2012. Naturally my thesis director’s schedule will come into play; so considering all the variables, graduation in November may also be a possibility.

I will also mention that if you plan substantial work on your thesis proposal over the summer, remember that the Harvard libraries are on summer schedules, and hours are curtailed. That’s especially a problem since opening hours in the summer mirror typical office hours (9AM-5PM); so if you work full time, it’s hard to find a chance to actually get to the libraries. Of course, the Harvard library system’s Scan-and-Deliver service becomes essential at this point! Besides Scan-and-Deliver, regardless of season, I also make use of the Hollis online catalog, create a list of call numbers before trips to Cambridge, and plan my library visits like surgical strikes.

Meanwhile if anyone has any comment, feedback, input regarding his or her own experience with thesis-proposal submission, I would love to hear about it! Please feel free to leave a comment right here!

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