A prospectus is a formal proposal of a research project developed to convince a reader (a professor or research committee, or later in life, a project coordinator, funding agency, or the like) that the research can be carried out and will yield worthwhile results. It should provide:
- a working title for your project,
- a statement of your research question or issue,
- an overview of scholarship related to this topic or to the this author,
- a brief summary of your research methods and/or your theoretical approach.
A prospectus is normally accompanied by a bibliography, often annotated, which lists sources you have consulted or plan to consult for your research. In cases where the texts studied exist in multiple editions or in translation, the bibliography should normally state which edition, text, or translation you will be using and why. You also should include a Prospectus Cover Sheet (Word), complete with the signature of your director and second reader.
Contents: In most cases, a prospectus will begin with an overview of existing scholarship, summarizing basic arguments relevant to the project. It will then position the project with reference to this scholarship. For this reason, the prospectus will demonstrate that you have conducted enough preliminary research to be able to design a relevant project and carry it through relatively independently. Since at this stage much research remains to be done, a thesis statement usually does not follow this introduction. Instead, include a statement of hypothesis or of the central research questions. The prospectus should then offer an overview of the project organization. If the project is large enough for chapters, include a breakdown of them. If special skills or assistance such as foreign language competency, access to archives or special collections, technical skills, or access to technical equipment are needed to complete your project, the prospectus should address your preparation in these areas. Part of your goal is, in essence, to "sell" your research supervisors on both your project and yourself as a researcher. Cover the ground well, presenting yourself and your project as intellectually convincing.
Developing an initial prospectus will help faculty understand where you are in the research process and help you bring focus to your research throughout the experience. Because it lays out a framework for your project, the prospectus can provide you with direction during the inevitable moments when you feel overwhelmed or lost. And because you have already clearly demonstrated your ability to carry out your research project, the prospectus can serve to reinforce your confidence and help keep you on track for a timely completion.
Beyond its relevance to your current research project, a prospectus helps you sharpen several important skills. Because a good prospectus demands concise, informative writing, composing one will help hone your writing style. In asking you to persuasively describe a compelling project and establish your ability to carry it out, it draws on abilities applicable to a variety of situations in and out of the academy, such as scholarship and funding applications, proposals for research forums, conferences, or publications, job applications, and preparation for larger and more complex research projects such as those found in Ph.D. programs and a variety of professional settings. The skill is so important that some people—grant writers—make a profession out of writing prospectuses.