When a candidate’s doctoral program is working well, a research topic arises out of work that has gone before. Course work, fieldwork, practica, clinical work, and comprehensive exams all lead the candidate forward to an area of inquiry about which he or she feels some passion. If the doctoral program has not worked well—if committee memberships have changed, if the doctoral student has been convinced against his or her own interests to pursue those of a professor—a student can progress through the earlier stages of the rite of passage without identifying a topic that is personally meaningful. Kenneth Liberman (1999, p. 51) notes that if doctoral candidates do not really believe in their topic and are not motivated by the intrinsic values of their own research topics, their work can lack a sense of authenticity. In such a situation, the writing of a proposal may be more excruciating than satisfying.
In some cases doctoral candidates enter the program having already chosen a topic. For a while they make their peers nervous because they seem so advanced and confident. My sense is that such confidence is often misplaced. The experience of the doctoral program itself should bring about some sort of new orientation, some interest in new areas, some growth in the candidate’s outlook. If it does not, the candidate is looking backward instead of forward.
Substantively, one of the underlying reasons for writing a proposal is its planning function (Locke et al., 2000). Although Joseph Maxwell in his thoughtful book, Qualitative Research Design (1996), separates the process of research design from proposal writing, my experience is that the writing of the proposal is a prime opportunity for doctoral candidates to clarify their research design. To plan, candidates must assess where they have been and make a commitment to where they would like to go. This can be a stressful part of the process.
I remember one outstanding doctoral candidate who was stalled for 6 months at the prospect of writing his dissertation proposal. It was not that he could not find a subject; nor was he in search of a method. He was just frozen in his writing. After 6 months of not being able to get around his writing block, he finally discussed his anxieties about, in effect, changing club memberships. He said that he had grown up in a working-class neighborhood where people sat on their front-porch steps in the summer drinking beer. That was what his parents still did. He was not sure that he wanted to leave the front porch to start drinking white wine in the living room at faculty gatherings. For many doctoral candidates, completing their dissertations implies a commitment to a new professional and personal identity that can be difficult to make. In many ways writing a dissertation proposal is a key step in the developmental process that occurs in doctoral study, and such processes are seldom free of significant complexities.
Source: Seidman Irving (2006), Interviewing As Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education And the Social Sciences, Teachers College Press; 3rd edition.