What is a PhD Proposal?

As I am about to fly to the retirement event of my advisor Ben Shneiderman at the University of Maryland on May 1, Facebook reminds me of my dissertation proposal from 7 years ago.

For anyone who is doing or did a PhD, proposal (i.e. finding a topic) is probably the hardest step. The way Ben put it + my understanding after went through the process was:

You find an interesting academic problem that has not been solved yet. Then, convince the committee, which consists of several smart and experience people, to believe you that it is an interesting problem worth spending 1–2 years on it.

Believe me it is really hard at first to find a problem big enough which nobody had touched. You will need to read, read and read a lot.

You also need to show that you are knowledgeable about the problem and have promising ideas and good plan to tackle it.

After you have found the problem, you have to find the solution too! This was something nobody had solved before, remember? (and sometimes that was for a good reason, i.e. very very hard problem.)

You call out this challenging problem and explain you can tackle it in a way nobody did before, but you also need to define to which extent are you solving the problem, because you cannot solve everything.

Sometimes you only can touch the tip of an iceberg, but if it is a really important iceberg and you will open the door for many to explore that iceberg after you, then that’s a great contribution.

And finally, a proposal is like a contract between you and the committee. You are basically saying that if in the future, you come back with the things you said to accomplish in this proposal, then please give you your PhD.

And that’s when you have a defense!

All of these are much easier being said than getting it done. lol. Work hard, but also find time to relax with friends and family, procrastinate on social network, travel around, read PhD Comics, and believe in yourself that you can do it!