The Major Battle is Past

It is done, I have officially passed my thesis proposal exam. This was my second try (and honestly would have been my final one). What is interesting is that I think I learned more or reached a point of greater realization about this process this time around than I apparently did the first time. What have I found? Well, the thesis proposal (at least here) is really seen as a dry run for your dissertation defense. And accordingly, your thesis proposal needs to be quite detailed and bullet-proof. To be honest, mine was not. There are still a few things I need to specify in the document to my committee’s liking. In fact, it is to my benefit that I complete this process sooner than later if I want to graduate at all. Why? Because this becomes a contract between me and the committee. They are essentially committed to allowing me to graduate once I demonstrate and defend that I have accomplish everything that I have specified I would in the proposal document. So the sooner I tighten up any loopholes in terms of exactly what I’m doing and what I will deliver, the better.

I am a bit unsettled that I’m learning this now. My cohorts and I have a different view of what a proposal document encompasses than is required here. Part of the problem is that we’re not really friends with anyone who has completed this process. I’m the first of our group (our adviser is relatively new, the last student of his who graduated with a PhD did so the year before I joined the group and other former students decided to leave with just the Masters and work fulltime). So, I definitely will impress upon them the seriousness of this process and the need to be very specific about what one’s contribution is to engineering beyond applicability to your specific project.

In a way, this actually improves my view of the PhD program here at Pitt. Quite frankly, we were starting to get the idea that it was not as rigorous as Pitt’s ranking would make it appear. But it turns out the reason for this is that your proposal exam is held up as quite the serious benchmark of achievement and readiness for original research and the work leading up to it – while important, doesn’t have quite that regard. I’d always just seen the proposal exam as a stepping stone – outline my intended plan, and move on with the real work to be done in the preparation of my dissertation. Instead the major battle is here, with the assumption that if you make it through and actually accomplish everything to the committee’s satisfaction, the dissertation defense is more of the formality as a check on whether it is you who did the work and not your adviser(s).

So, how can I learn from my ignorance and mistakes going forward? Well, one issue in preparing for this was a  lack of guidance on what the committee really wanted to see in the proposal the first time around. Our graduate student coordinator has copies of submitted proposals (though there is no way to immediately know which were immediately successful) but doesn’t loan them out – what she has is the only “physical” copy. Technically, we must email her copies now, but who knows how long that has been going on. In any case, the only examples that were available to me were those of current students of my advisers who’d happened to complete their exams before I did. So I turned to the internet for reading and there is a wide variety of time. Based on surveying the internet, one would conclude that if you’re not in engineering, a proposal is anywhere from a 5 – 15 page document and if in engineering, 15 – 50 page document. However, of the engineering ones, most of the bulk in those pages seemed dedicated to background material. There were few that seemed to really need a lot of space to explain the work  to be done and it’s methodology.

So, given how detailed our proposals must be, it implies that our dissertations will largely be proposal document + further background, more in depth introduction and motivation, and complete details on methodology, defense of approach covering stability and convergence issues, and other details. And here, I should get a better idea on how to express my intended contributions to Electrical Engineering and how that separate from the work on my specific project. Luckily, while proposal documents are not “officially” archived, dissertations should be and thus should be much easier for me to access electronically.

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