The proposal defense

Inquiring minds want to know…what to expect during my proposal defense? On the eve of my pre-proposal defense meeting with my dissertation chair and co-chair I found myself searching the Internet on what to expect, how to prepare and information that I need to know going into the defense.

Why are these milestones shrouded in mystery? Why aren’t they part of the standard discussion that takes place around the table at T32? So often we spend countless hours reading, re-reading and critiquing the work of others-mainly F31 applications and occasionally manuscripts- yet this critical information is overlooked, lips are hushed and shoulders shrugged in response to inquiries.

Not wanting to be blind-sided during the proposal defense, I took the bull by its horns and asked point-blankly, “What should I expect during the proposal defense? How should I prepare? No one ever talks about this part and I simply don’t know”. After a very brief period of silent deliberation my chair, who had joined the meeting from her new institution in Delaware, chimed in and said, “Since you’ve completed the NRSA application the process will not be that difficult for you. You will need to prepare a PowerPoint presentation with slides that summarize the background and purpose of your study, the study’s aims, a bit about the framework, and then highlight any changes that will be applied in the dissertation study.  Afterwards you will open it up for discussion and asked for recommendations and suggestions from the Committee. One week prior to you sending out the draft to the full committee I will send an email and ask each member if there are major concerns or questions about the proposal. If so, I will let you know so that you can be prepared to answer any possible questions and concerns”.  Nodding in agreement my co-chair chimes in and indicates that he expects this time to be helpful and informative to the fellow. 

In other words, I reasoned to myself, I should not expect to be thrown under the bus during my proposal defense. With that in mind I quickly took inventory of all that I needed to do over the next seven days: incorporate edits from 3 of 5 members, move major content on transgender terminology to the introduction (an idea that we had considered earlier), incorporate more language on symbolic interaction, create a tighter connection between the sub-aims and literature on illness careers, make hard copies of an 80 or so page document for everyone, create a draft sociometric diagram to facilitate collection of social network data from each study participant, and…take a trip to the writing center. No sweat right?! I’ve got this all under control. I just won’t eat, sleep, or breathe anything other than this proposal during the next week. Vacation request will be sent and I will work feverishly during those work hours so that I can fulfill my primary job of mom to my two kids.

Sound overwhelming? It should. This journey is not for the meek at heart. It gets rough and rugged at times, especially when we get closer to a milestone.  Thinking about traveling solo? Don’t! Even the strongest and most resilient scholar needs mentoring and support. Find a writing partner and commit to co-writing and prepping together. Share your lessons learned shamelessly.  In doing so you will contribute to the success of others and give a helping hand in pulling back another layer of this mysterious milestone known as the “Proposal Defense”.


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