The Defense before THE Defense: The Lowdown on First Year Proposal Defenses

Pencil on notebook.For beginning PhD students here at Wheaton, the end of the first year is a landmark on several levels. First of all, between seminars, coursework, living adjustments, and the overwhelming nature of trying to figure out what doctoral work is all about, “survival” is the theme. One of the things to be survived the first year is the sometimes grueling process of developing a dissertation proposal. It is a vital part of every student’s first year journey here in the program. After just finishing a successful round of new proposals this spring, we thought we’d give you a window into this process here at Wheaton.

The first of several purposes for the proposal is that it gets us started on our dissertation in the first year, which is a high value of the program. Second, writing the proposal gets us attuned to formatting issues for the dissertation and helps us familiarize ourselves with the guidelines in the dissertation style guide. Third, the proposal helps clarify exactly what our dissertation is going to look like. In ten pages, we lay out issues related to our dissertation like history of research, method, proposed thesis, and implications of our work. An outline and bibliography accompanies this as well to provide a structure and starting point for research. In the process, we each work closely with our mentor, refining and shaping our thesis and the proposal itself.


When a proposal is at the point where it is focused, clean, and ready for review, copies are distributed to every faculty PhD mentor and digitally sent to the doctoral students. This provides the chance for us as students to know what topics everyone is working on so we can collaborate and assist each other with research. This is helpful as well for our doctoral seminars together, where small sections of our dissertation are presented and critiqued. For the faculty, it gives them a chance to interact with the proposal and give feedback. This feedback is offered at what is called a “Proposal Defense,” to which the doctoral students and faculty advisors are invited. Here, we are put “on stage” with our proposal. We get a chance to share about what led us to our topic, and then for about 45 minutes we are asked questions about our project. This includes a fair amount of critique on general and specific issues of our argument and on the proposal document itself. This also gives the faculty a chance to address concerns about chapter order, length, and focus. In fact, the outline is often at the center of the spotlight in the defense.

While this can be rather intimidating, the process is actually in our best interest. Not only do we get feedback from across the disciplines (systematic theology, historical theology, OT, NT) but it also protects us, as the faculty committee puts their stamp of approval on the proposal. We can feel a sense of security that if we follow it, it will mitigate many potential problems and critiques at the dissertation defense. It is also part of the experience here at Wheaton, where faculty play a dual role in our lives: they offer challenging and honest critique of our work while at the same time, they root for our success. It is certainly a challenging process, but one that all of us are glad to walk through as we navigate this sometimes grueling road toward obtaining a doctorate.

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About Susan Rieske

My dissertation focuses on the concept of "generation" in the book of Matthew. Before pursuing a doctorate, I spent several years in ministry serving on staff with Cru, in various leadership roles in the local church, teaching as an adjunct professor at Moody Theological Seminary, Michigan, and as a writer and speaker with Shepherd Project Ministries.
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