DISSERTATION PROSPECTUS GUIDELINES
NB: These guidelines are suggestions rather than rules and are meant to reassure you rather than worry you. Please consult your director and follow his or her guidance throughout the composition process. A prospectus can take different shapes, depending on the topic and your collaboration with your director. It is above all a process, something you need to have written in order to move forward. These suggestions are meant to help you get through that process more quickly and easily.
Your dissertation prospectus (typically 25 to 50 pages but no more than 50 total, including bibliography) should first set out in a few pages the central question/problem and the basic argument of your dissertation both in terms of the timeframe and texts you have chosen, as well as the critical and theoretical conversations to which you are contributing. (In other words, this section is a tentative abstract of the work as a whole. Remember that the prospectus is not written in stone; changes always occur in the process of writing.) A prospectus should contain a proposed table of contents with a brief description of each planned chapter. (You would be surprised how helpful this chapter roadmap can be.) Your prospectus should also include what is often called a “literature review” in which you outline those critical and theoretical conversations (in other words, who your most important interlocutors are and what your own critical method might be) and tell your committee why your proposed project is important and original. It might help in this regard to think of your prospectus as something like a grant proposal, in which you are as lucid and persuasive as you can be about the nature, scope and significance of your project.
Many prospectuses exemplify and ground their point through close reading of an illustrative primary text or texts. In many cases, the prospectus includes a seminar paper that might have inspired the dissertation topic, and can help you support it more concretely. If you don't have a relevant seminar paper, it seems logical for you to write on some specific text or texts to demonstrate how and what you intend to do. Another common option would be for you to write a kind of introduction to your chosen period and the significance of your chosen texts. Some prospectuses use longer chapter descriptions for this purpose.
You need an extended bibliography, which you can organize in consultation with your chair, which should list both primary and secondary sources. It might also be helpful to divide secondary sources from theoretical/methodological sources. These lists should include all the primary works that you intend to address in your dissertation. So, too, for your bibliography of secondary sources -- don't try to list every book and article written on the topic, but only those that you will actually use. The third bibliography (of theoretical/methodological sources) should be made up only of those works that inform your own methodology and conceptual framework.
There is no "divine proportion" for the ratio of the prospectus narrative to the supporting literature review and chapter descriptions. What is important is to have the central question/problem, the structure and argument, and the larger significance of the proposed dissertation adequately defined.