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I found one particular source I’d filed away (a newspaper article from 1938) that clarified everything for me. I started shuffling all of these questions and materials around, stitching them together into a coherent project.I realized that my original dissertation question would work really well as a single chapter in this new project.I spent some time reading through documents I’d found in the archives, which seemed unrelated to my project but which I found interesting enough to photograph and store away for the future.
Along the way, I’ve taken advantage of many of the strategies suggested here on Grad Hacker, and have found the archive of advice and reflections very helpful.I took advantage of required literature reviews to get acquainted with relevant scholarship, and research papers to try out a couple of archival documents at a time.But in addition to allowing me to familiarize myself with relevant scholarship and materials, these miniature assignments are what helped me to realize that my initial research question wasn’t quite right for me.You have to get your idea out of your head without this crutch, and try to explain to someone else why you’re interested in the project.It can be especially useful to talk about your dissertation with someone who is not in your field at all, because you have to express your ideas in cogent, non-specialist terms (good practice for grant-writing! Some of the reading suggestions and offhanded comments I received when just talking about my project with other people helped me to see my dissertation in a new way.Sometimes my friends asked questions about things that had seemed obvious to me, and this forced me to be more explicit about my contributions and arguments.It’s also encouraging when you realize that your idea is clear and interesting to someone who is not you, especially when making the commitment to a long-term project. Keeping tabs on what’s interesting to you from the beginning saves time and energy.It proved such a valuable opportunity, though, because it forced me to step back from my research and reevaluate what seemed most interesting and important about it. Writing the prospectus can feel a little bit like performing surgery on your ideas.During the process of reevaluating my project, I found that breaking it apart into smaller research questions was helpful.Reading a mountain of books and articles in order to demonstrate mastery of content, scholarly debates, and methodologies is enriching but also a lot of work.But thinking about where my project fits in with the major themes and developments in my field helped me to corral all of this information and remain invested. Grant proposals are really good practice for the prospectus, and vice versa.