“In 2016, Northwestern was chosen by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) as one of five universities to bring together humanities and social science scholars in pre-doctoral research summer institutes. Faculty from across clusters, certificates, and disciplines actively guide humanities and social science PhD students, who are in their second and third years, in designing effective research questions, methodologies, contexts, and interventions. Participants gain practical, theoretical, and writing insights from experienced faculty and other students outside their disciplines. Throughout this program, students build their professional networks and audiences, benefit from interdisciplinary mentorship, and engage in conversations that lead to innovative dissertation projects.”

This short excerpt from Northwestern University’s Graduate School website describes and marks the boundaries of the Dissertation Proposal Development (DPD) program for Northwestern faculty and doctoral students. This is a summer research fellowship program bookended by workshops in June and September at which students receive feedback from faculty mentors and their peers on dissertation research proposals intended for interdisciplinary audiences.

As the program coordinator on Northwestern’s campus, I have had the pleasure to engage with students, faculty, and administrators from across the country who have dedicated their time to the Social Science Research Council’s University Initiative. In reflecting on my experiences with this program from its inception in 2016 through ongoing planning for its 2020 iteration, I am struck by how the DPD Program has helped me to examine nomenclature often taken for granted in graduate education. Three terms in particular come to mind as points of contemplation: interdisciplinary, dissertation proposal, and professional development.


Northwestern emphasizes interdisciplinarity across programs and departments in the research produced by faculty, in the courses taken by students, and in the knowledge created by burgeoning scholars through graduate education. When we define interdisciplinarity, we imagine a world separated by invisible but powerful boundaries. We think about the borders of history, anthropology, or music. We consider interdisciplinary programs as those which utilize mixed methods, address problems from multiple angles, and probe traditional boundaries between disciplines.

The Graduate School at Northwestern encourages interdisciplinary learning and collaboration through formal and informal curricular and co-curricular activities, including its interdisciplinary clusters. Clusters provide interdisciplinary training that crosses the boundaries of degree programs; these structures organize emergent knowledge in the humanities and qualitative social sciences, science and engineering, and life and biomedical sciences. Currently, Northwestern’s Graduate School sponsors eighteen clusters in the humanities and social sciences, including Comparative Race and Diaspora, Critical Theory, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Latin American and Caribbean Studies. By taking courses; attending workshops, lectures, symposia, and reading groups; convening dissertation writing groups; and developing professional skills, graduate students engage with Northwestern faculty, meet visiting experts, and find peers whose interests intersect with their own. Many of the clusters offer formal certificate programs, and often, connections formed through cluster programming lead to research collaborations.

The DPD Program, like Northwestern’s clusters, expands graduate students’ scholarship beyond the boundaries of their degree programs and the expertise of their advisers. Many members of the 2017, 2018, and 2019 DPD cohorts reported the evolution of their projects and of their ability to translate their scholarship for others. One student noted,

“Before starting the DPD program, I had no idea how scholars from other fields received my writing or ideas. I did not know how to communicate discipline-specific problems to those outside… Now, I have a much better idea of how to refine my questions in the clearest possible terms so that I can speak to other scholars and participate in deeper, more enriching discussions about topics that go far beyond [my discipline].”

Others noted that the DPD Program made them more attentive to elements of their project that, as one student put it, were “assumed to be obvious but were unclear or unfamiliar to outside readers.” Comments such as these have helped me to rethink how I define “interdisciplinary.” Instead of imagining it as solely oppositional to a discipline, I now emphasize moving among and within boundaries, communicating ideas to broader audiences, clarifying one’s own scholarship, and learning to explain how one’s disciplinary training can contribute to interdisciplinary inquiry. My revised definition of “interdisciplinary” also helps me refine another key term: the dissertation proposal.

Dissertation proposal

The phrase “dissertation proposal,” as used in the DPD Program, has caused some confusion at Northwestern. The SSRC considers the dissertation proposal to be a persuasive document that argues for an external funding agent to provide a scholar with crucial funding to conduct research, write a dissertation, or complete a book. A proposal of this kind is addressed to an audience unfamiliar with one’s work but highly invested in significant research that intervenes in current scholarship. At Northwestern, some of our humanities and social science PhD programs equate the phrase “dissertation proposal” with a discipline-specific prospectus—a document usually intended for an audience of faculty mentors that could be part literature review, part explanation of next research steps, part chapter summary, and part description of project.

Because the term dissertation proposal means different things to different groups, Northwestern’s program has emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of the proposal. We note that the proposal is a particular genre of scholarly writing directed to a broad readership and not only one’s degree program or adviser. We add that our expectation is that an emerging scholar would be able to incorporate aspects of an external funding proposal into a prospectus and vice versa, but that a funding proposal is distinct from other ways of describing one’s research. Throughout the first years of the DPD Program’s existence on Northwestern’s campus, our understanding of the purpose of the proposal has evolved. We have moved away from an amorphous proposal assignment that could be crafted in multiple ways. During the 2020 summer program, participants will be expected to prepare a proposal for a particular Northwestern internal grant—the Graduate Research Grant. We hope that this strategy will encourage many of them to apply for more internal and external funding opportunities during their degree programs and later. That is, we intend the DPD Program to offer crucial professional development training.

Professional development

In graduate education across the United States, professional development is often seen as equivalent to career preparation. Some graduate degree programs have a career placement officer—a faculty member who serves as a liaison for graduating doctoral candidates interested in tenure-track positions. However, professional development can be understood as more than just academic career placement. Due to the DPD Program, I now see academic and professional development as intertwined. Together, these dimensions of professional training teach students how to succeed in graduate education and in their professional lives once they have completed their degrees.

Resources such as writing and teaching centers provide students opportunities to improve skills needed in all facets of academic life and other career avenues as well. The DPD Program is a similar resource. It challenges students to test their preliminary research ideas; it illustrates how to give constructive feedback and judiciously approach critique in a positive way; and it teaches the art of crafting a research proposal for interdisciplinary audiences. Professional and academic development are intertwined in the DPD Program to instill long-lasting skills in the next generation of humanities and social science scholars.


The celebrated history of the SSRC’s Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship (DPDF) has added a new chapter by bringing five universities into the fold. While each of the five programs are distinct, each institution emphasizes the three phrases I have redefined through my experiences with DPD: interdisciplinary, dissertation proposal, and professional development. At Northwestern, this program expands the suite of resources that the university offers to its graduate students, increasing the opportunities for doctoral students to reach new academic heights. By redefining key terms and dimensions of graduate education, the DPD Program will affect the ways that education in the humanities and social sciences develops for generations to come.