One of the steps in the Ph.D. is the dissertation proposal. This is when a student actually says what the plan to do for the next few years of their life, and their dissertation committee gets to review it. While it is a bit of a formality, it is actually quite important for several reasons:
- The work has to be sufficiently novel and interesting to be worth doing.
- The scope of the project has to be achievable – graduate student is not a tenured position.
- The amount of work has to be big enough.
It amounts to a contract – If the student does this then they can write up their dissertation and graduate.
The proposal serves another very important point though. The primary aim of Ph.D. education is not just more stuff “piled higher and deeper”, but the ability to recognize an interesting research problem and to formulate a plan to answer it.
We have a bit of an argument in my department about this (though I’m in a distinct minority about it), and many of the faculty treat it as a “pre-disseration” to be done just before the dissertation defense. In the physical sciences, it is done very early in the students work – usually just after the dreaded qualifiers. Developing the ability to structure research is even more critical in computer science, because – unlike the natural sciences – in computer science a student quite often goes directly to an assistant professorship and therefore has to be able to make these plans and proposals from the very start of their post-doctoral career.