This guide addresses examination procedures during the first part of studies in the Doctor of Design (DDes) program at the GSD, meant as a guideline distributed to students and faculty advisors alike. The program’s two stage exam process is designed to facilitate the first phase of study from entry into the program until the initiation of the actual thesis research and the eventual writing of the dissertation and the defense. Significantly different examination protocols require the consent of the program director who may consult the DDes council.

This document outlines the timeline, purpose and format of these first two exams. The general exam ascertains that the student has the knowledge needed to conduct the research, while the prospectus examines the actual research agenda and methodology.


The aim of the prospectus is to provide a clear and well-organized presentation of the dissertation project. The prospectus is the blueprint that guides the work, constructs a logical sequence of research problems, questions and related methods such that the outcome has the promise of being an original contribution to a field (required for doctoral research). The prospectus should be written in such a way as to be comprehensible to specialists in your own field as well as to scholars from other disciplines, it is the first formal iteration of your intended research for your advisor and doctoral committee members.

Clarity and succinctness are essential. A good way to think about the prospectus is to see it as an introduction to the thesis or a grant proposal—both contain essentially similar elements. Students might find it useful to read a variety of introductions to academic papers and theses, or other books. While you will quickly discern that there is no single formula—some introductions begin with a citation or a historical event, others with a broad overview of the research field, yet others with a rhetorical question—a strong introduction will bring together a thesis statement, an argument for the importance of the subject in question, an overview of what has been done, and an explanation of the chosen methodological approach.

The prospectus should incorporate the following elements in a document, six to nine single-spaced pages, that is, approximately 2500 to 3500 words. This is exclusive of footnotes (which are optional) and a selected bibliography (which should range from an additional two to four pages).  Your prospectus typically should contain sections similar to the ones listed below. Section titles and the order in which sections appear can change—please coordinate the organization of the prospectus closely with your advisors!

  1. Thesis Title
    Even a preliminary title can be important as it sets the tone for your research project. It will most likely change over the course of the thesis work.
  2. Thesis Abstract
    The thesis statement is arguably the most important part of the prospectus, as it is the first statement that those who are not acquainted with your project will read. The thesis statement is akin to a brief abstract. In one to three paragraphs, it should present as concisely and coherently as possible the research problem you are treating, characterize its significance, and provide a statement about what your expected findings and conclusions are likely to be. Clarity and succinctness are crucial here; if you aren’t able to state your thesis clearly, then it all likelihood you are still apprehensive and somewhat confused about what you are after.
  3. Research Area and Topic
    This sections is both explanatory and justificatory, it is an expanded introduction to your thesis. Outline your broader research area, thus the field of study your specific topic is part of, or embedded in. Then articulate your specific topic. Why is the knowledge you are proposing to produce relevant? For whom? This discussion normally reflects the organization of the literature review as discussed earlier (General Exam). At times this section also includes a concise background review, other times this overview is provided later on in the prospectus (see section eight).
  4. Problem Statement and Research Questions
    Clarity on what research problem / issue you are working on is key to a successful thesis, and you will likely spend a significant amount of time on this aspect. What are research problems? The answers will differ depending on the research area, but often research problems are generalized problems either derived from a series of practical problems (typical for technology research), or they are generated by the lack of scholarly knowledge in certain important areas of study. Research problems always relate to a body of theory, they are relevant to a broader community of scholars, design professionals, or others, and they address certain researchable issues with great specificity. When deciding on your research problem(s) make sure that methods exist to address it (there are many interesting research problems which are not researchable for that reason). It is often helpful to formulate research questions (which are questions that require original research in order to develop answers). These questions should include and identify variables that point to key influences, constraints and parameters in the thesis investigation. Independent variables are those beyond your immediate control, while dependent ones can be controlled and the research often contributes on how and when this can or should be done.
  5. Hypothesis
    In technology and other more science-based research it can be useful to think of the hypothesis as an expression of assumed relationships between independent and dependent variables. Other hypotheses can also put forward assumed theoretical constructs and outline likely historical / cultural / geographic or other relationships. The hypothesis should help you to decide on research methods—again you are most likely going to modify it as the thesis work progresses.
  6. Methodology
    For any viable thesis project and problem research methods must exist that, realistically, can lead to a successful thesis within a reasonable time frame. The methodology sections outlines, often in chronologically form, the sequence of steps the student intends to take in undertaking the thesis research. It is often useful to identify several more or less distinct research phases (e.g. case studies, comparative studies, field work, surveys, different types of quantitative or qualitative analysis, experimentation/prototyping, various forms of evaluations etc.) with expected outcomes, and construct the sequence of methods such that findings can be expected to build cumulatively into the desired thesis knowledge. If your thesis relies on certain original sources, data or information make sure that you will be able to gain access to this material!
  7. Expected Contributions
    This section describes the expected findings and their relevance to scholars, design and other practitioners, owners, developers, governments or other entities. In this context it may be helpful to think about the audience of your thesis—who will be interested in the outcome, and what do they care about?
  8. Background Overview
    This section should review and offer a critical assessment of the major primary and secondary sources that pertain to your chosen problem. Primary sources are original materials, including works of art and architecture, sites, artifacts, treatises, diaries, correspondence, chronicles, novels, scientific experiments, official records and datasets, government documents and archives of unpublished papers. Primary sources typically date from the time period with which you are dealing. They present the first physical, oral, textual or numerical manifestation of original thinking, and they serve as the objects of—the evidence for—your study. Secondary sources, on the other hand, are interpretive accounts appearing after the fact. They offer a commentary on and an evaluation of a given set of works, events or discoveries. They are retrospective in nature, and so are written with the benefit of historical distance and contextual remove.
    Your aim here is to underscore links with and breaks from the work of other scholars, and not simply to summarize a list of references. In other words, how does your project intersect with what has already been done?  What major examples have influenced your thinking? How do you see your own work as building upon and/or differentiating itself from previous scholarship? As you tackle these questions, keep in mind that you want to demonstrate familiarity with the studies that have contributed to the subject at hand and, by the same token, to show how you are making an original contribution to the field rather than simply replicating what has already been accomplished.
    A solid presentation of primary and secondary sources sits at the heart of a strong prospectus. This is the section in which you demonstrate not only that sources for your research exist but that you have some sense of what they may or may not reveal. Indicate where these sources are located, what they contain, what you think you can draw from them and how you think they will contribute to the broader arguments you will be making.
  9. Schedule
    Propose a schedule that outlines how you envision the unfolding of the research and writing stages. Keep in mind that this timetable is necessarily provisional. It is helpful to think in terms of semesters (spring, summer and fall), and to divide the calendar year accordingly. This will help you to outline your plans with a reasonable amount of time factored in for preliminary research, for travel to archives, libraries, sites and collections, for field work, experimentation and prototyping, and for the writing and revision of the dissertation itself.
  10. Selected Bibliography (two to four additional pages)
    Append to your prospectus a bibliography of primary and secondary sources which you have selected because they are crucial to the subject of the thesis as you have conceived of it. This bibliography need not be annotated, and so should amount at most to two to four pages. This list of items is not meant to be comprehensive but, rather, illustrative of the dissertation content. It may be useful to divide the list into two sections so as to separate primary references from secondary references. In each section, references should be organized alphabetically by author according to a standard bibliographic format (you can consult the Chicago Manual of Style or the MLA Handbook). Subsections are optional, but if you feel this is a good means of clarifying certain aspects of your thesis, you can subdivide by type or by topic, making sure to alphabetize within each subsection.

It should be emphasized that there is much flexibility as to how exactly a prospectus is organized. Working with you advisors is key. Some advisors might also recommend to include a preliminary table of contents to summarize the structure of the dissertation. This preliminary table of contents provides prospective titles for each chapter or part as well as brief descriptive paragraphs fleshing out their content.

Exam Process: To prepare for the prospectus exam the student submits the written prospectus to at least two GSD faculty members and to a third person (that may or may not be from outside the GSD) at least one week ahead of the actual exam date. The examining committee consists of these three individuals, of which two have to be GSD faculty. The actual exam usually begins with a presentation of the prospectus by the student, followed by questions and discussions. The overall length normally does not exceed two hours, it is not public and its results will not be publicly available. At the end the student withdraws and the examining committee determines the outcome. Possible options are:

  • Pass: thesis work can begin immediately
  • Conditional pass without new exam: some minor changes in the prospectus are necessary. The student will be asked to submit the amended document to the examining committee.
  • Conditional pass with new exam: more substantial changes in the prospectus are necessary. A new exam meeting has to be scheduled in order for the student to pass.

Failure is extremely rare because only students with a coherent and plausible prospectus are invited to take the exam. The thesis committee is officially established after the successful passing of the prospectus. It consists of at least three individuals, of which two have to be current GSD faculty. The primary advisor becomes chair of the committee. Committee members are obliged to meet at least once each semester as a group with the student, but individual interactions between DDes candidates (which is what doctoral students are called after successful passing of the GE and prospectus exam) and the advisors are expected.