I decided to look at my old dissertation proposal since I defended it sometime in June of 1991--25 years ago. A quick glance suggests that it was in the first half of the month since the examples of secessionist crises barely refers to Yugoslavia, which fell apart later that month. It was fun to see how much of the dissertation followed this proposal, how much changed, and how much my thinking has remained the same vs changed.
This document is entitled PropV4, which tells me that I had gotten a heap of feedback from my advisers, especially Miles Kahler, so I subjected him to four different versions from roughly late 1990 to June 1991. I do remember
In terms of style, it turns out that I have always struggled to cite enough literature. Not enough cites in the proposal, I think. On the other hand, my hate of lit reviews didn't stop me from having a section called "Relevant Literature." Reading through it did remind me that I had multiple targets in mind, as I had only remembered focusing on the folks who argued that "countries don't support secession elsewhere if they are vulnerable to it themselves." I now remember being hostile to the existing work on diversionary theories of war. I guess it took Palpatine's strategies in SW 1-3 to change my mind?
In terms of my theory, I ended up simplifying a bit from my 3x3 with strange abbreviations to a 2x3 by the time I defended the dissertation. But the logic built into the model still shapes how I view things--that politicians have different incentives if they have a multiethnic audience to which they are are appealing versus having to compete with other politicians for the support of a single ethnic group. I kind of underplayed the reality of multiple identities in the proposal, and I got more focused on how even a single identity might have competing meanings and imperatives later on.
My methods section made a series of promises that I did not keep in the dissertation: no statistics. I did end up trying to test some of the assertions quantitatively once I got my hands on the Minorities At Risk Dataset's coding of international support. My committee directed me away from doing quantitative work (really!) in the dissertation because the data was not there if I remember correctly. The case studies in the actual dissertation did not reflect what I proposed, as I focused less on individual countries over time (except for Somalia) and much more on comparing how many countries reacted to the same secessionist crisis (Katanga, Biafra, Bangladesh).
My memory of the process is not perfect, but I have to guess that the dissertation proposal defense made a big difference--not so much in the theory but in how I would test my assertions. The dissertation defense was far less consequential--it was interesting and engaging, but did not change what I ended up doing with the dissertation. The resulting book had a different case study (Yugoslavia instead of Bangladesh) both to be more current and because the BG case was really about India and not about comparing many actors' reactions to the same conflict.
And, yes, my proposal was 40 pages double spaced, which means I cannot whine too much when my students give me proposals of that length.
Anyhow, it is funny what I remember and what I don't from this very formative process 25 years ago. The dissertation proposal process is probably the hardest part of grad school--developing an original and feasible idea to study, one that will haunt a student for at least ten years (to do the project in grad school and then to publish off it as one tries to get tenure), if not their entire career as it tends to dominate one's destiny. It involves heaps of feedback from advisers and peers, which can often misdirect a student who keeps listening to the most recent piece of advice rather than figuring out what is best for the project. I have many debts to my committee and my friends at UCSD, which I can only pay forward.
I guess I date my career as starting pretty much at this point--when I got my first major idea started and underway. Before that, I was just ripping apart the work of others. Building my own research is far harder and is far more professional--that I was a part of this profession when I started doing the research. What am I going to do for this 25th anniversary? Get some more silver in my hair, I guess.