I've been working (in a very very preliminary way that mostly involves writing a paper for SoCG) on my proposal. Also (full disclosure) I'm one of the grad student representatives to my department's education committee, which has been discussing changing our process. So I've been thinking a lot about the process, how it works, whether it's good, whether it does what it means to, etc. Which leads me to ask - what's your proposal process like? Does it get students through the system in a reasonable amount of time (reasonable is not a code for short, I actually mean reasonable)? Do students enter the writing process/ leave the school knowing "what they should?"
I'm rather frustrated with the process at Maryland. (The qualifying exams process, on the other hand, I liked.) It consists of two sections which take place at the same time - the reading list and the research talk (with accompanying write-up). The reading list is a list of 30 papers in your broad area (for me, that means Theory) which are divided into three subareas of ten papers each (for me, this might include 10 papers "outside" of Theory in application areas). The proposal itself consists of about an hour long talk followed by a Q&A section. The Q&A section is divided into two parts - the part with the open audience and the closed section. The open section is like the end of usual research talks, and the closed section is (as far as I know having not had one myself) an oral exam with your committee members. During the oral exam, committee members can choose to talk about the research talk you just gave or quiz you on the reading list. The research talk is generally considered to be the main portion of the proposal, and most people at Maryland wait until they're about a year away from graduating before proposing.
I'm fine with these two components, but I don't think that having them at the same time works well. I actually think it sounds great to spend a lot of time thinking deeply about papers in Theory while not trying to immediately use them in research - just appreciating the papers as they are. But trying to do this while also preparing a research talk (and working on creating the results for that talk) means that instead of spending the effort on the papers that they deserve, most people rush through them or pick papers they've already read in their very narrow research area. Which also means that it's "better" to have committee members who won't ask about the papers. In a passing conversation with Bill recently about whether he'd be on my committee he made the point of mentioning that he does indeed ask questions about the papers, and that often students rule him out for this reason. Which I took as yet another symptom that the process doesn't work the way it should. Yet it doesn't make sense to hold myself to a different standard either. So what's the ethically and professionally best course of action that still allows a quick proposal? And yes, Bill, I'd be happy to have your opinion too.