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The Dissertation Exposé

By Christian Wilbers

It is the central document of every application and the testament of your previous academic training: the dissertation exposé or proposal. The proposal is your opportunity to define a framework for your research project, establish a working schedule and do important groundwork for a successful dissertation.

The Dissertation Exposé © photoworldwide - iStockphoto.com The dissertation exposé sets the thematic boundaries of the project
Many Bachelor's and Master's students are familiar with the procedure: Before accepting a topic for the term paper, the professor asks for a prospectus, an exposé that describes the basic structure and plan behind the paper. What are the questions the paper is trying to answer, what is the theoretical approach, and what sources will be exploited for it? In principle, a dissertation exposé is exactly the same thing - with the important exception that you are not laying out the plan for a short paper, which can be fully completed within a few weeks. It is therefore critical to proceed as carefully as possible. Your readers are experienced academics that not only evaluate the relevance of your proposal but also its feasibility. Approach the exposé as systematically as possible so as not to forget any of the essential parts and seek out help from professors or other experienced academics. Try to find out if your department lets you consult older dissertation proposals and look for online resources that can help you write your own. The following components should not be missing in any dissertation exposé.

The topic: This is where you define the objectives and the guiding questions you are trying to answer in your project. Whether you are dealing with political resistance in Franco's Spain or the synthesis of metal oxide materials - when it comes to the legitimization of the topic the key issues are almost always the same. Besides setting the thematic boundaries of your project you need to explain how your work relates to the existing research and describe its current relevance within the academic world. In other words, you need to explain where you see the knowledge gap and why right now is the right time to close that gap. Depending on your field, you may also need to develop hypotheses on the potential outcomes of your study in the dissertation proposal. Remember: Always align your exposé with the research specialties of the graduate school that you are applying to. Your application will only be successful if your project fits into the graduate school's program. It is also important to work according to academic standards right away, i.e. to include footnotes or reference sources in parentheses.

How to assess your exposé

  • Academic substance of the project
  • Good source material
  • Academic relevance
  • Compatibility with the graduate school's priorities
  • Feasibility
The method: Many academics have a hate-love relationship with the theoretic portion of their dissertation. On the one hand, a well-chosen methodology is the foundation of a successful dissertation; on the other it is a tedious distraction from the real research work. However, the fact of the matter is that no scholar of any discipline will succeed without a solid methodology. Therefore, you should carefully consider which method or theory you want to utilize and how you want to test your hypotheses. Develop a sound reasoning for your approach. Part of the methodology is the definition and operationalization of all pertinent terms, i.e. an explanation of how you plan to use them throughout the dissertation. While all that sounds complicated it is worth remembering that unlike the dissertation itself, the methodology is not exercise in academic innovation - you do not need to reinvent the wheel. Therefore, it makes complete sense to check how other scholars in the past have approached questions similar to your own and it is legitimate to reference those approaches in the dissertation exposé. That saves time and shows your understanding of the academic process.

Outline and schedule: Both outline and schedule are always hypothetical. Nobody knows what the lab results will be, which surprises are awaiting you in the archives or what will come out of the interviews that are the basis of your dissertation. Nonetheless, a well-conceived outline and a coherent schedule are incredibly important for the assessment of your dissertation project. Many German graduate schools aim to produce PhDs within three years. If your dissertation exposé is too extensive or too unorganized to make such a timetable realistic, chances are your application will be rejected. Therefore you need to develop a concept, which lays out step-by-step how you plan on answering your questions or how you want to test your hypotheses. Rather than proposing a project that is too extensive just to impress the selection committee, it makes sense to submit a more conservative exposé that is comparable to previous exposés submitted by older PhD students.

The format: Just like any academic work of this size, the exposé should start with a title page that lists information about yourself (name, date of birth, email address, address, phone number, etc.) as well as a provisional title for the dissertation project. A table of contents on the next page should provide an overview of all the sections contained in the proposal. You also need to make sure to have a consistent, professional layout (font, line spacing, etc.) and include page numbers. Finally, you should review the style of writing to make the text as eloquent as possible and ensure that no spelling errors ruin the positive assessment of your application.

Bibliography: Each dissertation exposé must of course end with a bibliography of all sources quoted in the text. It might also be helpful to list some important texts from your research area even if you did not explicitly cite them. Ideally, you not only identified such texts during the preparation of your exposé but also read them. After all, you may well be asked about them during the interview.

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academics :: January 2014

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