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12. Feb 2024

Writing an exposé

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Do you have a research question that you would like to investigate? Would you like to do that in the context of a doctorate? Are you planning to present your idea to your preferred professor to apply as a candidate for supervision? It’s time to write your exposé!

The exposé provides an overview of your planned research work. It links your research question with a plan for its investigation. You provide a clearly understandable, coherently reasoned explanation of

  • what you want to investigate,
  • why you’re investigating it and
  • how you want to investigate it.
Figure: A convincing exposé makes the components Why?, What?, and How? interlock like gears and form a comprehensive result.

A well-written synopsis not only convinces scholarship providers or potential supervisors of your research idea. It also helps you as the author to structure your own project, to critically question it and to recognize potential challenges early on. Think of the exposé as a very first draft of your dissertation. This type of preparation can save valuable time, energy and resources later on.

Form and structure of an exposé

A clear structure is the necessary framework for convincingly communicating the core of your idea – the research question. You explain how you derived it and how you want to investigate it. There is not one strict form that an exposé must follow. However, certain key elements should be present in a logical order to achieve a comprehensible result.

The structure

A) Abstract

The abstract narrows down the content of your exposé to approximately half a page. It is the figurehead of your synopsis. Since the convincing power of this section determines whether the reader takes an interest in the detailed synopsis, it should contain the research question as well as the most important information about the research interest, the intended methods and the expected results. The abstract is usually written last.

B) Problem definition and research interest

At first, you situate the planned work in the discipline and demonstrate its relevance. To do so, you introduce a scientific problem that forms the basis of your specific research question. This part should build on a good selection of scientific sources.
In order to not get lost in the vastness of a field, try to narrow down the area of your work. By defining the scope of your anticipated research, you’ll already reflect a lot about possible constraints. This will help you develop a good reasoning for your research question and anticipate challenges for its investigation.
Also, let the readers know why you want to address this problem in particular and explain to them why you want to find a solution.

C) Current state of research

Closely connected to the definition of the scientific problem, you prove the relevance of the topic based on the state of the scientific debate around it. You outline what is known about the research objective, if it’s been challenged before and if so, in which manner. When selecting works for this section, consider them from the perspective of what the most important scientific positions on the topic are and what gaps in knowledge currently exist. What deficiencies or points of criticism do you see in the existing works in this field? Be careful about judging the work of other scientists, rather focus on the contribution you could add to the field. All these considerations form the base to develop and justify a new research question.

D) Your research question

Based on the knowledge about the scientific problem and the state of the art, you introduce your specific research question. Develop hypotheses and assumptions about possible outcomes. It should become clear what the aim of the work is, why it is relevant and to what extent answering the research question will advance the field of knowledge.

E) Methodology, (re)sources and materials

Here, you identify the methods, resources and materials needed to investigate your research question. They depend heavily on the approach of your work, whether you are primarily conducting primary surveys or aiming for secondary analyses. Explain the choice of methods in terms of their suitability to investigate your research question and the pragmatics of their application. You should also think about the availability of and the access to (re)sources and materials. In case you’re using material from preliminary work, e.g. your master’s thesis, you should also be transparent about this here.
At the end of this section, the way of proceeding should be clear and there should be a comprehensible preliminary research design.

F) Preliminary work plan and time schedule

In the next step, you present the planned workflow together with a time reference. Your schedule should prove that your proposed research design is able to gain answers to your research question in a foreseeable and identifiable time frame. At an early stage, it is clear that you cannot plan everything in detail. Larger intervals, such as quarterly targets, are easier to plan at this stage. Subquestions, an intermediate goal or method should be assigned to each time interval. This could be presented in the form of a table. You should add a start and a provisional end date to your plan.
It is important that you keep your timetable realistic. Research involves uncertainties, surprises and sometimes delays. You should also consider your own abilities and take into account existing commitments (e.g. care work) when designing your plan. The duration of a doctorate is three to four years. Keep in mind that not all of this time will be dedicated to research. If you are planning to work part-time alongside your doctorate, be transparent about how this will affect the time required to complete your thesis. Adapt the schedule accordingly.

G) Bibliography

Last but not least, giving an overview on the literature you’ve used to design your research proposal is mandatory. Focus on relevant, pertinent and accessible literature and limit yourself to the most helpful works for writing the synopsis. When referring to literature, pay attention to a consistent citation style.

The form and language of an exposé

Number of pages
The length and level of details depend on the time, the purpose, the subject area and the respective requirements. If you want to submit a proactive application to a professor and want to convince them with your idea to supervise you as a doctoral candidate, a short synopsis of a few pages (up to 5) will be sufficient. It is not advisable to write a very detailed exposé at this stage and for this purpose. Exposés in more developed versions are usually between 5 and 20 pages long. They mark the end of an in-depth orientation and preparation phase and are therefore more extensive. Exposés written for the acquisition of scholarships and research funding tend to be oriented towards the upper page limit.

The general rules for scientific writing also apply for exposés. Precise wording ensures that your synopsis is understood. You should pay attention to the correct use of technical terms and to avoiding colloquial language. As you are presenting your own ideas in the exposé, it is advisable to use your own words and use verbatim quotations only very sparingly. Also, keep an eye on redundancies and try to avoid them. It is also important to pay attention to correct spelling and grammar. Neglecting spelling and grammar will give the reader the impression of carelessness. Proofreading is recommended before an exposé is sent out.

Formal aspects
The cover page of your exposé should contain the following information: Your first and last name, your academic degree, the provisional title of the thesis, the topic, and, after they confirmed to supervise you, the name of the respective supervisor(s).
Format your exposé reader-friendly: use 1.15pt to 1.5pt line spacing, a calm font (e.g. Arial, Georgia) in an appropriate size (11 or 12), and use justified text, page numbers and add a table of contents.

Further considerations and tips on writing an exposé

When writing down your own research idea for the very first time, it can be helpful to understand the creation of the synopsis as a process that serves to improve your own understanding. For a first application to a potential supervisor, the result does not have to be perfect, as there are still a lot of uncertainties. If your idea leads to a confirmation of supervision, a more differentiated exposé can be developed.
During the process, there will most likely be many changes that will influence the outline of the doctorate as it progresses. You don’t have to know every single aspect right away and adjustments can be made later if they become necessary. Expanding your exposé and adapting it to changes is easier if you already have a well thought-out structure.

Sometimes you need to present your research idea for different purposes and/or at different times. For example, when applying to a research school before starting your doctorate or for research funding later on. Depending on the occasion, you can and should adapt your exposé accordingly to meet the respective requirements.
If you’re writing an exposé to apply for a scholarship, discussing your exposé with colleagues and your supervisor can be an advantage. They are already familiar with writing research proposals and have academic experience, so they can contribute their perspective on scientific and formal aspects to the discussion. Also, adapt your timeplan to the scholarship’s period of funding.

Further information


  • An article with video about putting together your exposé is presented on this website. (Note: There is advertising for paid services on this website, but the most important content is available free of charge. We only point out the free content and do not advertise the paid services.)
  • If you’re interested in a very detailed explanation of what a thesis outline contains and also in the linguistic aspects of it, visit this website and benefit from numerous further links to in-depth content.
  • In addition to a chapter on the exposé, the brochure “Doing your doctorate. Making conscious decisions and getting off to a good start.” by the network Qualitätszirkel Promotion (QZP) contains lots of further information for anyone preparing for a doctorate.
  • Griffith University’s tips for developing an exposé focus on identifying a suitable research topic for yourself and provide helpful guidelines as well as a video in which doctoral candidates talk about the process.


  • Die Universität Osnabrück bietet mit ihrer Broschüre über das Schreiben eines wissenschaftlichen Exposés einen sehr ausführlichen Leitfaden.
  • Einen guten Übersichtsartikel über das Schreiben eines Exposés mit einem Fokus auf die Literaturverwaltung bietet dieser Artikel.
  • Der Leitfaden zum Verfassen eines Exposés der Universität Bielefeld enthält eine Checkliste zur Strukturierung und Unterstützung des Schreibprozesses.
  • In einem ausführlichen Video (19 min) zu Inhalten und Aufbau eines Exposés für die Dissertation teilt ein Wissenschaftscoach seine Erfahrungen und Tipps.
  • Die Broschüre Promotion – bewusst entscheiden und gut starten des Qualitätszirkel Promotion (QZP) enthält neben einem Kapitel zum Exposé viele weitere hilfreiche Informationen für alle, die sich auf eine Promotion vorbereiten.
  • Aus dem Netz der MLU (intern oder VPN) kann das Buch Promotionsplanung und Exposee von Jutta Wergen aufgerufen werden (Stand: 06.02.2024). Es enthält unter anderem einen ausführlichen Ratgeber mit Hilfestellungen und Anleitung zum Verfassen eines Exposés.

Über Emma Harlow

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