All the essentials at a glance

Before you write a dissertation, you have to write a synopsis. Learn what to keep in mind while writing your synopsis here.
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When do I have to write a synopsis?

You will need to write one in situations like these:

  • Looking for an adviser
  • Applying for a PhD student position
  • Applying for a stipend
  • Applying to a graduate school

What exactly is a synopsis?

A synopsis describes your research objective. It is important to clearly state your topic, your goals, and your specific approach. This gives external readers an overview of your research project. You should also remember that a synopsis is just a framework—your actual dissertation can deviate from it. A synopsis should also be as realistic as possible at the time it is written.

You can adjust your outline depending on your target audience. While it may be important to show a professor or graduate school how your topic fits into their research programme, applicants for PhD positions are evaluated heavily on quality and feasibility. Organisations that promote young, talented students will want to know how the project fits in with their world view.

How should I structure my synopsis?

Synopses do not have a uniform structure. However, almost every research synopsis contains these components:

  • Title: This should provide information on both the general topic of the work and the specific aspects you want to examine. Ideally, the title itself will give a rough summary of what phenomena you will be looking at and through which lens. Your title and subtitle should not be more than four lines long.
  • Topic of the work: You can introduce the reader to your topic through several episodes, and you might highlight some particularly interesting aspect. It is important to embed your topic in the existing research landscape. What literature is already available and how does it deal with your topic? It may be useful to draw on publications from other disciplines as well. It is helpful to find a system for addressing gaps in existing research. The literature you cite should clearly indicate which aspects of the topic have not yet been appropriately addressed. These gaps in the research will, in turn, determine the questions you want to examine in your own research. The synopsis may also include an initial hypothesis, depending on your discipline.
  • Approach: After you have formulated your research question, you should explain the approach you will use to answer it. This section deals with two aspects. First, you must clearly describe the theoretical lens you want to use to address the question. This section is more important in some disciplines, and less so in others. The methodology question is important in every discipline. You should invest some time and energy in answering it. What methods can you use to answer the research question? What tools will you need, and are they already available? What problems could arise? Your approach might also include definitions of key terms used in your work.
  • Literature: Just like academic works themselves, synopses include a bibliography, listing all of the sources cited in the document. Whether or not to add publications you have not cited to the list depends on what is customary in your specific discipline. It is important to show that you have a good understanding of current research available on your topic.
  • Timeline: The timeline should state the steps you need to complete before presenting your research results, and should be as realistic as possible. Typically, a dissertation timeline ends when you submit your work. In Germany, the trend is to grant dissertation stipends that last around three years. If you are applying for a three-year stipend, then your timeline should cover this time period. Your timeline should also include buffer time, and shouldn’t leave out vacations. It needs to be realistic, and will be used to evaluate your project itself.

What else can I include in my synopsis?

In addition to the mandatory components of the research synopsis, there are several optional elements:

  • Organisation of the work: Frequently, qualification theses will expect a (preliminary) organisational structure.
  • Summary: You can add a short summary at the start of your research synopsis to give readers a better overview. It should state your topic, describe gaps in the research, and clarify your own question.
  • Goals and expected findings: How will your research contribute to academic knowledge as a whole? What important findings will it deliver? It may make sense to include this information, depending on the purpose of the synopsis.

What else do I need to know?

  • You do not need to reinvent the wheel. In many fields, you will be able to build on a broad base of research literature. It is good to develop clear questions when starting your research and to make sure they can realistically be completed within your allotted time.
  • Developing a synopsis often takes several months. The more carefully you think about your research project at the start, the more time you will save during the research process itself.
  • Diligence makes a good impression. Your synopsis also shows whether you are ready to handle the research project you have designed for yourself. Do you know how to cite other works, assess research literature, and write a realistic-sounding timeline? Is your theoretical and methodological approach appropriate for the research question?
  • You are never alone in your research. You can ask classmates, colleagues, or even experienced academics for advice on developing your synopsis.