How to Write an Abstract for Your Thesis or Dissertation
What is an Abstract?
- The abstract is an important component of your thesis. Presented at the beginning of the thesis, it is likely the first substantive description of your work read by an external examiner. You should view it as an opportunity to set accurate expectations.
- The abstract is a summary of the whole thesis. It presents all the major elements of your work in a highly condensed form.
- An abstract often functions, together with the thesis title, as a stand-alone text. Abstracts appear, absent the full text of the thesis, in bibliographic indexes such as PsycInfo. They may also be presented in announcements of the thesis examination. Most readers who encounter your abstract in a bibliographic database or receive an email announcing your research presentation will never retrieve the full text or attend the presentation.
- An abstract is not merely an introduction in the sense of a preface, preamble, or advance organizer that prepares the reader for the thesis. In addition to that function, it must be capable of substituting for the whole thesis when there is insufficient time and space for the full text.
Size and Structure
Clearly Specify Your Research Questions
- Currently, the maximum sizes for abstracts submitted to Canada's National Archive are 150 words (Masters thesis) and 350 words (Doctoral dissertation).
- To preserve visual coherence, you may wish to limit the abstract for your doctoral dissertation to one double-spaced page, about 280 words.
- The structure of the abstract should mirror the structure of the whole thesis, and should represent all its major elements.
- For example, if your thesis has five chapters (introduction, literature review, methodology, results, conclusion), there should be one or more sentences assigned to summarize each chapter.
- As in the thesis itself, your research questions are critical in ensuring that the abstract is coherent and logically structured. They form the skeleton to which other elements adhere.
- They should be presented near the beginning of the abstract.
- There is only room for one to three questions. If there are more than three major research questions in your thesis, you should consider restructuring them by reducing some to subsidiary status.
Don't Forget the Results
- The most common error in abstracts is failure to present results.
- The primary function of your thesis (and by extension your abstract) is not to tell readers what you did, it is to tell them what you discovered. Other information, such as the account of your research methods, is needed mainly to back the claims you make about your results.
- Approximately the last half of the abstract should be dedicated to summarizing and interpreting your results.
© John C. Nesbit
How to structure your dissertation abstract
Abstracts written for undergraduate and master's level dissertations have a number of structural components [NOTE]. Even though every dissertation is different, these structural components are likely to be relevant for most dissertations. When writing the dissertation abstract, the most important thing to remember is why your research was significant. This should have been clearly explained in the introductory chapter of your dissertation (Chapter One: Introduction). Understanding the significance of your research is important because how much you write for each component of the abstract (in terms of word count or number of sentences) will depend on the relative importance of each of these components to your research.
There are four major structural components, which aim to let the reader know about the background to and significance of your study, the research strategy being followed, the findings of the research, and the conclusions that were made. You should write one or a number of sentences for each of these components, with each making up a part of the 150 to 350 words that are typically written in dissertation abstracts. This section sets out and explains these structural components. These four major components are:
Study background and significance
The first few sentences of the dissertation abstract highlight the background to your research, as well as the significance of the study. Hopefully, by the time you come to write the abstract, you will already know why your study is significant.
In explaining the significance of your study, you will also need to provide some context for your research. This includes the problem that you are addressing and your motivation for conducting the study. In building the background to the study, this part of the abstract should address questions such as:
What is the purpose of the research?
Why did you carry out the research?
How is the study significant? Why should anyone care or why do they care (is the study interesting)?
Remember, all of this needs to be encompassed within just a few sentences. Therefore, only outline those aspects of your study that you feel are the most important; those aspects that you think will catch the reader's attention.
Components of your research strategy
The relative importance of the methodological components discussed in the dissertation abstract will depend on whether any of these components made the study significant in some way. Ask yourself the question: Did any of the following components of research strategy help make my study significant?
The broad research design (e.g., qualitative, quantitative, mixed, etc.)
The type of research design (e.g., experimental research, case study approach, grounded theory, ethnography, etc.)
The research methods (e.g., survey, interviews, focus groups, observation, etc.)
The analytical techniques used (e.g., content analysis, statistical analyses, etc.)
If the answer is YES, greater focus (and word count) should probably be dedicated to explaining these components of research strategy in the dissertation abstract. If not, try and summarise the components used more succinctly (i.e., in fewer words). Since the way that you would write the research strategy part of your dissertation abstract will vary depending on the relative significance of these components to your study, we have produced examples to help.
In explaining the approach to research strategy that you adopted in this part of your dissertation abstract, addressing some of the following questions may help:
What research design guided your study?
What was the scope of your study?
What research methods did you use?
What were the main ideas, constructs and/or variables that you examined, measured, controlled and/or ignored?
What was your unit of analysis?
What was your sample (and population)?
What analysis techniques did you use to arrive at your findings?
Often, you will be able to combine the answer to a number of these questions in a single sentence, which will help make the abstract more concise and succinct.
Following a discussion of the components of your research strategy, the dissertation abstract should move on to present the main findings from your research. We use the word findings and not results to emphasise the fact that the abstract is not the section where you should include lots of data; and it should definitely not include any analysis. Leave this to the Results/Findings chapter of your dissertation (often Chapter Four: Results/Findings). Remember that the findings part of the dissertation abstract should focus on answering your research questions and/or hypotheses.
It may help to answer some of the following questions in order to write this part of the dissertation abstract:
Did the findings answer your research questions and/or hypotheses?
What did the findings show in terms of these research questions and/or hypotheses?
What are the most important findings?
What is the significance of your findings?
To what extent are your findings trustworthy (i.e., reliable, generalisable, consistent, dependable, etc.)?
You should avoid making comments that are vague or over-exaggerate your findings. You should also ensure that you explain the findings in a way that non-experts could understand without having to read additional parts of your dissertation.
The final part of your dissertation abstract should focus on the conclusions from your research and the resultant implications. Bearing in mind the findings that have just been discussed, you need to address questions such as:
What has been learned?
What are the implications of the findings?
Is there potential for generalisation of your findings?
What are the limitations of your research?
When writing the conclusion part of your abstract, remember that these conclusions should be precise and concise. There is no need to re-summarise what you have already discussed or the contents of your dissertation. This is an informative abstract, not a descriptive one. If you are unsure of the difference, you may find the section, Choosing between dissertation abstract styles: Descriptive and informative, helpful. Furthermore, be careful not to make claims that cannot be supported by your findings. There is always a danger to over-exaggerate and/or over-generalise in this part of the abstract, which should be avoided. It is unlikely that you will have changed the world through your study, but you may still have added something significant to the literature, so try and strike the right balance.
NOTE: This article is based on the use of the informative abstract style, not the descriptive style; the former being the typical style adopted in undergraduate and master's dissertations and theses. For a comparison of the two styles - descriptive and informative - see the article, Choosing between dissertation abstract styles: Descriptive or informative.
In the next section, Useful phrases when writing a dissertation abstract, we set out some phrases that you may find useful when writing up your dissertation abstract.