What is an abstract?
Abstracts are often used where a paper is entered into a journal database. The keywords that you choose for your abstract assist your paper to be identified using electronic information retrieval systems. Titles and abstracts are filed electronically, and key words are put in electronic storage. When people search for information, they enter key words related to the subject, and the database will pull up the titles of articles, papers, and reports containing those keywords.
An abstract concisely describes the content and scope of the piece of writing and reviews the contents in abbreviated form. The abstract is designed to give a ‘snapshot’ of your work. Like the synopsis that you will find on the back cover of a novel, it is a summary of the work designed to entice people to read the rest of the book. Some types of dissertation will call this the executive summary instead.
Please do bear in mind that different disciplines, and individual universities, will have their own specific conventions which you must follow. This guidance should only be used in conjunction with that of your specific course programme!
Writing your abstract
An abstract should contain a brief summary of each chapter of your work in the order of presentation. For an empirical dissertation, it would follow this:
- Introduction: a short sentence to contextualise the topic
- Literature review: a brief summary of the main findings from the literature
- Methodology: a line or two about how you gathered your data
- Results: a concise summary (no more than three lines long) about what your data showed
- Discussion: a few lines remarking on similarities or differences between your data and the existing research
- Conclusion: sum up the conclusions you have drawn in no more than two sentences. An extra line recommending how this research could be improved or developed is also good to include
For a literature-based dissertation, the parts between introduction and conclusion would summarise your thematic chapters instead.
The abstract should be the last part of the dissertation that you write (even though it is the very first thing you will see in a completed dissertation). Its usual length is between 200 and 350 words, and it should be written in the past tense since you write it once the piece of research is complete.
An abstract is either descriptive or informative: it does not require you to provide a detailed critique as you would in the main body of your writing. Its only role is to make the reader understand the gist of your project and entice them to read on by explaining why it matters.
Descriptive dissertation abstracts
These tell readers what information the dissertation contains, and include the purpose, methods, and scope of the report, article, or paper. This will not provide results, conclusions, or recommendations, and is usually shorter than an informative abstract – usually under 100 words. Its purpose is to merely introduce the subject to the reader, who must then read the dissertation to find out your results, conclusions, or recommendations.
Informative dissertation abstracts
These communicate specific information from the dissertation, including the purpose, methods, and scope of the report, article, or paper. They provide the dissertation results, conclusions, and recommendations. They are short but not as short as a descriptive abstract – usually, anything from a paragraph to a page or two, depending upon the length of the overall work. In any case, informative abstracts make up 10% or less of the word count of the overall piece. The informative abstract allows your reader to decide whether they want to read the dissertation.
There is a lot of information to cram in to an abstract and not a lot of words to play with. To get a feel for abstract writing, we recommend you focus on answering the following questions with only one short sentence:
- Why should someone read this dissertation?
- What makes this piece of research/study unique?
- Why is this research relevant and important in my field of study?
- What questions does my dissertation answer?
Once you have answered these questions in a concise way, you have a starting point for your abstract!
It’s a good idea to make sure ‘key words’ which are highly relevant to your research are presented in your abstract too. This might be within the text itself, or you might list these separately at the end of the abstract; it all depends on what your university prefers.
Long story short: if your abstract describes your research, your main conclusions, and the value of the study, you’ve ticked all the key boxes.
Checklist for writing a dissertation abstract
- Have I given a concise summary of each chapter?
- Have I given the reader information about why my study is relevant?
- Have I highlighted the unique value of my research?
- Have I made sure key words appear in my abstract?
For guidance on writing other dissertation chapters see our how-to guide on Writing a Dissertation.
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