Writing an Effective Thesis or Dissertation Abstract | Academic Advice

Writing an Effective Thesis or Dissertation Abstract | Academic Advice
There are several matters to keep in mind while writing an abstract for a PhD dissertation. An academic or scientific abstract should briefly and comprehensively summarise the contents of your dissertation; it should situate your research in both its physical and intellectual contexts; it should inform the reader about the problem(s) or concept(s) you investigated, and outline the essential features of the methodology used and the participants involved; and it should report the basic findings, implications and conclusions of your study, as well as mentioning its limitations and any recommendations for future research. It should report, not evaluate, what can be found in your dissertation, and it should not contain information that is not present in the dissertation. Although the general contents of an abstract are standardised, exactly which details you record is largely up to you, but they must accurately reflect the specific content of your dissertation and provide readers searching for research on your topic with the information they need to decide whether your dissertation is relevant for their interests and work.
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A dissertation abstract is usually very short (generally between 100 and 400 words), and your university or department may have strict word limits that must be accommodated. Some abstracts consist of a single paragraph, while others are divided into several short paragraphs. The latter is called a structured abstract and usually features headings for the individual paragraphs that are similar to the headings for the main chapters or sections of the dissertation. If your university or department does not indicate a preference for a structured or unstructured abstract, your supervisor and dissertation committee may be able to provide practical advice on the matter, or they may suggest that you design your abstract in a manner that works best for your topic. Remember that an abstract should be densely packed with information, but it should not include tables or figures, and it also should not contain bibliographical references and uncommon abbreviations unless absolutely necessary (if references are needed, they must be complete bibliographical references, and any nonstandard abbreviations require definition).

The abstract is the first piece of prose that readers of your dissertation will encounter, so it should be not only concise and informative, but also well written in clear complete sentences that are grammatically correct and properly punctuated. Each sentence should bear the maximum amount of information and meaning possible, with minimal use of minor words, and each main word should be chosen with care, primarily for its precise denotations, but also to some degree for its connotations. The first sentence of an abstract is particularly vital for gaining both the interest and the confidence of your readers, so it must be polished to perfection in both content and style. It may be helpful to think of your abstract as an appetiser for the dissertation (or main course). Readers will ideally be tantalised by what your abstract says and how it says it, enjoying the texture and flavour of the words and sentences you use and thereby developing a hearty appetite for the dissertation (or dinner) that follows. Potential readers of your dissertation should not feel glutted by your appetiser, which can happen if too much information or specialised terminology is packed into an abstract, and they should definitely not be tempted to leave the table before dinner arrives, as may be the case if the written style of an abstract is poor and its meaning unclear.

A carefully prepared abstract will usually require more than one revision and considerable refinement as you work on your dissertation and receive feedback from your supervisor and other committee members. Drafting your abstract early in the dissertation process leaves plenty of time for alterations and also helps you focus your thoughts on the key issues associated with your research.

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