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
Write an abstract
when you've finished this page you will be able to...
- write an abstract for a dissertation, project or thesis
What is an abstract, and why do I need one?
An abstract is a short (generally 100-200 words), stand-alone summary of your research. It provides a 'shop window' that readers can use to help them decide whether or not your research is worth reading - it's where you 'sell' your research, and for this reason the abstract is an important part of your dissertation. You'll need to include the following things in your abstract...
- An introduction - what is the background to your topic and why is it important?
- Aims and problem - what did you investigate and what problem were you trying to solve?
- Methods - what research methods did you use?
- Results - what did you discover?
- Conclusions - what are the implications of your discoveries?
When do I write my abstract?
Although your abstract will appear at the start of your dissertation, abstract writing is one of the last tasks in the dissertation writing process. If you wait until the research is finished and the dissertation is written you'll have a clear idea what to include. It's also important not to include anything in your abstract that's not in your dissertation, so by writing the abstract last you'll know exactly what to include.
It's a good idea to read through your dissertation, making a note of keywords for each section. You can then use these keywords as the basis of your abstract.
Recommended Further Reading
How do I write an abstract?
The lists below cover some important do's and do nots of abstract writing:
- make sure your abstract stands-alone. It should tell your readers everything they need to know about your dissertation
- include keywords that will make your research easy to search for
- stick to the word count
- don't waffle. Make every word count
- use abbreviations you have not explained
- include quotations or references (unless absolutely vital)
- over-use technical language or jargon - your abstract should be inviting for your readers, not impenetrable.
Activity: writing your abstract - 30 minutes or possibly more
Your abstract should cover the main areas in your dissertation, and highlight novel methods, interesting results and important implications.
1. On a blank sheet of paper write the following headings:
2. Under the first heading (Aims/problem) write a sentence about your research question or problem. What exactly were you investigating? It can be useful to give some background information about the topic too.
2. Next, under the heading Motivation, write about why your research was important, relevant or necessary. Why should your readers care?
3. Under the heading Methods, write about the research methods you used. Be sure to highlight any novel or interesting methods. Also note that if you are writing an abstract for a laboratory research project, you'll also need to write about any note-worthy materials you used.
4. Under the heading Results, write about what you discovered. Be specific and mention the significance of your results, if appropriate.
5. Finally, under the Conclusions heading, write about the implications of your results, paying special attention to why your research was important and interesting.
6. These notes are the basis of your abstract, you just need to link it all together within your word limit - easy!
If you're struggling to write your abstract, click here to see an example from a undergraduate laboratory project - it might give you some inspiration.
How did you do?
This is an abstract taken from an undergraduate microbiology project report. This student needed to summarise a ten week research project in 300 words. We've divided the abstract into the headings used in the activity above, so you can see the sort of things you should be writing under each.
Don't worry if the content means nothing to you; it's the structure that is important.
Function of the cytoskeleton in the biology and pathogenicity of S. typhimurium
MreD is a bacterial actin homologue that is present in a number of rod-shaped bacteria. MreD appears to be essential for the maintenance of cell shape and its loss causes an extreme alteration in cell morphology from rod-shaped to spherical, often followed by cell lysis. This study examines the impact on morphology and virulence of an mreD gene deletion in Salmonella enterica
To date, the roles of the Mre proteins have only been studied in non-pathogenic bacteria. This study looks at the effect of deletion of the mreD gene in Salmonella enterica servovar Typhimurium, a Gram-negative rod-shaped bacterium that is a major cause of gastroenteritis.
An insertional disruption of the mreD gene is constructed and a range of phenotypic assays are undertaken to examine the impact of the deletion on the pathogenicity of S. typhimurium.
It is found that the disruption mutant has a spherical morphology. There is also evidence of an impact on several virulence factors, including LPS structure, flagella expression, and oxidative stress resistance. Fluorescence microscopy is used to demonstrate that MreD localizes around the periphery of the cell.
This study provides evidence to suggest a role for the cytoskeleton in the pathogenicity of Salmonella which could prove useful in the search for an attenuated vaccine strain or a novel antimicrobial agent.