How to Build a Dissertation Abstract

Nature and Role of a Dissertation Abstract

An abstract is not a passage of text extracted from a dissertation - it is a summary of the dissertation. A dissertation abstract is like a presentation of your academic paper. It briefly explains all the important parts of your dissertation within one paragraph. What does an abstract include, considering those parts? Among other aspects, an abstract exposes:

  • the value of your paper;
  • the purpose or objective of the research;
  • the reason behind the choice of the topic of your dissertation;
  • the results that have been achieved in the process of research;
  • the methods that you used in the research, and why;
  • the resources you refer to, and why;
  • the conclusions you have reached.

Not all of these have to be mentioned, especially if not all of these factors are highlighted as specifically important in the paper. This is also not necessarily the sequence in which these matters appear. Both in sequence and in meaning, the contents of the abstract follow the contents of the dissertation itself.

The abstract lets people understand what your dissertation is about so they would know if the paper would be of interest or use to them. Common situations in which you may have to provide a thesis or dissertation abstract are:

  • when you want to publish your paper in a scholarly journal or other literary resources;
  • when you apply for a grant for further research;
  • when your paper is to be included in a library database for other students and academics to use;
  • when you are applying for a job, and the dissertation you have written is relevant to your intended position, having the abstract serve as kind of a portfolio.

The abstract is written after the whole paper is finished. Whether you should put your abstract before or after table of contents depends on the formatting style you are instructed to follow. As for dissertation abstracts APA format, one of the most widely used formats among scholarly papers and journals, the abstracts are put before the table of contents if one is required. However, by the style standards, the table of contents is not usually included in the paper at all.

How to Write an Abstract for a Dissertation

So, how to write an abstract for a dissertation? What are the requirements? Well, there are some general guidelines for abstract style and formatting, but these ultimately depend on the discipline that your dissertation relates to. Components vary from subject to subject for the paper itself, and that means the same dependency for the abstract, as it duplicates the format of the paper.

For those who are new in academic writing, it might be easy to make the mistake of viewing the abstract as an introduction to your paper, be it a thesis or a dissertation, and using the same section of the paper, the Introduction, as a base for your abstract. This should be avoided because the abstract is the summary of the whole dissertation, neither its preview nor a preface. It’s also not a critical evaluation of the paper. What should be in an abstract then? Basically, a summary of each main component of your dissertation. According to the general template, these are: introduction, methods, results, and conclusions. Sometimes they are accompanied or substituted by literature review, discussion, analysis, findings, and recommendations. As mentioned multiple times throughout this article, these components and categories differ according to specific requirements of specific universities and throughout various fields of study. Anyway, you’ve learned that already when writing your academic paper. What you have to do now, when composing an abstract for your thesis or dissertation, is summarise the exact categories you have in the paper.

What does an abstract look like? It’s easy to answer this question by looking into academic paper style guides, your university library database, or even just scholarly periodicals online.

How long does an abstract have to be

Length requirements for abstracts may vary. Usually, an abstract should not exceed two pages with the total word count averagely ranging from 150 to 400 words, different for every school, publisher, or purpose.

By type, your abstract may be more descriptive or more informative. Descriptive abstracts have a smaller volume, with their dissertation abstract length being about 100 words. The difference between a descriptive and an informative abstract is that the former one describes the issue that your research is concerned with and how it deals with that issue, whereas the latter one is almost like a compressed copy of your dissertation, very briefly showing the main information from each chapter of the paper while still retaining some features of a descriptive abstract. Most abstracts are mainly informative, but you should comply with any specific requirements you may have in regards to the type.

Back to general formatting recommendations, use a standard neutral font, size 12. The text in the abstract is usually single-spaced. Make sure there are no requirements coming specifically from your supervisor or potential readers that you may have missed. It is a rare case, but if there are no specific format or style instructions when you’re submitting your work someplace new after its completion at your university, keep using the university standards - meaning, let the abstract remain as it is in your paper. It is not recommended to use shortened and abbreviated terms, initialisms and acronyms in the abstract. The same refers to quotations and references to any resources, tables, and figures.

The abstract must be consistent and coherent, without any blanks in logic or confusing jumps from one argument to another. The manner in which you write your abstract tells the reader about how your whole dissertation is written. And so, the abstract must be transparent, logical, and easy to understand. It is obvious that you cannot fill an abstract, always too short to сram the content of the whole dissertation into, with loads of details. You have to use a really small word space to describe your paper with all its aspects and angles and emphasize its role in the field of knowledge that you study. Be careful not to waste your word count and be sure to structure your sentences so that they contain as little auxiliary parts of speech (like of, which, that, optional articles) as possible. However, don’t bring it down to the point of neglecting grammatical and semantic meanings of the sentences, which would hinder readability. In your abstract, you should not refer to external literature or say that more detailed information about something can be found in the text of the dissertation, because the abstract is supposed to serve its function independently and fully. Spend enough effort and time on editing and proofreading your abstract.

When you’re at the stage of writing your dissertation before you present it to someone for the first time - the evaluation committee - it is best to have your abstract, alongside the whole paper, revised by your supervisor or even a few professors in your field of study.

In case you are presenting the abstract separately from the actual dissertation, you should also include the title of your paper, your name, and the name of your supervisors.

How to Write a Good Abstract

How to write a good abstract, not just any abstract? The answer to the question comes from the meaning that an abstract may have both for you and the people you present it to. It might be that you will not use your dissertation frequently in your career basing a lot of your further, advanced work on it. This is why the abstract that you have will function as a blueprint for building all your proposals of different kinds and your work for various projects, conferences, publishing houses, potential employers, and whatever applies. Whichever the purpose of your proposal is, there is no need to “spice up” the abstract and make it grab someone's attention. Its main function is still to simply present your dissertation to others in a laconic but effective way, as close to the actual content of the paper as possible. You shouldn't add any information to the abstract that is not present in the actual text of your dissertation, for that could result in you unintentionally deceiving the readers about what your paper is really focused on. They would be disappointed not to find in the dissertation those arguments and aspects that the abstract has promised to analyze.

As we have established, you may happen to send your dissertation abstract to various audiences. Some of the readership can be your fellow scholars who are familiar with the specific vocabulary that pertains to your area of study. But also, there may be readers who have just a vague notion of the topic or quite a remote relation to it - for example, the people who organise non-specific conferences that cover a manifold set of different issues and lectures for consideration; or employers and HR managers at companies that are engaged in activities not directly related to your specialisation, even though your proficiency in the area you’re studying, confirmed by your dissertation, may be of use in the work of the company that you want to be a part of.

You may want to think about writing two different versions of your dissertation abstract for the foregoing reasons: one that actually uses the scholarly language characteristic of your field of study, and another one with a somewhat simplified vocabulary, suitable to explain to a person who is not familiar enough with the topic  that your dissertation examines. In the latter case, the importance of your paper may not be that obvious to the reader, so besides pointing out the value of your dissertation for your area of study, you need to point out the usefulness of that value for the issues that dwell on a more general level. That usefulness is implied already in the value of your dissertation that you emphasize in an abstract written exclusively for your fellow scholars. However, you must ensure that your abstract is never inappropriately generalized and never steps too far away from the specific meaning of your paper.

If you are submitting the abstract with a cover letter, make sure not to copy any of your abstract’s content into the letter and vice versa. The texts in the two should be different, even though they are basically concerned with the same issue. Usually, the abstract should explain your work in a deeper way than the cover letter unless the cover letter is more important. The abstract outlines the content of your paper and the contexts it can be viewed within, as well as the value of the dissertation; while the cover letter points out the importance of the whole issue you investigate on a bigger, more general scale, including the prospects and promises  that the resolution or simple study of the issue can give.

The achievements you have gained through your research, documented in the dissertation, may have an extra bonus effect. They reveal your specific skills and generally showcase your strength as a scholar, researcher, and analytical thinker - characteristics that are always in demand.

Start Writing a Dissertation Abstract

You surely are familiar with the contents of your dissertation, but before you start writing a dissertation abstract, it is recommended to read the dissertation again so you could pay attention to certain details that might be of specific value for your reading audience. To ease the task, write down the main discussion points in your paper, among which are the methodology you used, the objectives of your research, perhaps the areas of life that the results of the research touch in any way, the issues that motivated you to investigate the topic of your choice in the first place, the principles and theories that create the frame of reference for  the subject of your dissertation, the strategy by which you use those principles and concepts, and other factors that you find to be crucial or particularly interesting. The history of the subject matter that you investigated in your paper is not necessary to mention unless some stages of that history are important to be aware of for proper understanding of the subject.

What can be of help in abstract writing is the keywords that almost all of the dissertations must enumerate. They are usually put right with the abstract, either above or below the text of the abstract. These are the main words that describe the essence of your paper, and you can obviously use that section, whether you wrote it before getting to compose the abstract itself or if you need to adjust the abstract that you already have in the finished paper for some purpose. Even if you don’t have the keywords - they’re not written yet or simply aren’t required - work on them either way. Read the paper again and write down, underline, or highlight any words that you think are important to explain your research in the fullest way. If you have picked out too many words, you can rank them in the order of importance so it’s easier to eliminate those of them that are less important. From the words that remain, you create a draft of your paper’s summary and develop the text of the abstract from that draft.

It is effective to express the core essence of your dissertation in the first sentence or two of your abstract. Here the main focus may be on potential benefits of your research, the problem it seeks to resolve - any part that defines the main message of the paper that you want your readers to pay their attention to most of all. This enables the reader to be mindful of that the very main point from the very start instead of trying to keep in mind all the aspects of your dissertation until you reach the end of the abstract, finally revealing that main point to maybe somewhat confused readers. That is why you should give enough thought to the question of how to start an abstract.

With so many components in your dissertation that you need to reflect respectfully in the abstract, it's easy to lose the sense of balance and shift more weight onto some of those components than the weight (importance and extensiveness) they actually have in the paper.  You need to remember to keep their proportion the same as or very similar to the proportion of content components in your dissertation. Usually, in the actual text of your paper, each of those components receives as much attention as the scope of its significance is. The same scope has to be reflected in the abstract as well. Thus, this recommendation is another reminder that the abstract is not supposed to cover the essentials of your paper’s topic in general - it is supposed to cover the essentials of the paper itself, meaning, the exact way in which your specific dissertation examines the topic.

How to write a dissertation abstract if you feel a bit stuck? It might be a helpful tip to write down the names of all the sections of your dissertation and note approximately how many percents of the whole paper these sections take. Do not forget to include the importance factor, keeping in mind that this factor has been the most valuable one in your research, and this is why it needs to be paid special attention to. Usually, it’s the explanation of the research results or their significance, emphasized in the conclusions, that get the biggest share in the abstract. Nevertheless, this aspect shouldn’t take too much space, because it won't make as much sense without proper explanation of other aspects of the research, such as its methods and major background theories behind the issue that you investigate in your paper.

Another way to write a good abstract is to make a list of questions that your paper puts and answers, and some questions which may still remain open. In such a way, the body of your abstract moves its focus from question to question without mentioning those actual questions specifically - except for the question that is in the core of the paper, the one that your problem statement is concerned with, or the one your hypothesis aims to answer.