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Writing the Dissertation - Guides for Success: The Abstract

Fast facts

  • An abstract is a brief summary of an academic text.
  • Researchers use abstracts to make an informed decision of whether an article, dissertation or other academic text is relevant or applicable to their own work.
  • Conventions for the content and structure of abstracts vary by field, so general guidance should be adjusted to match best practices of published writers in your discipline.


What is an abstract?

An abstract is a concise summary of an academic text such as a journal article, dissertation or thesis. It provides a 'snapshot' view of the overall text, from the research question through to the conclusion.

In thinking about how to write an abstract, it's helpful to consider why we read abstracts. We usually encounter abstracts while searching databases for articles to reference in our own research. Before we commit to reading the full-text of an article, we want to gauge whether that article will make a relevant contribution to our work or thinking. The abstract helps us make that decision by providing a quick, 'boiled down' preview of the entire piece.

In that sense, an abstract of an academic text can be likened to the trailer for a movie. Just as a movie trailer informs your choice to see or skip a certain film, an abstract can inform your choice to read or skip an academic text. However, unlike a movie trailer, an abstract should contain 'spoilers' (i.e., the key conclusions of the writing).


Standard criteria for an abstract

  • Word count  The average abstract is about 200 words, but you should adjust this figure to match the context in which you are writing. For example, if submitting an article to a journal, you should follow that journal's publishing guidelines. Similarly, your school/faculty may suggest a word count for dissertation abstracts.
  • Able to stand alone – A reader should understand the key elements of your research or argument from the abstract itself. In other words, the abstract should make sense as an independent piece of writing even to those who haven't read the report/research that follows.
  • Audience aware – Because the main audience for your abstract will be other researchers in your field, you can use discipline-specific jargon or language as needed. You only need to 'rein in' the specialist language if you are writing for the general public rather than fellow researchers.

Structure

As a rule of thumb, the abstract will mirror the structure of the piece of writing that it is summarising. However, it will compress the 'main beats' into a single paragraph (rarely will an abstract be formatted as more than one paragraph). Therefore, one common structure for an abstract is as follows:

  • Context – Relevant research background (think of this like a literature review condensed into one or two sentences).
  • Objective statement/research question – What your research aims to do and/or what it sets out to answer.
  • Methodology – How your research was carried out (cut the minute detail and stick to broad strokes).
  • Results – What your methodology produced.
  • Discussion – Interpretation of your results, often in relation to the wider discourse or prior research.
  • Implications/future research If relevant, an indication of your research's impact and/or suggestions for future study.
  • Conclusion – The takeaway or answer to the question, 'So what?'

Our Writing Abstracts video provides examples and explanations of how abstracts vary between academic disciplines (e.g. humanities, sciences, social sciences, arts, etc.), so please check it out to explore expectations in your subject area. Our Writing Across Subjects guide provides further guidance for some fields.


The writing process

  • Don't be afraid to overwrite, first. You can always cut back, cut back, and cut back some more, so when writing your first draft of the abstract, don't worry about the word count.
  • Pare anything superfluous. Edit ruthlessly once you have that first draft. Treat adverbs with suspicion ('strongly suggests' = 'suggests', 'carefully analysed' = 'analysed', and so on). Use a thesaurus or phrase dictionary to find one-word substitutes for multi-word phrases. Be prepared to go through many rounds of culling!
  • Share it. Get someone unfamiliar with your research to read your abstract and then explain your project back to you. If this exercise goes well, you are on the right track.
  • What/why/who/how? You can produce a starting place for your abstract by answering these questions: what did you do; why did you do it; who else is doing similar things; how did you do it? Imagine someone has asked the questions in a lift – therefore, you have to keep your answers brief (i.e., a literal 'elevator pitch' of your work).

Abstracts for dissertations and theses

The above guidance all applies when writing the abstract for your dissertation or thesis. Remember to keep your subject area in mind and tailor your abstract to the expectations of your discipline.

Top tip: Break down or dissect published abstracts by writers in your field to better understand the norms for what content to include and how to structure it.

The university provides Word templates to help you format your entire submission, including a dedicated page for your abstract. Access the dissertation template here, or access the thesis template here.

For help producing the other sections of a long academic work, check out our Writing the Dissertation: Guides for Success resources, which include guides, video workshops, checklists and more.