Writing a quality abstract is important as the abstract tells the reader what to expect in your thesis or dissertation, and it helps them to decide whether they should read the rest of your document. Over the years, we’ve reviewed thousands of abstracts. In this post, we’ll unpack five common mistakes we see and explain how you can avoid them when crafting your dissertation or thesis abstract.
1. Not understanding what an abstract is
A recurring issue we see is that students often don’t have a clear understanding of what an abstract is and the purpose it serves. This naturally has a major knock-on effect. Simply put, an abstract is a concise summary of your research project, and it should include a bit of everything from your thesis or dissertation. The purpose of the abstract is to tell the reader what to expect in your document and entice them to read the full document (or at least the parts that are relevant to them).
A good abstract should summarize the key components of your study, which means that it should include a brief introduction to your study, a summary of the key insights from your literature review, a high-level overview of your methodology, and a summary of the key findings. Importantly, your abstract should summarise the body content, not present new information. Never present any information in your abstract that is not presented in your main document.
When writing up your abstract, aim to do so as concisely as possible. You can think of your abstract as an elevator pitch – you want it to be short, sweet and representative of everything you want to get across. Less is more. Also, much like an elevator pitch, your abstract needs to tell a clear story on its own. So, it’s vital to create a clear narrative within your abstract that paints a vivid picture in the reader’s mind.
2. Not covering the key aspects of your study
Another common mistake we see students making is not covering the key aspects of their studies in the abstract. While you don’t have much space to work with, an abstract still needs to cover the main details of your study. So, when you’re crafting this section, try to allocate 2-3 sentences toward each of your chapters.
Importantly, your abstract needs to explain what your study focuses on (i.e., your research aims and questions) and how that is unique and important. In other words, it needs to justify your research. To do this, you can mention how your research connects to prior studies, and what differences justify the existence of your project. This should be rooted in the content presented in your introduction and literature review chapters.
The abstract should also provide insight regarding the methodological approach. Remember, the abstract is a summary, so while it’s important to outline your research methodology, don’t try to detail the entire design here. You just need to cover the high-level details, such as the methodological approach (e.g., qualitative), sampling strategy, data collection and data analysis methods.
Finally, your abstract needs to discuss your key findings and the implications thereof. It should address questions such as:
- What did you find?
- Why is it important?
- What implications (and applications) are there for your findings?
The word “key” is vital here – you don’t have to discuss every finding, just the ones that are central to your research aims and research questions.
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3. Using body content verbatim
Since the abstract is a summary of your work, you’ll generally write it last (although you can of course create an outline earlier in the dissertation writing process). Because of this, there is a tendency amongst students to copy and paste content from their body chapters (e.g., the literature review chapter, methodology chapter, etc.) to create an abstract. This is problematic, as the abstract needs to be an original piece of writing, not a hodgepodge of the existing body content.
A good abstract should present a be a smooth, clear narrative of what you set out to discover (i.e., the research topic and justification), how you approached it (i.e., the methodology), and what the results were. Importantly, you need to tell an engaging story with your abstract, as that is what will attract them to read the rest of your thesis or dissertation. To achieve this, you cannot simply copy-paste content from the body section of your document. You need to craft a unique piece of content that can stand alone and engage potential readers with an enticing narrative.
All that said, when crafting your abstract, a good starting point can be to copy-paste some key insights from each chapter so that you have everything in one place. You could, for example, have a few bullet points for each chapter. However, that is purely a starting point. From there, you need to craft an original piece of writing that will form a smooth, engaging narrative.
4. Formatting and language-related issues
Another common issue we encounter is that of formatting and language-related issues in abstracts. Understandably, students are generally quite worn out by this stage of the dissertation and may slip up on the finer details. However, the abstract is your “shop window” – the first thing a new reader will encounter – so it needs to be very well polished. If you write a brilliant abstract but it’s riddled with spelling and grammar issues, you’re going to lose the reader’s interest (and, of course, marks).
So, what sort of issues do you need to avoid?
First – typically, an abstract doesn’t make use of citations, as these are reserved for the body content of the dissertation or thesis. However, you can use author names when referring to seminal work. For example, if your study is a response to prior research, you can name the researchers (but you don’t need to include a full citation). Of course, it’s worth noting that some institutions may have a different preference, so be sure to look at past dissertations and theses from your university program to gauge what the norms are.
Second – when writing up your abstract, try to avoid using excessive jargon, complex terminology and abbreviations. Always assume that you are writing for the intelligent layman. In other words, an intellectually curious outsider to your field of research. Ultimately, your abstract needs to be understandable to your audience and using excessive jargon or complex terminology may lose the reader. If you must use jargon or abbreviations to accurately represent a concept, be sure to explain each piece of terminology first.
Third – since your abstract needs to be concise, it can be tempting to write using bullet points and numbered lists. Typically, however, an abstract shouldn’t have bullet points, numbered lists, figures, or tables as it is a textual summary. So, avoid these at all costs.
Lastly – it may sound obvious, but your abstract needs to be “perfect” in terms of language use. All too often, we see spelling, punctuation, grammar and tense errors in the abstract. Since it is your “shop window”, these types of issues are inexcusable. So, be sure to carefully edit and proofread your abstract before submission.
5. Not including relevant keywords
Another common mistake that we see students make is not including relevant keywords at the end of the abstract. Sometimes the keywords aren’t relevant, and sometimes they’re just altogether absent.
But what exactly are keywords?
Keywords are what make your research discoverable in search engines and academic databases – they’re like academic hashtags that connect research and make it possible to navigate through similar studies. An example of a keyword would be something like, “cognition” or “addiction”.
Typically, keywords can be quite vague or broad, so you’ll likely need to make use of key phrases to more accurately represent your research. Key phrases consist of multiple keywords, for example, “temporal cognition” or “Dutch sentence negation”. While key phrases provide more specificity than individual keywords, never use whole sentences as key phrases, these just look bad and make your research very hard to find. Ideally, you should try to stick to key phrases of 2-3 words.
In general, you should aim for 5-6 keywords/key phrases for your research project. However, it’s always a good idea to check with your institution to find out how many keywords/phrases they prefer. While it may be tempting to go full Instagram and use every keyword you can come up with, this is not advised as this can make your research look like it lacks credibility and specificity. It can also appear that you’re trying to game the system.
To identify relevant keywords, think about the research process and the kinds of search terms you used when performing your literature review, as these terms are a good start. Further, have a look at the keywords used in previous studies (i.e., the journal articles you read as part of your literature review) to identify relevant keywords.
Recap: Abstract Mistakes
In this post, we’ve discussed 5 common mistakes to avoid when writing the abstract for your thesis or dissertation. To recap, these include:
- Not understanding exactly what an abstract is (and does)
- Failing to cover the key aspects of your study
- Using body content verbatim instead of paraphrasing
- Having formatting and language-related issues
- Failing to include relevant keywords
If you have any questions about these mistakes, drop a comment below. Alternatively, if you’re interested in getting 1-on-1 help with your thesis or dissertation, be sure to check out our dissertation coaching service or book a free initial consultation with one of our friendly Grad Coaches.
Psst… there’s more (for free)
This post is part of our research writing mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.