What (Exactly) Is A Dissertation Abstract?
A Plain-Language Explanation & Definition (With Examples)
By: Madeline Fink (MSc, BA) | June 2020
So, you’ve (finally) finished your thesis or dissertation, a body of work that took months or maybe even years to complete. Now it’s time to write your abstract. If you’re here, chances are you’re not quite sure exactly what you need to cover in your abstract. Fear not – in this post, we’ll explain the following in simple, jargon-free language:
- Exactly what a dissertation or thesis abstract is
- What the purpose and function of the abstract is
- Why it’s essential to put time and effort into writing your abstract
- How to structure your abstract for maximum impact
What is an abstract in a dissertation or thesis?
Simply put, the abstract in a dissertation or thesis is just a short (but well structured) summary that outlines the most important points of your research (i.e. the key takeaways). This abstract is usually 1 paragraph or about 300 words long, but some universities expect something a bit longer. A good abstract covers the following essential points:
- The purpose of the research (what’s it about and why’s that important)
- The methodology (how you carried out the research)
- The key research findings (what answers you found)
- The implications of these findings
We’ll explain each of these in more detail a little later in this post. Buckle up.
What is the purpose of an abstract
in a dissertation or thesis?
An abstract has two main purposes:
The first purpose is to inform potential readers of the main idea of your research without them having to read your entire piece of work. Specifically, it needs to communicate what your research is about (what were you trying to find out) and what your findings were. When readers are deciding whether to read your dissertation or thesis, the abstract is the first part they’ll consider.
The second purpose of the abstract is to inform search engines and dissertation databases as they index your dissertation or thesis. The keywords and phrases in your abstract (as well as your keyword list) will often be used by these search engines to categorize your work and make it accessible to users.
Simply put, your abstract is your shopfront display window – it’s what passers-by (both human and digital) will look at before deciding to step inside.
Why is it important to write a good abstract?
The short answer – because people don’t have time to read your full dissertation!
If you think back to when you undertook your literature review, you’ll quickly realise just how important abstracts are! Researchers reviewing the literature on a topic face a mountain of reading, so they need to optimise their approach.
An abstract gives the reader a “TLDR” version of a body of work – it helps them decide whether to continue to read a piece in its entirety. So, your abstract, as your shopfront display window, needs to “sell” your research to time-poor readers.
You might be thinking, “but I don’t plan to publish my dissertation”. Even so, you still need to provide an impactful abstract for your markers. Your ability to concisely summarise your work is one of the things they’re assessing, so it’s still vital to invest time and effort into crafting an enticing shop winder.
An abstract for a dissertation or thesis has an added purpose for graduate students. As a fresh graduate, your dissertation or thesis is often your most significant professional accomplishment and highlights where your unique expertise lies. Potential employers who want to know about this expertise are likely to only read the abstract (as opposed to reading your entire document) – so it needs to be good!
Think about it this way – if your thesis or dissertation were a book, then the abstract would be the blurb on the back cover. For better or worse, readers (and search engines!) will absolutely judge your book by its cover.
How to structure your abstract:
the essential ingredients
As we touched on earlier, your abstract should cover four important aspects of your research: the purpose, methodology, findings, and implications. Therefore, the structure of your abstract needs to reflect these four essentials, in the same order.
Let’s take a closer look at each of them:
Here you need to concisely explain the purpose and value of your research. When stating the purpose of your thesis or dissertation, you need to clearly answer these two questions:
- What was the main question (or questions) that you aimed to answer through your work?
- Why was this important to answer?
In other words, you need to explain what your research was about and why it was worth researching. This section of the abstract needs to address the “what” and the “why” of your research.
In this part of your abstract, you need to very briefly explain what research methodology you adopted in your research. For example:
- Did you take a qualitative or quantitative approach?
- Who/what did your sample consist of?
- How did you collect your data?
- How did you analyse your data?
Simply put, this section needs to address the “how” of your research.
Next, you need to briefly highlight the key findings. Your research likely produced a wealth of data and findings. However, this section is just about the key findings – in other words, the answer(s) to the original question(s) you set out to address (which you will have mentioned in the “research purpose” section above).
Have you ever found yourself reading through a large dataset, struggling to find the point? Well, that’s the purpose of the implications section – to highlight the “so what?” of your research. Without implications, research findings have little meaning.
In this part of your abstract, you should answer the following questions:
- What is the impact of your research findings on the industry/area investigated? In other words, what’s the impact on the “real world”.
- What is the impact of your findings on the existing body of knowledge? For example, do they support the existing research?
- What might your findings mean for future research conducted on your topic?
If you include these four essential ingredients in your abstract and answer the questions above, you’ll have a quality abstract.
Example of a thesis abstract
Here is an example of an abstract from a master’s thesis, with the purpose, methods, findings, and implications colour coded.
The U.S. citizenship application process is a legal and symbolic journey shaped by many cultural processes. This research project aims to bring to light the experiences of immigrants and citizenship applicants living in Dallas, Texas, to promote a better understanding of Dallas’ increasingly diverse population. Additionally, the purpose of this project is to provide insights to a specific client, the office of Dallas Welcoming Communities and Immigrant Affairs, about Dallas’ lawful permanent residents who are eligible for citizenship and their reasons for pursuing citizenship status. The data for this project was collected through observation at various citizenship workshops and community events, as well as through semi-structured interviews with 14 U.S. citizenship applicants. Reasons for applying for U.S. citizenship discussed in this project include a desire for membership in U.S. society, access to better educational and economic opportunities, improved ease of travel and the desire to vote. Barriers to the citizenship process discussed in this project include the amount of time one must dedicate to the application, lack of clear knowledge about the process and the financial cost of the application. Other themes include the effects of capital on applicant’s experience with the citizenship process, symbolic meanings of citizenship, transnationalism and ideas of deserving and undeserving surrounding the issues of residency and U.S. citizenship. These findings indicate the need for educational resources and mentorship for Dallas-area residents applying for U.S. citizenship, as well as a need for local government programs that foster a sense of community among citizenship applicants and their neighbours.
Yip, its a mouthful – but all the ingredients are in there.
Practical tips for writing your abstract
When crafting the abstract for your dissertation or thesis, the most powerful technique you can use is to try and put yourself in the shoes of a potential reader. Assume the reader is not an expert in the field, but is interested in the research area.
Start by trying to answer the question “why should I read this paper?”
Remember the WWHS.
Make sure you include the what, why, how, and so what of your research in your abstract:
- Your what is what you studied (who and where are included in this part by default)
- Your why is why the topic was important
- Your how is your research methods
- Your so what is the big findings and implications of your research
Keep it simple.
Use terminology appropriate to your field of study, but don’t overload your abstract with big words that cloud the meaning and make your writing difficult to digest. A good abstract should appeal to all levels of potential readers and should be a (relatively) easy read.
When writing your abstract, clearly outline your most important findings and insights and don’t worry about “giving away” too much about your research – there’s no need to withhold information. This is the one way your abstract is NOT like a blurb on the back of a book – the reader should be able to clearly understand the key takeaways of your thesis or dissertation after reading the abstract. Of course, if they then want greater detail, they need to step into the restaurant and try out the menu.