The Dissertation Abstract: 101

How To Write A Clear & Concise Abstract (With Examples)

By: Madeline Fink (MSc) Reviewed By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | June 2020

So, you’ve (finally) finished your thesis or dissertation or thesis. Now it’s time to write up your abstract (sometimes also called the executive summary). If you’re here, chances are you’re not quite sure what you need to cover in this section, or how to go about writing it. Fear not – we’ll explain it all in plain language, step by step, with clear examples.

The dissertation and thesis abstract

What is an abstract in a dissertation or thesis?

Simply put, the abstract in a dissertation or thesis is a short (but well structured) summary that outlines the most important points of your research (i.e. the key takeaways). The abstract is usually 1 paragraph or about 300-500 words long (about one page), but but this can vary between universities.

A quick note regarding terminology – strictly speaking, an abstract and an executive summary are two different things when it comes to academic publications. Typically, an abstract only states what the research will be about, but doesn’t explore the findings – whereas an executive summary covers both. However, in the context of a dissertation or thesis, the abstract usually covers both, providing a summary of the full project.

In terms of content, a good dissertation abstract usually covers the following 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 (what these answers mean)

We’ll explain each of these in more detail a little later in this post. Buckle up.

Lets get started

What is the purpose of the abstract?

A dissertation abstract has two main functions:

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. 

Your abstract is your shopfront

Why is it important to write a good abstract?

The short answer – because most people don’t have time to read your full dissertation or thesis! Time is money, after all…

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 any given topic face a mountain of reading, so they need to optimise their approach. A good dissertation abstract gives the reader a “TLDR” version of your work – it helps them decide whether to continue to read it 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 vital to invest time and effort into crafting an enticing shop window.  

A good abstract also has an added purpose for grad students. As a freshly minted 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 will absolutely judge your book by its cover.

Your dissertation or thesis abstract is like a book cover

How to write a dissertation abstract

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 dissertation or thesis abstract needs to reflect these four essentials, in the same order. Let’s take a closer look at each of them, step by step:

Step 1: Describe the purpose and value of your research

Here you need to concisely explain the purpose and value of your research. In other words, you need to explain what your research set out to discover and why that’s important. When stating the purpose of research, you need to clearly discuss the following:

  • What were your research aims and research questions?
  • Why were these aims and questions important?

It’s essential to make this section extremely clear, concise and convincing. As the opening section, this is where you’ll “hook” your reader (marker) in and get them interested in your project. If you don’t put in the effort here, you’ll likely lose their interest.

Step 2: Briefly outline your study’s methodology

In this part of your abstract, you need to very briefly explain how you went about answering your research questions. In other words, what research design and methodology you adopted in your research. Some important questions to address here include:

Simply put, this section needs to address the “how” of your research. It doesn’t need to be lengthy (this is just a summary, after all), but it should clearly address the four questions above.

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Step 3: Present your key findings

Next, you need to briefly highlight the key findings. Your research likely produced a wealth of data and findings, so there may be a temptation to ramble here. However, this section is just about the key findings – in other words, the answers to the original questions that you set out to address. Again, brevity and clarity are important here. You need to concisely present the most important findings for your reader.

Step 4: Describe the implications of your research

Have you ever found yourself reading through a large report, struggling to figure out what all the findings mean in terms of the bigger picture? Well, that’s the purpose of the implications section – to highlight the “so what?” of your research.  In this part of your abstract, you should address the following questions:
  • What is the impact of your research findings on the industry/field 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 dissertation abstract, you’ll be on headed in a good direction.
High quality abstract

Example: Dissertation/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.

A hypothesis must be falsifiable

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. In other words, write for the intelligent layman, not for the seasoned topic expert. 

Start by trying to answer the question “why should I read this dissertation?”

Remember the WWHS.

Make sure you include the what, whyhow, and so what of your research in your abstract:

  • What you studied (who and where are included in this part)
  • Why the topic was important
  • How you designed your study (i.e. your research methodology)
  • So what were 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 and jargon 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. Remember, you need to write for the intelligent layman.

Be specific.

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 more detail, they need to step into the restaurant and try out the menu.

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