The thesis abstract is the first thing that your examiner reads. It sets the tone of what is to come. On the basis of the abstract alone, before they start the text proper, the examiner will form some expectations about what is in store – how well the thesis is likely to be written, whether it is going to be well argued and evidenced, whether it is going to be lively or dull. While the abstract is a short piece of writing, it is a very important little text.
The thesis abstract is absolutely not something that you dash off at the very last minute before handing in the thesis. No matter how desperate you are to be rid of it, no matter how sick and tired you are of it, you still need to spend time fine-tuning this tiny bit of prose. I say fine-tune, because I prefer to see the thesis abstract as a working text that you start writing as soon as you finish field work/library work/lab work.
Straight after field/library/lab, even before you begin the analysis proper, it’s worth having an initial crack at putting down what you think you now know. Write this as an abstract. You already know the problem and why it’s important, and you know the niche in the literature that you hope to fill, and you know how you did the research. So that’s the first bit of the abstract. And now you have an idea about what your results might be. So you can construct a preliminary argument and then put it to one side.
You can come back to this working document after you’ve finished your analysis and see how it stacks up. Then, and this is the most important step, you can revisit your early abstract seriously when you have written the middle chapters – that’s if you are following the most common approach to thesis writing. Many people suggest that you start the thesis from the middle, working with the actual research you have done. If you’ve done this “middle work”, you now know what the argument is that runs through the entire text. When you have this middle chunk done, and maybe a discussion chapter if you have one of those, you can happily go back to chapter one. The advantage of this approach is that you then write the beginning knowing what your argument is going to be. And the thesis abstract can help here, at this post-middle work stage, by acting as a working summary of the argument and the various argumentative ‘moves’ that you make in each chapter.
By now it may well be clear what a thesis abstract needs to do. It is a mini-statement of the thesis. It presents ALL of the moves that are in the larger text. The biggest problem that examiners have with thesis abstracts is when they don’t give the results and the implications of the research, but stop after outlining the problem and its importance. Writing the abstract about half of the thesis is a mistake. The thesis abstract is not a trailer. It’s not an advertisement for what is to come. It’s not a foreword, preamble or introduction. It’s not the blurb on the back of the book – it’s not a sales pitch per se. It’s not throat clearing for the real thing to follow. It’s also not the same as the research proposal – it’s not about what you’re going to do, but what you’ve done, how, what happened, what this means and how it constitutes a contribution to knowledge. The thesis abstract is a tiny version of the bigger whole, it’s a mini-me.
The fact that the thesis is a little version if the whole shebang is why thesis abstracts are also good for readers beyond examiners. Thesis abstracts often appear as stand-alone texts. They might be reprinted in various kinds of indexes such as Eric or PsycInfo. People doing literature searches generally read an abstract in a digital thesis collection before deciding whether the whole thing is worth reading. So the thesis abstract quite often stands in for the entire thesis. Hardly something to dash off in a hurry then… it’s actually a high stakes bit of writing.
So what should be in the thesis abstract? Here’s three key thesis abstract issues:
There is often an abstract word limit set by institutional requirements – so you need to check that out. If there is no word or page length prescribed, then the usual abstract is one or two pages at most. Some people opt for one page so that the examiner or thesis browser can get it all at once – it is a visual representation of the coherent whole. Other people opt for a few more words to elaborate their argument.But don’t go on too long, because that suggests to the examiner that the rest of the thesis may well not be as concise as it might.
The abstract should mirror the thesis structure. So if you have a traditional IMRAD structure then that’s how the abstract should go. If you’ve adopted another structure then the abstract should foreshadow this. You do need to make sure that all of the elements are there – what the problem was you were researching, the particular focus of the research, the place in the literatures, the methodological approach, the results and the implications and contribution.
(3) balancing the word budget
In most disciplines, abstracts spend most of the word budget on the problem and/or the research questions and then the results. They don’t do an extensive trawl of the methodology and methods, this is left to the thesis proper. It’s enough to state economically what these were.
It will help to have a look at some thesis abstracts in your area. There are some doozies out there – good to see what not to do – and some really good ones – these show what it’s possible to do in a well crafted tiny text. Take note of the best and allocate the time to make yours another one to emulate.
This post was a response to a question. I’m happy to try to answer questions. I have a couple saved up, but always appreciate more!