Writing Dissertation Abstracts

A part of every dissertation or thesis is the executive summary. This summary or abstract is the first part of your dissertation that will be read. Only after reading the abstract is the dissertation further reviewed. Therefore, it is important that the abstract is well written and that you draw out the correct information here.

The dissertation abstract has three functions

1. Explanation of the title of your dissertation

The first function of the abstract is to further explain the title of your dissertation. This allows readers of your dissertation to better determine if your dissertation is interesting enough for them to read. A well-written abstract can encourage more people to consider your dissertation important and, thus, to intend to read it.

2. Short version of your dissertation

Secondly, the abstract serves as a short version for readers who don’t have the time to read the complete dissertation. Often, managers and scientists read only the abstract and not the entire piece.

3. Overview of your dissertation

Third, the abstract’s function is to serve as an overview of what readers can expect. This makes it easier for the reader to understand and to place in context the material in the dissertation. A well-written abstract ensures that difficult material in your dissertation is better understood.

Length, place and time of the abstract

A rough rule of thumb for the length of the abstract is no more than five percent of the entire dissertation, with a maximum of one page. The reason behind this rule is that it must always be possible to quickly review the abstract.

Place the abstract after the preface and before the table of contents. Write the abstract in the present tense or present perfect tense.

Examples abstract in present tense or present perfect tense

Example of present tenseThe study shows that the majority of the respondents prefer to watch a film at the movie theater rather than at home on TV.

Example of present perfect tenseThe study has shown that the majority of the respondents prefer to watch a film at the movie theater rather than at home on TV.

What should be in the abstract?

For each paragraph, answer the following questions:

  • What is the problem? Indicate the objective, problem statement and research questions of your dissertation. If you have used hypotheses in your dissertation, indicate them here.
  • What has been done? Briefly explain the method and approach of your research.
  • What has been discovered? Provide a summary of the most important results and your conclusion.
  • What do your findings mean? Summarize the key points from the discussion and present your recommendations.

Use of acronyms

Since your reader should be able to read and understand your abstract without going through the rest of your dissertation, you have to introduce acronyms when you use them.

Source referencing

Just like with the rest of your dissertation you have to include references when you use a source. However, in an abstract you often don’t use any references because you mainly write about your own findings and research.

Example abstract

We made an example of an abstract in which we used all of the points of the checklist..

Show example

STRUCTURE

How to structure your dissertation abstract

Abstracts written for undergraduate and master's level dissertations have a number of structural components [NOTE]. Even though every dissertation is different, these structural components are likely to be relevant for most dissertations. When writing the dissertation abstract, the most important thing to remember is why your research was significant. This should have been clearly explained in the introductory chapter of your dissertation (Chapter One: Introduction). Understanding the significance of your research is important because how much you write for each component of the abstract (in terms of word count or number of sentences) will depend on the relative importance of each of these components to your research.

There are four major structural components, which aim to let the reader know about the background to and significance of your study, the research strategy being followed, the findings of the research, and the conclusions that were made. You should write one or a number of sentences for each of these components, with each making up a part of the 150 to 350 words that are typically written in dissertation abstracts. This section sets out and explains these structural components. These four major components are:

COMPONENT #1
Study background and significance

The first few sentences of the dissertation abstract highlight the background to your research, as well as the significance of the study. Hopefully, by the time you come to write the abstract, you will already know why your study is significant.

In explaining the significance of your study, you will also need to provide some context for your research. This includes the problem that you are addressing and your motivation for conducting the study. In building the background to the study, this part of the abstract should address questions such as:

  • What is the purpose of the research?

  • Why did you carry out the research?

  • How is the study significant? Why should anyone care or why do they care (is the study interesting)?

Remember, all of this needs to be encompassed within just a few sentences. Therefore, only outline those aspects of your study that you feel are the most important; those aspects that you think will catch the reader's attention.

COMPONENT #2
Components of your research strategy

The relative importance of the methodological components discussed in the dissertation abstract will depend on whether any of these components made the study significant in some way. Ask yourself the question: Did any of the following components of research strategy help make my study significant?

  • The broad research design (e.g., qualitative, quantitative, mixed, etc.)

  • The type of research design (e.g., experimental research, case study approach, grounded theory, ethnography, etc.)

  • The research methods (e.g., survey, interviews, focus groups, observation, etc.)

  • The analytical techniques used (e.g., content analysis, statistical analyses, etc.)

If the answer is YES, greater focus (and word count) should probably be dedicated to explaining these components of research strategy in the dissertation abstract. If not, try and summarise the components used more succinctly (i.e., in fewer words). Since the way that you would write the research strategy part of your dissertation abstract will vary depending on the relative significance of these components to your study, we have produced examples to help.

In explaining the approach to research strategy that you adopted in this part of your dissertation abstract, addressing some of the following questions may help:

  • What research design guided your study?

  • What was the scope of your study?

  • What research methods did you use?

  • What were the main ideas, constructs and/or variables that you examined, measured, controlled and/or ignored?

  • What was your unit of analysis?

  • What was your sample (and population)?

  • What analysis techniques did you use to arrive at your findings?

Often, you will be able to combine the answer to a number of these questions in a single sentence, which will help make the abstract more concise and succinct.

COMPONENT #3
Major findings

Following a discussion of the components of your research strategy, the dissertation abstract should move on to present the main findings from your research. We use the word findings and not results to emphasise the fact that the abstract is not the section where you should include lots of data; and it should definitely not include any analysis. Leave this to the Results/Findings chapter of your dissertation (often Chapter Four: Results/Findings). Remember that the findings part of the dissertation abstract should focus on answering your research questions and/or hypotheses.

It may help to answer some of the following questions in order to write this part of the dissertation abstract:

  • Did the findings answer your research questions and/or hypotheses?

  • What did the findings show in terms of these research questions and/or hypotheses?

  • What are the most important findings?

  • What is the significance of your findings?

  • To what extent are your findings trustworthy (i.e., reliable, generalisable, consistent, dependable, etc.)?

You should avoid making comments that are vague or over-exaggerate your findings. You should also ensure that you explain the findings in a way that non-experts could understand without having to read additional parts of your dissertation.

COMPONENT #4
Conclusions

The final part of your dissertation abstract should focus on the conclusions from your research and the resultant implications. Bearing in mind the findings that have just been discussed, you need to address questions such as:

  • What has been learned?

  • What are the implications of the findings?

  • Is there potential for generalisation of your findings?

  • What are the limitations of your research?

When writing the conclusion part of your abstract, remember that these conclusions should be precise and concise. There is no need to re-summarise what you have already discussed or the contents of your dissertation. This is an informative abstract, not a descriptive one. If you are unsure of the difference, you may find the section, Choosing between dissertation abstract styles: Descriptive and informative, helpful. Furthermore, be careful not to make claims that cannot be supported by your findings. There is always a danger to over-exaggerate and/or over-generalise in this part of the abstract, which should be avoided. It is unlikely that you will have changed the world through your study, but you may still have added something significant to the literature, so try and strike the right balance.

NOTE: This article is based on the use of the informative abstract style, not the descriptive style; the former being the typical style adopted in undergraduate and master's dissertations and theses. For a comparison of the two styles - descriptive and informative - see the article, Choosing between dissertation abstract styles: Descriptive or informative.

In the next section, Useful phrases when writing a dissertation abstract, we set out some phrases that you may find useful when writing up your dissertation abstract.

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