By the end of your studies, academic assignments get more and more complex. Obviously, a thesis (not to mention a dissertation) are very much different from course and research papers, which is why the approaches to formatting and structuring are quite different as well. One of the major differences is writing an abstract. While it may be optional for a research paper, it is an absolute must for a thesis and a dissertation. So, if you have managed to submit all previous assignments without an abstract, it’s time you find out what it is and how to write it.
Abstract: what is it and why you need it?
- An abstract sets up expectations for your work. This is the first thing a reader will see, as it is always presented in the beginning of your paper. This, in its turn, makes it a very crucial component of a thesis — because it allows a preview to your whole work.
- An abstract summarizes your entire thesis/dissertation. Of course, it does this very briefly, but it still has to present the whole essence of your research.
- An abstract can often be the only, stand-alone representation of your work. In bibliographic indexes, an abstract and the title of your paper are listed; the rest of the paper is not. So, it is once again vital to make sure that the abstract fully represents your whole thesis.
- An abstract has nothing to do with the introduction of your thesis/dissertation. We cannot stress this enough — it is a full summary of your paper, and it should represent your entire thesis when and where including the full text is impossible.
Abstract: length and structure
The length of an abstract will vary depending on the type of your academic paper, your educational level, and even your particular educational establishment. Typically, requirements vary somewhere in between 150 and 350 words. When working on a doctoral dissertation, for example, it is common to have an abstract a bit shorter than 300 words. However, you will have to double-check this info with your educational establishment and/or scientific supervisor.
An abstract is formatted in the same style as the rest of your paper. That is, if you are using APA, Chicago, Harvard or any other formatting style, you are to format an abstract accordingly. So, if your paper is double-spaced (and all of the academically acceptable formats usually are), the abstract has to be double-spaced, too. Fonts and other formatting details are to remain consistent as well.
A very valuable tip would be to look at your abstract as a ‘mirror’ of your entire paper. Say, for instance, your dissertation has five chapters. In that case, an abstract should have at least a sentence or two that summarizes every chapter in your work. So, if you’ve been thinking how to make an abstract represent the whole paper, this is the way.
Still, simply summing up your work, from introduction to bibliography, does not make a good abstract — even though you are supposed to do that, too. While writing an abstract, the trick is to pay special attention to research questions and the results of your work. Let’s take a look at how this is done.
- The research questions you pose act both as the structural skeleton of your paper and a reasonable ground for writing it. That is why it is wise to start your abstract with why you decided to analyze this particular subject matter.
- An abstract, just like the whole dissertation, is limited in length. As a rule, a typical dissertation will focus on one (maximum three) major research questions. If you have more questions in mind, try reducing some of those to supplementary status. In other words, think — can some of the questions you raise be viewed as parts of one major, more important question? If yes, great. If no — try narrowing down your topic and removing them altogether.
One of the most common mistakes when writing an abstract is forgetting to mention the results. Once again, this part is not an introduction to hook the reader. This part is a full representation of your work, and results are an essential part of it.
Think about it this way — you’ve undertaken the research for a reason, and you do wish to accomplish certain results. They can include finding a new solution to an existing problem or, at least, suggesting better, more efficient ways to tackle a given process. Results are the ‘why’ of your entire paper, and they have to clearly stated in your abstract.
As a rule, restating the results takes about half of your dissertation abstract. So, you start with a brief summary of your chapters and proceed to results (in detail). That’s what the abstract is about.