Writing a Dissertation Abstract

The dissertation abstract concisely describes the content and scope of the writing and reviews the contents in abbreviated form.

The abstract should be the last part of the dissertation that you write. Its usual length is between 200 and 350 words. The abstract is designed to give a ‘snapshot’ of your work. It can be compared to the comments that you will find on the back cover of a novel – in that the summary of the work that it gives is designed to entice people to read the rest of the book. It should not be written in the future tense.

Preparing your dissertation abstract

One of the best ways to prepare for writing your own dissertation abstract is to re-read the abstracts of journal articles that you have utilised as part of your secondary research and/or literature review. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What was it about the abstract that made me decide to read the rest of the article?
  2. How did the abstract tell me that this article would be relevant to my study and research interests?

Having done this you should then, when planning your own abstract, consider the following questions:

  1. Why should someone read this dissertation?
  2. What is its relevance?
  3. What questions does it answer?
  4. How will my dissertation help others in their research?
  5. What are the key concepts or key terms that it uses?

Once you have done this you should write about 50 words addressing each of the five questions above. Polish the work, ‘top and tail’ it with an introduction and conclusion of about a sentence each, and the result should be an abstract that accordingly states the relevance, purpose, and focus of your work.

There are two types of dissertation abstracts typically used:

1. Descriptive dissertation abstracts

These tell readers what information the dissertation contains, and include the purpose, methods, and scope of the report, article, or paper. This will not provide results, conclusions, or recommendations, and is usually shorter than an informative abstract – usually under 100 words. Its purpose is to merely introduce the subject to the reader, who must then read the dissertation to find out your results, conclusions, or recommendations.

2. Informative dissertation abstracts

These communicate specific information from the dissertation, including the purpose, methods, and scope of the report, article, or paper. They provide the dissertation results, conclusions, and recommendations. They are short but not as short as a descriptive abstract – usually, anything from a paragraph to a page or two, depending upon the length of the overall work. In any case, informative abstracts make up 10% or less of the length of the overall piece. The informative abstract allows your reader to decide whether they want to read the dissertation.

Some universities have specific structures they wish to be followed. Talk to your tutor if you are unsure.

What makes a good dissertation abstract?

Abstracts are often used where a paper is entered into a journal database. The keywords that you choose for your abstract assist your paper to be identified using electronic information retrieval systems. Titles and abstracts are filed electronically, and keywords are put in electronic storage. When people search for information, they enter keywords related to the subject, and the computer prints out the titles of articles, papers, and reports containing those keywords.

A good abstract will use one or more well-developed paragraphs, which are unified, coherent, concise, and able to stand alone. It will use an introduction/body/conclusion structure, which presents the dissertation’s purpose, results, conclusions, and recommendations in that order. It will follow strictly the chronology of the dissertation and provide logical connections (or transitions) between the information included. A good abstract will add no new information, but will simply summarise the dissertation. Moreover, it will be understandable to a wide audience.

Top 5 dissertation abstract writing tips:

To write an effective dissertation abstract, follow these steps:

  1. Re-read the dissertation you have written with the goal of abstracting in mind. Look specifically for these main parts of the dissertation: purpose, methods, scope, results, conclusions, and recommendations.
  2. Use the headings and table of contents as a guide to writing your abstract.
  3. If you’re writing an abstract about another person’s dissertation, the introduction and the summary are good places to begin. These areas generally cover what the dissertation emphasises.
  4. After you’ve finished rereading the dissertation, write a rough draft without looking back at what you’re abstracting. Don’t merely copy key sentences from the dissertation: you’ll put in too much or too little information. You should not rely on the way material was phrased in the dissertation – you need to summarise information in a new way.
  5. Revise your rough draft to correct weaknesses in organisation, improve transitions from point to point and drop unnecessary information. Be sure to fix errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It’s a good idea to print out your final work in order to read it again to catch any glitches that you find.

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