Expert Advice on Writing a Dissertation Abstract

What is the Abstract Chapter of a Dissertation?

  • Most experts would agree that an abstract chapter is a vital component of a thesis paper or dissertation. This chapter is usually placed at the very beginning of the paper and it is, in most cases, the first real description of the paper’s content. Abstracts can be seen as a possibility to set some accurate expectations.   
  • Writers use abstracts to summarise full dissertations or thesis papers. Essentially, this is a condensed summary of the key elements of a written piece.  
  • Very often, abstracts go hand-in-hand with a paper’s title as standalone documents. It sometimes happens that abstracts are listed in bibliographic listings minus the rest of the paper. Alternatively, they can be presented as exam announcements. Some readers who locate an abstract in a library or database or are notified by email about their research presentation will not get the complete text or attend the actual presentation itself.  
  • An abstract is much more than a mere introduction in the normal way of a preface, preamble or early preview that takes the reader into the main body of a dissertation or thesis. In addition to acting as an introductory section, it should provide a comprehensive overview of a whole paper where there is insufficient time or insufficient space for the full text.     

The Structure of an Abstract Chapter

  • Under present guidelines, an abstract should not comprise of more than 150 words (Master’s-level thesis paper) or 350 words (for a dissertation).
  • To retain visual coherence, it can help to limit the abstract for your dissertation to about 300 words, e.g., one double-spaced page.
  • An abstract structure should broadly adhere to the same structure as the paper it belongs to, with all the key elements included.  
  • Where, for example, there are 5 chapters in a paper – introduction, methodology, literature review, findings/results, and a conclusion, it is advisable to ensure the abstract has a few sentences summing up each chapter.  

State the Research Question or Problem Clearly

  • Although the central research question(s) or problem(s) should be referred to throughout your entire paper, they play a vital role in ensuring the structure of an abstract is logical and coherent. The question or problem is the foundation upon which other elements are built.    
  • You should state the research question or problem near the beginning of your abstract.
  • There is usually no room for more than one to three research questions. Sometimes there are more than three questions, especially in the case of bigger and/or more complex research papers. Therefore, you should consider a bit of restructuring to reduce the status of some of them e.g. to secondary or less important level.  

Do Not Forget to Include Findings or Results in Your Abstract!

  • One very common error in abstracts is forgetting to include a few sentences about results.
  • A thesis and, therefore, an abstract have many important functions, one of which is telling readers what you discovered. This is more important than telling them what you did. Use additional detail such as what methods you used to support claims regarding your results or findings. 

The final part of your abstract (around half) should be used to interpret and summarise your findings.