Writing a Dissertation Abstract

What is an abstract?
An abstract is a concise summary of a longer work. Ideally, your dissertation abstract should not only summarize the work, but also clearly explain its contribution to your academic field.

An abstract is also a stand-alone genre: it is neither an introduction, nor a preface. Your abstract should give readers a clear picture of your work, but they should not miss anything if they decide to just start reading your main text.

Where in the dissertation is the abstract placed?
Abstracts are usually placed towards the beginning of a work. See the APU Dissertation Formatting Guide for instructions concerning the abstract’s location within the dissertation.

What is the purpose of an abstract?
A dissertation abstract has two purposes: it helps with indexing, and acts as a short advertisement for your work.

  • Indexing: Dissertation abstracts, not the full dissertation texts, are searchable in electronic databases. Including key terms in your abstract that emphasize your work’s core topics will help prospective readers find your work.
  • Advertising: Not everyone has time to read an entire dissertation. Reading your abstract should help prospective readers determine your work’s applicability to their own and decide whether or not to read your entire work.

Additionally, the dissertation abstract is a common job document for some academic positions (e.g. teaching in English departments).

How is an abstract constructed?
Every discipline has their own abstract-writing conventions. Study abstracts in your discipline to learn their components. Next, create a template or two that you can follow when you write your own abstracts.

What are the characteristics of a good abstract?
While each discipline has their own way of writing abstracts, every good abstract has the following characteristics:

  • It tells readers why they should care. An abstract should not merely describe the dissertation, or sketch its major components, but tell readers the work’s disciplinary and interdisciplinary importance.
  • It limits the literature reviewed. A good abstract will only sketch existing research to support the original research. One or two sentences usually suffices.
  • It forefronts the dissertation’s argument, not the process of writing it. Abstracts should not document the process (I did this…then that…and finally this!); rather, they should focus on the results and the argument at hand.
  • It is clear and concise: An abstract’s short form means that every word needs to count. For this reason, avoid placeholder adjectives. Words like “complex,” “unique,” and “multi-,” rarely contribute to an argument. Instead, such words might obscure it.
  • It uses key terms: Strike a balance between including key words for indexing purposes and relying on too much jargon. Your abstract should be intelligible to people within your own discipline as well as accessible to people in adjacent areas of study.

When should I write my abstract?
You can start writing your abstract even before you start writing your dissertation! Have a working abstract handy while you write your dissertation. Sometimes when we’re in the midst of the details, we forget the big picture. Your dissertation abstract can help you keep that big picture in mind as you spell out the details. When you’ve finished writing your dissertation, revise your abstract so it best represents the final dissertation.

I want to know more about abstracts!
Here are some useful links:

The Professor Is In: How to Write a Paper Abstract 

The Writing Center at UNC Chapel Hill’s Guide to Abstracts

An article about writing abstracts for maximum search efficiency