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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Note that the following provides general guidelines and suggestions only, as there is considerable variation in the ways theses are organised. Some of the suggestions may need to be adapted to meet the needs of your particular thesis.
The abstract is a short version of the entire thesis which should answer the following five questions (not necessarily in this order or separately):
- What was done?
- Why was it done?
- How was it done?
- What were the key findings or results?
- What is the significance or implications of the results?
This differs from the rationale - that there is a problem which needs to be solved for example - by discussing why your solution, for example, is one that others should pay attention to (is it more energy efficient, more effective, less expensive, etc than other solutions?).
The most common mistake with abstracts is to write them as though they are just another form of introduction, or perhaps as "advanced advertising" where the writer doesn't want to give too much away.
e.g. "To address the question of ..., such and such data was collected and analysed using the such and such methodological framework. Implications for practice are discussed."
But think about why you read abstracts and what you hope to get out of them, and ask if you're happy just getting "promotional material" or whether you'd rather get the whole story, including key results, in a nutshell.
Note also that abstracts play a critical role in determining whether someone reads on, and so deserve to be well written. In fact, some journals try to "force" authors to write them well by requiring that they put responses against a series of prompts, typically something like:
- Aims/Problem statement:
It has to be acknowledged, though, that the word limit that some journals put on abstracts means that it is not possible to answer all five of the above questions in your abstract, but in such cases key findings should not be something that gets sacrificed.
Finally, as a summary of the entire thesis, the abstract is the often the last thing to get finalised, but it shouldn't necessarily be the last thing to get written. If you're drowning in data or literature and feel you're not sure where you're going anymore, writing a "working abstract" might help you to get a "big-picture" view of what you're trying to do and, therefore, help you to get focussed again.
The Introduction and Literature Review
All theses require introductions and literature reviews, but the structure and location of these vary considerably. Options that are used include:
- A brief introductory chapter with a lengthy separate literature review chapter.
- A lengthy introductory chapter which includes a brief "Introduction" section followed by literature review sections.
- A lengthy introduction which includes a literature review.
- A brief introductory chapter with detailed literature reviews relevant to the topic of each chapter provided separately in each chapter (this is typical when each chapter is basically or literally a paper for publication).
- More than one literature review chapter. For example, one chapter might review what's known in an area and identify gaps or problems to address, while another might review the methodological approaches taken to investigating questions in this area and identify the strengths and weaknesses of each of these, thus providing a justification for the approach taken in this thesis (this may also occur in the first sections of a Methodology chapter).
Regardless of the approach taken, the Introduction to a thesis answers the three questions:
What was done?
May be stated in terms of both general aims (e.g. that you intend to contribute to the understanding of some phenomenon), and in terms of specific objectives (e.g. what aspects in particular of the phenomenon will you be investigating?).
Why was it done?
If the introduction is brief, then provide only the broad motivation (e.g. Why is there interest in this area? Why is it important? Why is this an interesting topic?), with more detailed motivation for precise goals coming out of a literature review (Why look at the particular aspects you do? Why pursue the specific line of investigation you do?).
One way of thinking about a brief introduction, is to think about providing the level of motivation or justification that would satisfy a well-educated friend of yours curious about what you are doing and why, with the literature review providing the level of motivation and justification that would satisfy an expert in the field.
Longer introductions might occur when a significant amount of background material needs to be reviewed in order for the reader to appreciate the context and significance of your research question. But if this is the case, then it is important to make it clear to the reader what the point of a long review is! (e.g. "In order to appreciate the significance of ..., it is first important to consider ...").
How do the pieces of the thesis fit together? (This is the "outline" or "overview".)
Provides the rationale for proceeding in the way you did and perhaps for why you have organised things the way you have (e.g. explaining why the literature review is scattered throughout the "papers for publication" chapters rather than being in a separate chapter as is common. The Introduction in Lewis Wolpert's book, The Unnatural Nature of Science (Biol Sc and Ipswich: Q175 .W737), gives a good example of what a useful outline looks like.)
These three questions can be used to broadly analyse the structure of other people's writing so that you can get an overview of what they have done and how they have organised things. Another way of analysing your writing and the writing of others is to consider which of the following three "moves" are being made in each paragraph or section of a paragraph (see Paltridge and Starfield, 2007, Ch. 6 for more):
- "Establishing a research territory" (i.e. that you're interested in the development of commerce in mediaeval Europe as opposed to the life cycle of flat worms for example). This involves showing or explaining why the area is of interest or important.
- "Establishing a niche"
By identifying gaps, problems or deficiencies in previous literature.
- "Occupying the niche"
By stating your particular aims or goals. Some writers also state their main findings at this point (sort of like stating your thesis in the opening paragraph of an essay).
A common structure is to start with the broadest possible motivation and then gradually narrow the scope until the particular focus of the thesis or article is reached (e.g. Example 4). However, some writers prefer to start with a statement of the aim of the research, then proceed to give the arguments for pursuing that aim. (Because of these reasons or observations, I'm going to do this, as opposed to: I am going to do this because of these reasons.)
In many instances, researchers don't know exactly where they will end up until they get there, so introductions and abstracts are often the last sections of a paper or thesis which are written. However, writing "working" abstracts and introductions as you go along can be useful to force you to think about the overview of, and motivation for, what you are doing. And while they will have to be revised and fine-tuned, having a general sense of where you are going and why is very useful when making the journey.
Providing unnecessary or uncontextualised background
Background is necessary to orientate the reader to what you are doing, but it is possible to give too much detail so that the reader starts to wonder why they need to know all of what they are being told.
Not explaining things enough
To simply say that your research will look at ways to deal with power grid instabilities indicates to the reader that you're working on solving a problem, but not why that problem is significant enough to work on. To indicate the significance of the problem, it would be necessary to briefly explain:
What are power grid instabilities?
What causes them?
How often do they occur?
What are the economic consequences of power grid instabilities? (Some indicative statistics would be enough to make your point, you wouldn't need masses of statistics.)
Working out what should go in the Introduction and what in the Literature Review
It might help here to think of your Introduction as being what you would tell an educated friend who wanted to know what your research is all about and why you are doing it, while the Literature Review is for other researchers in the field. It needs to be noted, however, that in some disciplines or areas the Introduction includes the Literature Review, and so can be quite lengthy.
Writing an outline that reads like the table of contents in paragraph form
(See Example 6 and Dr Leslie Sage's comments on this at the end of her article.
See the literature review section for more detailed information.
The methods section should explain:
- How you went about collecting and analysing your data
Only in enough detail that another expert in the field could repeat what you have done. For example, since the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) is a standard technique for determining the frequency spectrum of digital signals, in an electrical engineering thesis it would be enough to simply say, "The spectrum of the signal output from ... was analysed using an FFT and the results are shown in Figure 1." That is, in this case there would be no need to explain in detail what a FFT is and how it calculates spectra.
- why you collected the data that you did (e.g. why bother collecting demographic data in a questionnaire?)
This is done by explaining how certain types of data will help you to answer your research questions. (The thesis assessors want to be assured that you didn't simply collect as much data as you possibly could that might have been useful and then hoped for the best. Doing this also maintains a "connected story" for your thesis).
- why you thought the approach you chose was the best of all the approaches that were available to you (e.g. why conduct semi-structured interviews rather than surveys? Why use Inventory X rather than Inventory Y?)
- In order to account for any learning or fatigue effects amongst participants, a counter-balanced design was used.
- Semi-structured interviews rather than surveys were used to ... because it was believed that participants might have important unique as well as common experiences regarding ... which wouldn't be picked up in a standardised survey.
- In order to determine the effectiveness of speed cameras in reducing the road toll in ..., a longitudinal rather than a before-and-after design was used to take into account the significant fluctuations in an area's annual road toll, making it difficult to determine whether a single variation is due to an intervention or just a random fluctuation.
One possible structure is an introductory section that provides a justification and explanation of the methodological approach(es) chosen, followed by relevant elements of the classical sub-sections:
However, there is a lot of disciplinary variation in the way these things are done, so use the ideas from here to analyse what you see in your discipline.
Common problems include (see Paltridge and Starfield (2002), Ch. 8 for more):
- Insufficient justification of the proposed approach as being the best way to achieve the research objectives.
- Insufficient appreciation of the limitations of particular methods for achieving the desired research objectives.
- Inadequate statistical treatments.
If you present your results separately from your discussion, then the Results section for quantitative research is where you:
- Specify what the data were and how they were prepared for analysis.
- Present a summary and descriptive statistics in a suitable graphical or tabular form.
- Provide a verbal summary of the most important features of the above.
- Describe the data analysis (e.g., what sort of statistical test was applied to the data) and the outcome of the analysis.
- Interpret or offer any explanations for the results although you can say whether the data support or contradict any of your hypotheses.
- Include calculations.
For guidance on how to effectively incorporate quantitative data in the forms of tables and figures in your writing, see this Info Sheet(PDF, 38 KB).
Typically in a Discussion section, one would:
- Summarise, appraise, interpret and explain the results, relating them to your aims!
- Consider the significance or implications of the results.
- Compare, contrast and integrate your results with the findings of other studies.
- Point out and offer solutions for any methodological weaknesses or limitations.
- This is to help both you and your readers decide on the strength of your findings and to determine where any gaps or deficiencies might lie.
- It also indicates to thesis assessors a capacity to learn from experience.
- Make suggestions for future research (these often come out of identified methodological weaknesses, but it could be that your research has revealed yet more complexity and unanswered questions that need investigating).
- End with a concluding paragraph summarising the main findings and the lessons to be drawn from the study.