Structuring a thesis

The Abstract – How To Write A PhD

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This post is part of a series of guides that explain in the simplest terms possible how to structure each of the major chapters of a typical PhD thesis. If you haven't already, download our free PhD Thesis Writing Template for a simple way of visualising your entire thesis on one page. 

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Your abstract should be a short summary at the beginning of the thesis that sums up the research, summarises the separate sections of the thesis and outlines the contribution.

Above all, your PhD abstract should answer the question: 'so what'? In other words, what is the contribution of your thesis to the field? 

A PhD thesis abstract should answer six questions: 

  1. What is the reason for writing the thesis?   
  2. What are the current approaches and gaps in the literature?   
  3. What are your research question(s) and aims?   
  4. Which methodology have you used?   
  5. What are the main findings?   
  6. What are the main conclusions and implications?   

One thing that should be obvious is that you can't write your abstract until the study itself is written. It'll typically be the last thing you write (alongside the acknowledgements).

The tricky thing about writing a great PhD abstract is that you haven't got much space to answer the six questions above.
There are a few things to consider though that will help to elevate your writing and make your abstract as efficient as possible: 

  • Give a good first impression by writing in short clear sentences
  • Don't repeat the title in the abstract
  • Don't cite references
  • Use keywords from the document
  • Respect the word limit
  • Don't be vague - the abstract should be a self contained summary of the research, so don't introduce ambiguous words or complex terms
  • Focus on just four or five essential points, concepts, or findings. Don't, for example, try to explain your entire theoretical framework
  • Edit it carefully. Make sure every word is relevant (you haven't got room for wasted words) and that each sentence has maximum impact
  • Avoid lengthy background information 
  • Don't mention anything that isn't discussed in the thesis
  • Avoid overstatements
  • Don't spin your findings, contribution or significance to make your research sound grander or more influential that it actually is. 

To find out more about how to write a great abstract and to see examples of good and bad ones, click here

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Dr. Max Lemprière is the founder of The PhD Proofreaders. He is an expert in presenting PhD research in the best possible way and maximising students' chances of success.