There are a lot of posts that talk about how to write an abstract. Most say that you should write your abstract to impress your examiner.
We say that you need to flip things upside down: sure, your examiner will read it and want to see that you’ve written it well, but you should actually have your next boss in mind when you write it.
When you apply for your first academic job, the abstract may be the only part of your thesis that your new boss will read. They may not have the time or energy to read the whole thesis, so the abstract plays a crucial role. You should write it as if you academic career depends on it.
In this guide we talk about how to write an outstanding abstract that will (hopefully) land you a job.
If you haven’t already, make sure you download our PhD Writing Template, which you can use in conjunction with this guide to supercharge your PhD.
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What is an abstract?
This is fairly straightforward stuff, but let us be clear so we are all on the same page.
An abstract is a short summary at the beginning of the PhD that sums up the research, summarises the separate sections of the thesis and outlines the contribution.
It is typically used by those wishing to get a broad understanding of a piece of research prior to reading the entire thesis.
When you apply for your first academic job, the hiring manager will take a look through applicants’ abstracts (as well as your CV and covering letter) to create a shortlist. If you are lucky enough to do well at an interview, your potential new boss will take another look through it before deciding whether to offer you the job.
Why don’t they read the whole thing? Apart from the fact that they’re way too busy to read 200+ pages, a well written abstract actually contains all they need to know. It is a way of letting them see what your research is about, what contribution it makes, what your understanding of the field is and how or whether you will fit into the department.
So, you need to write it well.
But, don’t underestimate how hard it is to write a PhD thesis abstract. You have to condense hundred of pages and years of work into a few hundred words (exactly how many will depend on your university, so double check with them before you start writing).
How do I write a good PhD abstract?
Some blog posts use keywords to summarise the content (this one does, scroll down to see them). The abstract is similar. It’s an extended set of keywords to summarise a complex piece of research.
Above all, your PhD abstract should answer the question: ‘so what’? In other words, what is the contribution of your thesis to the field?
If you’ve been using our PhD writing template you’ll know that, to do this, your abstract should address six questions:
- What is the reason for writing the thesis?
- What are the current approaches and gaps in the literature?
- What are your research question(s) and aims?
- Which methodology have you used?
- What are the main findings?
- 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 has been written. It’ll typically be the last thing you write (alongside the acknowledgements).
But how can I write a great one?
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
Examples of a good and bad abstract
We can see that the bad abstract fails to answer the six questions posed above. It reads more like a PhD proposal, rather than a summary of a piece of research.
- It doesn’t discuss the reason why the thesis was written
- It doesn’t outline the gaps in the literature
- It doesn’t outline the research questions or aims
- It doesn’t discuss the methods
- It doesn’t discuss the findings
- It doesn’t discuss the conclusions and implications of the research.
It is also too short, lacks adequate keywords and introduces unnecessary detail. The abbreviations and references only serve to confuse the reader and the claim that the thesis will ‘develop a new theory of climate change’ is both vague and over-ambitious. The reader will see through this.
The good abstract though does a much better job at answering the six questions and summarising the research.
- The reason why the thesis was written is stated: ‘We do so to better enable policy makers and academics to understand the nuances of multi-level climate governance’ and….’it informs our theoretical understanding of climate governance by introducing a focus on local government hitherto lacking, and informs our empirical understanding of housing and recycling policy.’
- The gap is clearly defined: ‘The theory has neglected to account for the role of local governments.’
- The research question are laid out: ‘We ask to what extent and in what ways local governments in the UK’…
- The methods are hinted at: ‘Using a case study…’
- The findings are summarised: ‘We show that local governments are both implementers and interpreters of policy. We also show that they make innovative contributions to and influence the direction of national policy.’
- The conclusions and implications are clear: ‘The significance of this study is that it informs our theoretical understanding of climate governance by introducing a focus on local government hitherto lacking, and informs our empirical understanding of housing and recycling policy.’
This abstract is of a much better length, and it fully summarises what the thesis is about. We can see that if someone (i.e. your hiring manager) were to read just this abstract, they’d understand what your thesis is about and the contribution that it makes.
Your PhD thesis.
All on one page.
Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.
I can’t summarise my thesis, what do I do?
We suggest you fill out our PhD Writing Template. We’ve designed it so that you can visualise your PhD on one page and easily see the main components. It’s really easy to use. It asks you a few questions related to each section of your thesis. As you answer them, you develop a synopsis. You can use that synopsis to inform your abstract. If you haven’t downloaded it, you can find it here.
Like everything related to writing, it takes practice before you get great at writing abstracts. Follow our tips and you’ll have a head start over others.
Remember, you’re not writing your abstract for anyone other than your hiring manager. Make sure it showcases the best of your research and shows your skills as both a researcher and a writer.
If you’re struggling, send us your abstract by email and we’ll have give you free advice on how to improve it.
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