How to Write an Abstract for a Dissertation

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At roughly 200 words, the abstract is the shortest part of the dissertation! Thankfully, it’s also one of the simplest to write – as long as you approach it sensibly…

The cardinal rule for writing an abstract is to leave it ‘til last. After all, the abstract is a summary of the entire dissertation, so it makes sense to leave it until the end.

Having said that, it’s a good idea to prepare yourself. If you learn how to write an abstract well ahead of time, there’ll be no last-minute panics. With that in mind, let’s run through the basics of writing a dissertation abstract.

What is the purpose of an abstract?

As mentioned, the abstract is essentially a summary of your dissertation. Think of it like a film synopsis or a book blurb. In roughly 200 words, it should tell the reader exactly what to expect from reading your dissertation.

A good abstract will also hint at the relevance and usefulness of the project. Indeed, in many ways, the abstract is an opportunity for you to ‘sell’ your project to the reader. The more compelling the abstract is, the more likely they are to read your dissertation.

The dissertation abstract is no different from the abstracts you’ll find in peer-reviewed journal articles. In fact, journal abstracts can be a great learning tool and source of inspiration.

What should an abstract include?

Later on, we’ll show you exactly how to structure an abstract. But first, it’s important to understand the elements of an abstract. In brief, an abstract should:

  • Intrigue – In the first few sentences, you should introduce your topic to the reader, and highlight a key debate or issue that inspired the dissertation. If you can intrigue your reader in the opening sentence, they’re much more likely to continue reading!
  • Convince – You’ll then need to convince your reader that your dissertation is necessary and worthwhile. Often, this is achieved by explaining how your dissertation extends or challenges the existing literature.
  • Describe – You should describe the research methods very briefly but accurately.
  • Inform – The abstract should be informative, particularly in relation to the findings of the study. It is not necessary to state all the findings, but you should highlight the key insights.
  • Demonstrate relevance and usefulness – As mentioned, a good abstract finishes by saying who will find this research useful and why. Occasionally, it may also suggest directions for future research.

Remember, since the abstract is a summary of a project you’ve completed, it should be written in the present or past simple tense.

How should you structure an abstract?

The structure of an abstract can vary depending on the subject you are studying at university. Also, some universities have specific guidelines for writing an abstract, so always check with your tutor first. In particular, APA style has quite specific rules for formatting an abstract.

Though, generally speaking, the following structure is a good starting point for students in most subject areas:

1. Provide some background

The first 1-2 sentences should provide a very brief background to your topic of study. Remember, the aim is to intrigue here. These sentences are usually written in the present tense.

E.g. “Plastic pollution is a major threat to the planet. Although many consumers are concerned about plastic pollution, relatively few have switched to plastic-free toiletries. As such, it is important for green marketers to understand why concern for plastic pollution does not necessarily lead to purchasing plastic-free toiletries.

2. Refer to existing debates

Next, you should briefly explain the existing theory/research that has informed your chosen topic. If there are any key debates relevant to your topic, briefly mention them here. Try to limit this to 1-2 sentences and stick with the present or past tense.

E.g. “Interestingly, research from the activism literature suggests that it is people’s attitudes towards a particular green behaviour rather than the concern for the environment that determines whether they practise that green behaviour or not. This suggests that, to encourage people to buy plastic-free toiletries, advertising which focuses on the green behaviour (plastic-free living) might be more effective than advertising that focuses on a general concern for plastic pollution.”

3. Explain why the dissertation was worthwhile

In the next sentence or two, you’ll need to convince your reader that this study was worthwhile. Try to use the previous few sentences as a springboard, but explain why your study was unique.

E.g. “To date, very few Green Marketing studies have tested the relative effectiveness of adverts that focus on the green behaviour versus those that focus on general concern for the environment.”

4. State your research question

If it was not stated in the last section, the next sentence should clearly state your research question. You may have had more than one research question/research aim, but try to be as succinct as possible here.

E.g. “As such, the aim of the current study was to explore whether behavioural- based adverts (I.e. those that focused on plastic-free living) were more effective than concern-based adverts (i.e. those that focused purely on concern for plastic pollution) for influencing green purchasing behaviour of plastic-free toiletries.”

5. State the methodology

In this sentence, you should clearly describe the methodology used. There is no need to explain why this method was chosen; just be as precise and succinct as possible.

E.g. “A series of 4 behavioural-based and 4 concern-based adverts were shown to 10 participants. Semi-structured interviews were then conducted to explore their responses. Thematic analysis was adopted to explore the themes.”

6. State the key findings

The next sentence should explain the findings of your dissertation. Try not to be too technical here as your reader may be a novice. Also, there probably won’t be space to state all your findings, so present the ones that are most relevant and interesting. In fact, leaving a bit to the imagination is a good thing because it should intrigue the reader…

E.g. “Analysis suggested that the behavioural-based adverts are more likely to inspire people to buy plastic-free toiletries compared to the concern-based ones. Moreover, the brand was more memorable in the behavioural-based adverts. Nevertheless, some of the concern-based adverts inspired viewers to want to learn more about green issues.”

7. State who will find this research useful and why

In the last sentence, you should explain the usefulness and relevance of your dissertation. Consider: Who will benefit from this research? Does it have any practical applications?

E.g. “These findings can be useful for green brands hoping to increase green purchasing behaviour, as well as other agencies looking to promote green behavioural change.”

8. List of keywords

Depending on your subject, you may be expected to provide a short list of keywords. This is common in Psychology research, for example. Check with your tutor if keywords are necessary. Remember, these should be listed in alphabetical order underneath the body of the abstract.

E.g. Green Marketing, Green Purchasing Behaviour….
If you are studying a humanities subject, your abstract might differ slightly to the above example. This is because you probably won’t be conducting empirical research as part of your dissertation. As such, you won’t need to refer to a ‘methodology’ chapter. Instead, your abstract should provide a short summary of each of the chapters in your dissertation. Then, finish by summarising the key conclusions, and discussing the implications of your project.

What’s the secret to writing a great abstract?

So, we’ve covered the basics of writing an abstract, but how can you write a first-class dissertation abstract? Well, we have two pieces of advice.

Firstly, be precise and succinct. Once you’ve written your abstract, you should set it aside for at least 24 hours, and then return to it with fresh eyes. As you read through it, cut out anything that’s not absolutely essential. Also, consider rewording sentences so that they are clear and readable. You can use our disseration writing services to help you with this.

Secondly, when you reveal your findings, try to find the right balance between revealing too much and revealing too little. It’s important to demonstrate that your study was interesting and relevant, but if you reveal too much, the reader may not want to bother reading your dissertation.

Indeed, writing a good dissertation is all about taking your reader on a journey and building momentum as you go. If you can manage this, you’ll keep your reader’s attention until the very last page! Creating this balance is not easy but it is a skill that can be developed through practice.

Common mistakes to avoid

So, we’ve reviewed the components of a good dissertation abstract. But what constitutes a bad abstract? Let’s finish by exploring some of the common mistakes students make when writing an abstract:

  • Too long – Generally speaking, an abstract should be between 150 and 250 words, and it should fit on one page. If you make it too long, it won’t be compelling, and it’ll probably just confuse the reader.
  • Lack of relevant keywords in the body of the abstract – Although an abstract should be written in reasonably non-technical language, it should include some relevant keywords. E.g. In the above example “Green marketing” and “Green purchasing behaviour” were pertinent keywords. Using appropriate keywords shows you’ve done wider reading and you understand where your project ‘fits in’ to the literature. Also, if your research were to be published, keywords would help other researchers to find it.
  • Written in the wrong tense – A common mistake students make is that they write their abstract in the future tense (I.e. “This dissertation will explore the relationship between…”). The research has already been conducted, so it should be written in the past tense.
  • Wrong positioning – The abstract should go after the title page and before the contents page.
  • References and quotes – Generally speaking, an abstract should not contain references or quotations from other theorists. The only exception might be if your dissertation was solely focused on one particular theory/debate. In that case, keep quotes and references to an absolute minimum – your introduction and literature review will provide a comprehensive description of the theory!
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