By Claire Aitchison
When the research is complete and the thesis is available to the public, apart from the title, the abstract is the part of the document most likely to be read. But way before then, the abstract needs to win over the target examiner.
Perhaps because the doctoral abstract is so often written in a hurry when candidates and supervisors are immersed in the final stages, exhausted and in a rush to progress things towards examination, inadequate attention is paid to this small but crucial piece of writing.
Imagine receiving an invitation to examine a doctoral thesis. The email, probably a standard template sent by a grad school, is likely to begin by buttering you up with some generic comments about your reputation or expertise, it might include official forms with examination criteria, instructions and procedures. It’s likely to remind you of the requirement to work to a timeframe – and of the (very) small financial reward for undertaking the task. It will be accompanied by the thesis abstract.
So, if you were that potential examiner, what would you like from the abstract that might help you decide if you wanted to take on the task of examining?
I’ll wager that you want pretty immediate clarity concerning what the thesis is about: what the research was aiming to do, what literature, methods and theories were employed, and what were the outcomes or the findings arising from the research. Having said that, if you are an expert in the field, you’ll also be wanting to know what is special or unique about this research that would encourage you to read yet more on a topic that you are already so familiar with.
Most of the advice books indicate that the content of the abstract should consist of those components I’ve outlined above. Some disciplines and/or kinds of studies may require different levels of detail or additional information, such as outlining the central argument (common in cultural studies, for example) or the theoretical framework. Doing a little bit of homework to investigate disciplinary norms is always a good starting point.
Some abstracts provide an overview of the research itself, while others focus on summarising the thesis or dissertation. This distinction will likely impact the choice of verb tense. For example, descriptions of the research may use the simple past tense (The research showed that …), whereas commentary on the thesis is likely to use present simple tense (This thesis explores…).
Some suggest the abstract should mirror the structure of the thesis. I don’t think this is important. But I do think the abstract should speak to the key components that make up the research. For example, the thesis may have a non-traditional structure – an exegesis or a series of papers – but the abstract should provide a holistic overview. In most cases the study will be explained by giving a clear (and early) statement of the issue or problem under investigation, then indicate what literature was brought to the investigation, how the research was undertaken and what was found out.
Some disciplines favour longer abstracts up to 2 pages in length; however, in my opinion, a short abstract is preferable. The judicious use of key words, such as disciplinary or ideological ‘markers’, will help provide short-cut clues to the kind of research it is. But at the same time it’s important to be as accessible as possible. It seems obvious to say, but well-structured paragraphs that break the text into clear segments of information is advantageous – especially when so much of the text is dense with weighty material.
As with any abstract, focussed and precise writing is the way to go. Ideally, sentences will be dense with detail and relatively sparse in ‘padding’ (ie adjectives and adverbs).
Time markers and location-specific indicators are worthy of special care. For example, it is preferable to state that the study took place ‘during 2014’ than ‘recently’. A PhD is an international qualification, so local identifiers rarely work: it is preferable to replace ‘Western suburbs’ with ‘fringe suburbs with lower socio-economic status’.
Writing the abstract can help a candidate and supervisor identify the strengths and ‘sales points’ of the study. An abstract should play to these. For example, if the researcher has developed a new way of doing something, or modified an existing method or approach, then indicate this along with other significant ‘findings’.
Irrespective of the discipline or kind of study, the abstract should give ample attention to a discussion of the findings, up to 60% of the abstract can be devoted to presenting findings and their significance. This segment can be especially difficult to write because it requires a particular kind of authorial voice and confidence that sometimes is only just developing in the very final stages of candidature.
It’s the old adage that first impressions stick. A well-written, well-structured abstract provides a sense of the researcher and the research. If the abstract is neat and crisp, comprehensive and well written, if it provides the essential elements that enable one to make a judgement about the thesis, then hopefully, a potential examiner is already starting to engage with the task.