The operative word here is “little.” You have finished a major research work, well over 100 pages in length and now you find yourself writing a dissertation abstract which must be one-page long, no more. And that abstract must summarize your work in that one page.
While many think of an abstract as a simple little piece that can be pumped out easily and quickly, they ultimately discover that it is not such an easy task. In fact, they find that they really do not know how to write an abstract for a dissertation. For those of you in this “space,” here is your “how to” guide.
Understand the Goal. Remember, when you were conducting your literature review, your first step was to read the abstract of any piece you were considering for a full review. You did this to get a better idea if that research would relate well enough to what you were researching, before you pulled the entire piece for a detailed review.
Now, new researchers are going to want to read your abstract with the same objectives in mind. For this reason, your abstract must be clear, succinct, and provide a reader with all of the salient information about your dissertation.
The Research Question and Its Importance. This is the opener for your abstract. You will state your research question and justify its importance. If this sounds familiar, it is. It is the opener for your dissertation proposal. In the proposal, however, you had more space. In your abstract, confine this statement to a couple of sentences. Example: “At-risk middle school students drop out of high school at a high rate. This study was to determine if a specific differentiated program would improve attendance, behavior and academic performance.” The reader now knows the problem that the research is addressing and why it is important – we need to reduce the dropout rate.
The Subjects/Participants. Whether your study involves humans or non-human subjects, you must describe them in as much detail as possible, including the environment. Again, at the same time, you only have a few sentences to do this. In the example above, you will want to describe this population and its demographic – without giving away any detail that might identify them. “30 7th grade students in a large Midwestern urban middle school, identified as having met 5 criteria for being at risk, were the participants in this study. The demographic breakdown included 16 males and 14 females, 40% Caucasian and 60% minority.”
Very Brief Description of Your Design and Methodology. You have to let the reader know what you did. Did you have an experimental and control group or not? Did you have matched pairs? If a qualitative study, how did you conduct the interviews, surveys, etc.? You should also describe the environment and the length of the study.
Your Findings (and the Recommendations). This section should comprise a paragraph. Here, you will summarize your findings, perhaps with related statistics, and speak to the significance of your results. If, for example, your year-long study of at-risk middle school students achieved improved percentages of behavioral, attendance and academic performance behaviors, then you need to state so and perhaps reveal those percentages.
You will probably need to write several versions of your abstract before you are satisfied. Accept that.
You must keep in mind that you are writing this piece so that other researchers can determine if what you have done is really relevant to a study they are pursuing.
You will need to find the balance between too much and too little detail.
- Read your department guidelines and make sure you are following them
- Check each version with your advisor until you have one that both you and s/he like
- Read many samples of abstracts of dissertations from others from your department
- Be careful to protect the identities of humans involved in your study
- Be certain to state the significance of your study and give enough data to “prove” it.
- Don’t hurry through writing a dissertation abstract
- Do not, under any circumstances, go beyond one page
- Do not leave out any section of the abstract
- Don’t scrimp on important detail that is critical to a reader’s understanding, in the name of brevity
- Don’t add irrelevant detail – if your abstract is not a full page, it’s okay.
- Obviously, the biggest mistake is not to plan in advance for each section, by condensing Chapters 3-5 into a few sentences
- An abstract should never include discussion of a literature review. If you start with chapter 3, you will be on track
- Not giving enough detail about your population or sampling, human or not, can cause a reader to wrongly select or not select your study. Be sure you include the detail that is recommended above.