The abstract is the second most read part of your thesis (after the title page). As such, it needs to work for a wider audience than the thesis itself who are often most interested in your results. The abstract should be possible to read independently of the thesis itself.
Contents of an abstract
- Purpose and scope
- What is the main message of your thesis? And how far do you investigate this?
- What did you do to get your results? (e.g. analyzed 3 articles, completed a series of 5 experiments, interviewed 10 respondents)
- What answer was found to the research question? What did the study find?
- What are the larger implications of your findings, especially for the purpose identified in step 1?
- This short film explains some of the key aspects to consider when writing an abstract:
- Emphasize the most important elements of the report
- Use short sentences but vary sentence structure
- Keep vocabulary as clear as possible e.g. explain terms / abbreviations that might be unfamiliar to a wider audience
- The abstract is usually the last part of the thesis to be written
You should not include:
- an extensive background
- literature review
- detailed methods
- material not in your thesis
A possible way to write an abstract
- First re-read the report taking notes and writing down keywords.
- Secondly, using the notes and keywords, write a draft that rephrases the purpose, scope, results, conclusions, and methods of the report. Avoid merely lifting sentences from the report to the abstract.
- Thirdly, read the draft and make sure the essential information of the report is included and no unnecessary information remains.
- Proof-read and revise the abstract for correctness. Avoid opening the abstract with the phrase ‘This report . . .’ or similar phrases. While such phrases might help a writer to get started they carry no information and should be replaced.
- Finally, the abstract is also a place to list important keywords for automated retrieval systems and archiving. So, either boldface the keywords used in the abstract or make a brief list at the end of the abstract.
Differences between an abstract and a summary
Sometimes a publication will contain both an abstract and a summary, but most of the time one or the other will do. Terminology varies a bit from organization to organization so that, in fact, the same document might be referred to as either a summary or an abstract. However, there are significant differences:
Length: the length of both summaries and abstracts is proportional to the source text.
Abstract: rarely longer than 250 words and never longer than a page; normally only a one-paragraph text.
Summary: tend to be longer and more conclusive than abstracts.
Abstract: clearly hierarchical in structure, offering conclusions and findings as early as possible while demoting support, discussion, and detail.
Summary: always divided into several paragraphs and follows the expected structure of beginning, middle, and end; the ‘middle’ of a summary is an argument including supporting material; always ends on a concluding note emphasizing the most important points of the argument