18 July 2020


How to Write a Thesis Abstract

By Catherine Pope

July 18, 2020

Posted in Milestones

Just when you thought you’d almost finished your thesis, there’s yet another hurdle: the abstract. Although it’s only around 300 words, this chunk of text can be surprisingly challenging. And you don’t want any more challenges at this stage. In this post, I’ll explain the purpose of the thesis abstract and also provide a step-by-step guide on how to distil that monster thesis into a perfect summary.

What’s the purpose of the thesis abstract?

Other than giving you an unwelcome task on your todo list, the thesis abstract serves two main purposes:

  1. To entice prospective PhD examiners – when your university is recruiting academics to examine your thesis, they’ll receive a copy of your abstract. This is why you’re required to provide an abstract when you signal your intention to submit. A potential examiner can then decide whether your topic is relevant and of interest. Examiners aren’t in it for the money – they often agree to examine a thesis because they want to find out about new research in their field. You need to pique their curiosity! That doesn’t mean teasing them with juicy clues about what they might discover, but clearly stating what your research is about and why it’s important.
  2. To entice readers – once your thesis is sitting proudly in your university’s online repository, you want people to read and cite it. After all, you’ve worked very hard on making your contribution to knowledge. Your readers’ initial encounter will be the abstract. They’ll be skimming this briefly to see whether your ~80,000 words are worth the investment of their time. You have just 300 words to convince them. And these people could be important. Perhaps they’re future employers, publishers, collaborators, or funders.

There’s a good chance your abstract might shift slightly in response to your viva and any subsequent questions. In which case, you can update the abstract that’s included with the final version of your thesis.

How do you structure a thesis abstract?

Well, it depends partly on your discipline and topic. Broadly, though, this is how it might break down:

  • This is the problem / limitation / gap – the originality of your project (1-2 sentences)
  • This is why it’s important – the significance of your contribution to the field (2-3 sentences)
  • This is how I did it – explaining your methodology (1 sentence)
  • This is what I found – summarise your chapters, but don’t refer to them by number (1 sentence for each)
  • This is what it means – describe the impact of your findings (2 sentences)
  • These are the implications – and how it will change your field (1 sentence)

It’s following the pattern of why, what, how, and then why again

The why question is absolutely pivotal to your thesis.

Unlike the blurb on a novel, you do want to give away the plot. Your examiners and readers aren’t looking for surprises – they want to find out the ending in advance and then follow your path towards it.

And don’t cheat by stuffing your abstract with quotes from other authors – they should live in your literature review. The abstract is all about your research.

Next Steps

  • Check the regulations at your university – what’s the required word count and format? Is there any particular style you’re expected to follow?
  • Take a look at some recent abstracts in your field. They should be easily accessible through your university repository. Remember, these aren’t necessarily good examples, though, so engage your critical eye.
  • Experiment with a few different versions of your abstract. As you’ll know through bitter experience, it’s much harder to write succinctly than to produce pages of waffle. Start with a long version then gradually distil it down into a beautifully-crafted nugget.

Once you’ve squeezed out your abstract, you might even have a clearer idea of your thesis. This will help enormously with your viva, although that’s a challenge for another day.

Catherine Pope

About the author

Since completing her PhD in 2014, Catherine has supported thousands of researchers through to the finish line. Having enjoyed a varied career as a web developer, lecturer, and coach, Catherine now shares her skills and knowledge through PhD Progress.

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