Monday, April 7, 2008

How to write a dissertation abstract

I spent a significant part of today reading dissertation abstracts and far too much of that time being frustrated. Why? Apparently writing a good abstract is much harder than it seems. So let me tell you how it should be done. Now, I've never been on a dissertation committee. I've never even written a dissertation. But I don't think that matters much. How much attention does a committee pay to an abstract? They probably don't even read it, since they already know what your dissertation is about. This is a plea from the user end, as someone who has to read abstracts.
  • You have a limited number of words. Sure, you can make it long, but ProQuest will shorten long abstracts, and that's how everyone will find your dissertation. So you might as well keep it short and control what readers see.
  • Don't use those limited words to tell us why research on, say, cranberries is important in general. Chances are, we found your dissertation by deliberately looking for info on cranberries.
  • Don't give us details of your sample selection. Yes, we want to know if it was a case study of one cranberry bog, if you used the Cranberry Bog Data Set, or if you limited it to female-owned bogs. Maybe tell us your survey response rate. But that's all we want at this point.
  • Don't tack on a final sentence that tells us more research is needed. Trust me, we fully expect to see that in the conclusion, so it can go unsaid for now.
  • Don't use the future tense. Your dissertation exists, right? Tell us what it does, not what it will do.
  • Keep discussion of the research questions brief. That's because ...
  • ... we should be able to figure out your questions from reading what you found. This is what most readers are really looking for - your findings.
  • Do include your methods, albeit briefly. We want to know if you use regression or Delphi or ethnography or laboratory experiments - we don't care if you used MICE in Stata on missing data.
  • Don't include a bevy of citations. It's one thing to tell us you're comparing actual cranberry cultivation practices to the Ideal Method described by Schnauzer (1997) but another to recapitulate your entire lit review.
  • Finally, if your chair tells you something different from this, do exactly what they say.

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