How to write a PhD paper: preparing the dissertation abstract

There are several points during your PhD studies that you will be expected to produce a summary, or a synopsis, of what the thesis entails. This, understandably, can be a pretty tricky piece of writing, given that you will spend many years writing a complex and very, very long document, yet will be required to summarize this in around 300 words! But, so long as you know the essentials, you should have no problem. So, how do you prepare your dissertation abstract?

Understand What You Have Argued

This seems almost stupidly obvious, but you need to be able to express, in very few sentences, what your entire argument is, in order to convey this to your reader. So, even though you must lose some complexity and subtlety, you need to think of a single proposition to say: ‘my thesis argues that X is true’.

Understand Your Reader

When considering how to phrase your dissertation abstract, you need to keep a picture of your reader in mind. Although your examination and viva will be performed by an expert, you need to design your abstract for a non-specialist reader, because this will ensure that you describe your work in clear and unambiguous language.

Write One Sentence for Each Section

Before you begin writing, you should go through each chapter and section of your thesis and write a one sentence review or synopsis of that; by doing this, you will get a picture of the way that your argument is being made, and can then reformulate this for your abstract.


Now comes the writing. The first sentence should say precisely what you have researched, and what you intended to find: this is your thesis statement. After this statement, you can say a sentence or two about the state of research, the context, before you began. Then comes your rationale for study, usually, because you identified a gap in knowledge in the above. Then, use a sentence or two to say how you explored this, and conclude by pointing your reader toward your conclusion: ‘through this, I have demonstrated that X is indeed true’.

Although your dissertation is long, very long, and almost inexpressibly complex, with a very few words it is possible to convey the relevance of your research, and to intimate the conclusions that you have found, and this is what is required in a dissertation abstract!

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