Dynamic Role of Abstract in Guiding the Flow of Writing of a PhD Dissertation

Abstract is the first thing in a dissertation that is read, and is often the last. A dissertation is at most read by 1.6 people from end to end, including the author [1]. PhD dissertation is written to enable a researcher to find all information necessary for replicating the results and understand the thesis. Hence, the detail. However, most readers are only interested in finding out a few items about the research which are typically provided in the abstract. These include the problem statement, thesis statement, contribution, and significance. Details of what a dissertation should contain has been amply documented elsewhere. In this post, I will discuss the role of abstract in guiding the flow of PhD Dissertation during its writing stage. 

Should Abstract be written in the last as an After thought? or Should it be the guiding light for the Dissertation Writing

It is often suggested that abstract should be the last thing that is written once the writing of all the chapters of a PhD dissertation is complete. This may be true if we assume that dissertation is already a very well written coherent, concise and a flowing document of arguments. However, my experience of supervising and guiding the writing of several PhD dissertations that this is not true. A dissertation can not be written well without a flow of arguments according to a plot or a story line. Coming up with a coherent script or story line is an iterative process. The process starts when the PhD supervisor decides that it is time for the student to wrap up and write whatever research he/she has done. At this stage of start of dissertation writing, the documentation available to the students is often a jumble of a number of drafts or documents written over several years. These include the PhD proposal, semester-wise progress reports, draft of literature surveys, papers submitted/read/published in conferences and journals. Each of these represent different stages of works, each having a specific and a limited purpose, and may consist of analysis of data, drafts of various stages of the work, notes, tables, reports etc. Trying to put them in a document and hoping that the result would look like a dissertation with continuous flow is wishful thinking. A dissertation requires that each paragraph of each chapter should have a coherent flow in the form of beads in a rosary held together by a single thread. What the student needs is a story-line or a plot in which to structure the existing pieces of available work in a coherent flow required by a dissertation.  I think that the students would find it faster to write a fresh instead of trying to salvage from the existing work. Tweaking an already written document to fit a new story line is harder then writing it a new. Whether the student is salvaging from his existing writings or writing a fresh, the student needs a plot or a story line to fit all the pieces together. 
I contend that a dynamic abstract draft should be the document containing the story line or plot. Initially, this will be two to three pages, which by the time the dissertation writing is complete will come down to around one and a half page. Here I describe how the abstract should grow as the work progresses. 

Structure of Abstract in its final form

Roughly an abstract will have around 20-30 sentences. Think of each sentence of your abstract as capturing the essence of one or more sections of dissertation. These sentences are the script that your dissertation is going to follow. The plot of your research consists of convincing the examiner about the problem being worthwhile to be awarded a degree and your key to the solution of problem is your “original” insight captured by your thesis statement. Your theoretical contribution and/or methodological rigor is an appropriate contribution, and the results have enough significance for practitioners, decision makers and/or future researchers. 
Please note that each and every word of the abstract is a formal term and a fully loaded term. A formal term is one that has a formal definition. A loaded term is one that has merited at least one section/subsection (if not more) of discussion or description in your dissertation. If you are using a term that has no description, then throw it out. Each verb in the abstract is loaded because it must refer to a formal procedural step being performed in the dissertation. Please note that some verbs are unobtrusive, but nevertheless, they merit to be there only if they are denoting execution of some step or method in your research. The page before the abstract should have a table introducing the key terms used in the abstract. Each term used in the abstract should have the definition given here with reference. Put all the verbs and nouns that you use in the abstract in this table. Remove all general verbs or nouns from your abstract that have not been formally defined or are not formally described in your dissertation. 
PhD research work starts with a problem statement. This statement is typically the culmination of literature survey in the form of a concise problem statement, thesis statement and some research questions. Read What is a Problem Statement and its role in MS-PhD Research, and also  What is a Thesis Statement and its Role in PhD-MS Research

These two statements are the core of your Abstract. Problem Statement defines the problem that you want to solve, and the thesis statement defines the solution to the problem that your research is proposing.

The objective of the first paragraph of your abstract is to convince the reader that your research is addressing a problem that is worth doing a PhD. This is the most important paragraph of your PhD dissertation and is the make or break paragraph of your PhD. Your PhD is doomed if you fail to convince the examiner from the problem described in the first paragraph about the problem being weighty enough to merit the award of PhD degree. The challenge is to specify the problem in a manner that it looks non-trivial, and also not too ambitious to be too far-fetched to be fanciful. The first paragraph typically consists of 3-4 sentences, Your problem statement is typically the last sentence of this paragraph. First sentence defines your problem area, middle sentence(s) is the glue that leads your research area to your problem statement. Hence, this first paragraph of your abstract captures the essence of your literature survey  as explained in Literature Review of a PhD Dissertation.  The sequence of the sentences in this paragraph must follow the line of reasoning of your literature survey leading to the problem statement. 
The second paragraph should highlight your unique insight that describes the contribution of your research. This can be a theoretical contribution or a methodological contribution. This contribution is captured by your thesis statement, and must show linkage to some theory, model, conceptual framework and discovery of some new relationships that have been instrumental in solving the problem. 
The third paragraph should highlight the rigor of your methodology and should give an estimation of your time and effort that is considered necessary for a PhD. 
Fourth paragraph represents the results and discussion. Last paragraph should give the conclusion and the significance for decision makers, practitioners or researchers, and a sentence or two about future work and limitations that need to be overcome. 

Dynamic Guidance of the Abstract

Abstract during the Proposal Stage: 

The abstract consists of the back ground of the problem and the problem statement, research questions and a thesis statement and a brief description of the methodology to be used. Thesis statement will continue going through a process of refinement as the research writing will develop. 

Abstract during the Writing of Literature Survey Stage

First paragraph of the abstract will undergo changes as you further crystallize the sequence in which you arrive at the problem statement through your literature survey. As described in the post Literature Review of a PhD Dissertation: Synthesis vs Listing, the path from the general problem area to the specific articulation of your Problem Statement is often not clearly understood unless it is written down and revised several times. Each such major revision may result in tweaking of one or more terms used in the abstract. This is the time that you need to get rid of any superfluous statements from your literature survey. The guiding rule is that any discussion in literature survey that is not helping the reader in understanding the problem statement or Thesis Statement  should be thrown away. It is often painful to throwaway the material that you may have taken a long time to write and improve. But writing of that material had served its purpose. It has told you what is important to your research and what is not. You are expected to keep only the things that are helping in placing your research in the context of the existing research. 
Literature survey is often the most painful part of the dissertation. The relevant research that you are describing or quoting was written by their authors to help elucidate their problem statement and their thesis statement. Your literature survey is supposed to be helping your reader to understand your problem statement and your thesis statement. Writing of literature survey chapter should be from the point of view of your problem and thesis statement and not from their point of view.  
Literature survey is often long. Therefore, to keep the reader focused you need to abstract the literature survey is an overview table that describes the flow of discussion in the literature survey. These tables can be supported by some other tables that summarize the literature in individual sections. The whole idea is not to keep the reader in suspense. 

Abstract during the Methodology Writing Stage

What to keep in abstract and what not is often very difficult for the methodology chapter and results. There are much too many steps, and too many tables that you want to describe. However, the few sentences of the abstract helps you in focusing on the main flow of methodology. It is always a good idea to explain the alternatives that you have chosen and the alternatives that you considered but left them. This is the Rigor of PhD Research. It is best explained through tables which describes the reasons why particular alternatives were chosen.

Abstract during the Discussion Writing Stage

The few sentences of the abstract which refer to the discussion are your pointer to the thrust of your discussion chapter. Interpretation of results and their explanations is often the most important thing for the evaluators. Why the results are as they are. If items are dropped, or certain factors are not behaving the way they were supposed to are important from the point of view of insights that they provide. Key insights need to be part of the discussion chapter connecting your thesis statement with the results.

Abstract during the Conclusions and Significance Writing Stage 

Conclusions and Significance of your research as well as its limitations and delimitations are important in alerting the reader to the extent of your understanding of the research significance. They also point to the care you took in research and also the usefulness of your research to researchers, and practitioners. 

Tweaking of Dissertation to maintain the consistency of Abstract

Finally, remember nothing in the dissertation is rigid. Abstract and ordering of the discussion keeps on changing. The paramount consideration is the readability of your dissertation or is it making sense or not. This is explained in the post on flipping the assumptions and conclusions Flipping the Thread of Argument in your PhD Thesis


See Also:

What is PhD?

Why PhD is Difficult: 

Starting with your PhD

Reading Research and Writing your Research
Qualitative Learning from a PhD


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