The Art of the Abstract

Applications for competitive fellowships and grants often require a research abstract, but condensing big research ideas into a short blurb can be a challenging task. How does one go about writing an effective abstract? Think of the abstract as a highly compressed version of your research proposal. It should follow a similar structure and formula of your extended research description, but will contain much less information. In fact, it should contain only the most important information about your research.

So what do you need to accomplish in an abstract? In a short amount of space you need to 1) explain what you are doing 2) describe how you are doing it and 3) convey why it matters. That is, you need to present a research question or puzzle, briefly describe the methods you will use to answer this question, and convey the deeper or broader significance of your work. You can present these elements in any order you like, and it is up to you whether you present your research question in the interrogative form or not. But these key ingredients and the logical flow between them form the backbone of a successful abstract in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Let’s examine these steps in more detail.

1) FRAME your project around an open-ended research question.

The reviewers of your application will want to have a clear sense of the new knowledge you are contributing to your field. In order to convey this new knowledge, introduce a research question in your abstract (and your research proposal) that conveys what will be learned as a result of conducting your research. We discussed composing an effective research question in earlier entry.

2) SHOW how your research methods answer your question

Next, you will need to describe your theoretical framework and research methods. There should be logical flow between presenting the puzzle of your project and the steps you will take to solve that puzzle. Of course, you cannot give an extended explanation of your methods in the abstract, but with the strategic use of the words “by” and “because” you can provide a concise description of your methods and their rationale. Another way to efficiently demonstrate the viability of your methods in the abstract is to gloss any previous success or preliminary findings upon which your current or proposed research is being built.

3) RELATE your project to a broader context of significance

The question a reviewer is likely to ask when reading your abstract is: why does this matter? As such, it is important to take step back from your work and consider why what you are doing is relevant to scholars within and outside of your discipline. Keep the goals of the funder in mind when explaining the significance of your project. Determine what they trying to achieve with their monetary intervention, and from there, plan how you will best make an explicit connection to their goals.

FINALLY…FLOW

In addition to incorporating these three ingredients there needs to be a logical flow to the abstract. The reviewer should be able to easily trace your thinking from the first to last sentence of the document. Though the abstract might comprise a small part of your application in word count, writing it in a scholarly rigorous and reader-friendly fashion can go a long way increasing the competitiveness of your application.

About Ben Arenger

I am a postdoctoral associate in fellowship advising at the Graduate School-New Brunswick, Rutgers University.
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