Showing posts with label doctorate. Show all posts
Showing posts with label doctorate. Show all posts

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A Quick Guide to Writing an Abstract

But will your abstract fit inside the box?

If you have been reading my blog on The Art of the Abstract, are you now ready for the quick guide?


Use one paragraph.
Stick to the word length.
Check the format style guides for the journal or awarding body / institution.
Employ a professional style


Use language that will be understood by readers in your field.
Consider also the needs of the general reader.
Think about the most relevant key words that need emphasis
Write short sentences. Very short.
Employ transitions between the sentences.
Use the active voice, rather than passive constructions
Use the third person singular. IT.
Choose the past tense in the main body.
Check your grammar
Avoid abbreviations.
Provide clear statements: avoid loose opinions.
Employ the present tense for the introduction and the conclusion.


Learn from other respected scholars in your chosen field.
Read journal abstracts in order to become familiar with the standard terminology.
Print out your draft abstract and check it again for errors, waffle and repetition.
Ask a colleague or associate to check your work.
Model your work on excellent examples of abstracts.


Employ an introductory statement and conclusion written in the present tense. (This research demonstrates that ...)
Answer the key questions: what, why, and how.
Follow your headings and subheadings in order to guide the sequence of  the abstract.
Don’t add supplementary information or ideas.
Do not cite the sections of the paper / article / chapter.
Avoid specific references to figures and tables included in your paper.
Avoid the repetition of information.
Check for accuracy of content.

Anything I've missed? Please add comments below.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also worth a look: The PhD Roadmap: A Guide to Successful Submission of your Dissertation / Thesis.

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Art of the Abstract

' Supervisor, I found Yorick's Abstract. '

Do you hear, let them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.” --- Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Nowadays there is more pressure than ever to publish often and early. Such is the plight of the doctoral student and the early career academic; such is the life of any career academic.

One of the tricks of the trade that every academic learns is how to write an effective abstract. Typically this activity was undertaken at the end of the third year of the Ph.D and was part of the processing of submitting your work for critical scrutiny.

But really we were abstracting all the way along. The ability to compose a quick summary of what you have been reading is the beginning of abstraction. It’s a useful habit to acquire early in one’s intellectual development.

What you find in the abstract will also be quite similar basically to the sorts of general questions that you will have been asked when seeking funding, or applying for a continuation of your research.

So when we are reading anything, we might want to be asking some questions.

What is this work about?
Why has it been written
What has been discovered?
How did the writer get there?

At first this can be quite bewildering because we are overwhelmed by the sheer plenitude and richness and depth of the writing. But God’s Gift to Scholars is the Abstract. This presents a ready-made solution to these probing questions. As I have pointed out in another post, How doAcademics Read so many Books? The abstract is the short cut for the overloaded, overworked, underpaid scholar-teacher. My intention was not to be cynical. In fact, more pragmatically, it is not possible to undertake wider reading and gain wider familiarity with a body of work without reading lots of abstracts. Abstracts help researchers to decide on what is most  and what is least relevant for their reading. While it may take three hours or more to comb through an academic paper, it will take less than ten minutes to skim and scan the contents. But I can survey the abstract in a matter of seconds.

Therefore, a well-written abstract allows readers to work out how relevant the research undertaken is to what they are trying to achieve. If it is highly relevant then there is a second virtue. The abstract becomes a useful reference point and benchmark for the longer and larger scholarship that follows.

If am I surveying the wider field, and therefore writing a literature review, the abstract is very helpful in providing a quick summary of the work that allows me to position it in relation to other work, either as a specialism, or a theme. The abstract tells me where the research belongs, as part of a cluster, and also, more significantly, provides a sense of its individuality or uniqueness. The sense singularity or originality of the contribution to knowledge is a valued aspect that the abstract must communicate effectively.

In this sense, abstract are useful signposts, they give me a sense of direction.

When I was writing my book The Art of Connection, I noted that one of the Nine Arts of Connection was the Art of the Summary. We are summarising all the time. Often this evident at the end of a paragraph or the end of an essay or speech. Summaries therefore have impact. In a very broad sense, we are already familiar with the art of the summary because we are doing it all the time in the process of reading and writing. Summaries are signposts and they help us to recall key points efficiently and effectively.

In the academic world the abstract is usually one paragraph consisting of about 200 to 300 words. It is situated just under the title of the paper or it appears at the end. It is very important to realise that this is not a supplementary introduction.

While the researcher may all along have had a vague idea of the summary of the work undertaken, the abstract is a precise and efficient of the published text.

The abstract offers a swift appraisal of the research. It is helpful to think in terms of the model that is generally followed. Typically there are four components:

1. An Introduction to the research

2. The Methods, or Methodology employed.

3. The Results of the research

4. The Conclusions reached.

It is useful to remember that the abstract should follow the key sections of your published research in sequence.

Specifically the abstract needs

  • To identify the main subject of the research and its purpose. This may point to the literature review element and provides a wider context for the work.

  • To outline the problem investigated and the approach taken. Explain your objectives and hypothesis precisely. Summarise your methodology.

  • To present your results. What was it that you found out?

  • To offer conclusions. This may involve policy implications.

These are the key words that the abstract-writer and researcher needs to think about clearly: problem, solution, example, evaluation/comparison.

It’s really worth spending a lot of time perfecting your abstract. 

Indeed it might be the only part of your work that most scholars in your field ever read. 

Perhaps it’s what you’ll be remembered by.
Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also worth a look: The PhD Roadmap: A Guide to Successful Submission of your Dissertation / Thesis.

Wisdom is the abstract of the past, but beauty is the promise of the future.

--- Oliver Wendell Holmes

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Finding your authentic academic voice

Are you still sharpening your use of academic language, or are you loosening the reins?

The title of this blog points to the tensions involved in professional educational writing. In one sense the purely personal, original, pre-academic voice is a fiction. By joining the ranks of academe your voice has already begun to switch from a personal to a public voice. Taking the micky becomes parody or satire, for instance. Academic writing loses colloquial speech-like qualities and takes on the jargon of professional authenticity. And speech also tends to lose the accent and dialect of your class roots. Sadly, standard academic English is a rather middle-class business proposition. There is a gain but there is also a loss.

But academic voice in the arts and the social sciences need not be the bleak accent of dry neutrality and emotionless abstraction. Surely there's an error in losing the individual idiosyncrasy of the human pulse in this domain of work?

While it is true that the lexis of academic disputation is often overused it is clearly helpful if you want to signal degrees or shades of difference in your interpretation. In that regard arts and social sciences judgements are not derived from logical positivism, and evidence and interpretation have shades of gray. All writers also deploy a variety and range of connectives to link ideas and signpost the flow of thoughts. The trick is not to use them too much, or too little, because you will end up sounding like a robot, rather than a sentient and sensitive human creature! In summary ...

Language is your tool, not your master.

Is it worth pointing our that grammarians are divided between those who describe actual living usage, and those who try to enforce, regulate and prescribe based on tradtion? Our greatest writers, such as Shakespeare, were often ungrammatical by modern standards.

Have we become too prescriptive and normative in our deployment of academic writing skills? Academic composition has certainly spawned an academic sub-industry of poorly and well-paid tutors who will offer you the keys to success. They will help you to pay lip-service to the discourse of acdemia.

Academic discourse is a specialist use of English which is still evolving. I suspect that it’s becoming less stiff and stylised nowadays. An example of the current informaility is the tendency to use the first person pronoun “I” instead of the neutral objectivity of the third person. Even abbreviations and speech like contractions are now common, as I’VE noticed in recently published academic books. By claiming to be a common language of transparency academic discourse pretends to show us the ideas, rather than the person speaking them. Eventually by playing them game you lose your consciousness of the rules by which it operates.

At its worst academic discourse serves as a defensive armour or shield; at its best it supports the elegant deployment of necessary subtleties.

Any thoughts? Have you been sharpening or loosening your academic style?

Useful Sites

Academic Phrasebank. Created by the University of Manchester.

Using English for Academic Purposes. A Guide for Students in Higher Education

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

PhD Roadmap: 9 Tips for a Successful Doctoral Submission

From time to time PhDs are submitted and they are failed. Your 3 to 7 year investment does not come with any guarantee of a pass. Nor is it enough complain that the supervisory team did not tell you that you might fail, or that you are at risk. While failure is very uncommon, there are no guarantees of success.

Most examiners are looking for positive evidence of success, but they are also required to identify weaknesses and errors. Both roles comprise the work of critical scrutiny and the professional process of examination.

On one occasion when I was serving as a PhD examiner we required major corrections with a 24 month timetable as that seemed to be the alternative to a failure. But the alarm bells ought to have been clear well before submission. Multiple errors and weaknesses may result in protracted re-submission or even outright failure.

Examiners often spot weaknesses that your supervisors may not have identified or scrupulously checked. It is not uncommon for examiners to check the accuracy of all your sources, for instance. Sometimes examiners will compete to find the most errors in your work!

Cumulatively minor changes are alarming because they point to a lack of accuracy and a poor standard of professionalism. Even minor corrections many involve months of tiresome (and expensive) checking of sources in overseas research libraries, if that’s where you used unique texts...

Here are some quick fix solutions to help you avoid the dreaded F-verdict.

1. Original Contribution is the Key

Be clear about your original contribution to the body of human knowledge. That’s what the doctoral qualification is based on. This does not mean that you will not be heavily dependent on a collaborative engagement with others and with past scholarship. But is does help you case if you are able to outline what you have discovered that is new. It’s not enough to create patchwork, a new mix, or a mash-up. Therefore stress the unique contribution of your work and be clear about which parts offer fresh interpretations or challenges to the orthodoxy. This does not mean that your work has to revolutionise the entire discipline or field of enquiry. But you will need a balance between humility and a realistic sense of what your achievements have been.

2. Errors in References, Footnotes and the Bibliography

These are the anchor for your work and the foundation for professionalism. If you have maintained these accurately from the start then your final preparation of your thesis will be stress free. It is essential that your format corresponds with that recommended by your institution, and that it is consistent. Check punctuation and title formats in italics, publisher, place and date of publication in the right order. If there are 12 or more mistakes you may be in trouble.

Also check that you are using standard editions of key works. Penguin Books, for instance, often modernise spellings and style, whereas Oxford UP does not.

3. Fat or Thin Bibliographies

Don’t force feed a bibliography with stuff that you never read or did not use. At the other extreme don’t just list the texts that you worshipped as your guiding lights. Omissions suggest you did not read enough, or that you are concealing your influences. On the other hand, unnecessary additions suggest a forest of confusion; they are the vice of excess packaging.

4. Ideological shorthand and sleight of hand.

A theoretical bag of tricks often appears to be essential for the post-post-post-structuralist. Don’t mix and match schools of ideas and concepts just for show, and don’t be shallow. Critical and theoretical terms often have distinctive histories and traditions.

You might hang yourself by a loose use of deconstruction and signifiers left hanging on inappropriate semiotics. Key words and ideas require careful and consistent use. Sloppy and inconsistent use suggests that you are unsure about the progression of your thesis.

5. The solution to the word/world/universe thesis.

If your thesis is too big it may buckle under the pressure. Don’t pretend that you can overturn a major scholar’s life’s work in 3 years' scholarship. Unless your are blessed with genius and superhuman powers your most original work will be achieved in your post-doc years.

6. Research sources need to show a chronological range.

If you just rely on research undertaken since 2000 you may well be losing vital evidence that supports the foundation and origins of your work. You may miss minority or contested debates. Similarly, your work also needs to show evidence that it is up-to-date. Again, sweeping generalisations about Descartes or Darwin, or Hegel or Derrida should be avoided. Be precise about intellectual phases and developments and reference works and texts rather than author summaries.

7. Avoid general statements that lack evidence

Scholars agree that...
Many critics have proposed that...
A minority of academics would disagree.

We need names and footnotes. Sweeping statements tend to betray lazy scholarship
We need precision and we are looking for nuance and detail. Demonstrate your familiarity with all relevant secondary critical texts by footnoting and discussing appropriately.

8. Tell-tale signs of the rushed submission

Apart from the multiplication of errors relating to accuracy, the obvious signs of a rushed submission will be evident in the style of writing. The style is uneven, sometimes colloquial, often fuzzy. The lack of lucidity and precision fogs the sense of your work. Baggy or half-baked sentences stifle communication.

9. Heads and Tails.

It is essential to write a solid introduction and a firm conclusion. These require more careful thought, and more studious revision than any other part of your work. They open and close the doors to success or failure. Poor openings and endings suggest a lack of confidence or an unseemly rush to complete against the clock.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also try: The Art of the Abstract

A Quick Guide to Writing and Abstract.