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Abstract writing recipe

  1. Apr 28, 2010 #1
    For everyone out there that has every pulled their hair out writing an abstract for some experimental work, I have a nice recipe for how the first couple sentences of one should go.

    We have measured (insert type of data i.e. time resolved absorption spectra, x-ray diffraction, surface roughness) of (insert sample. i.e. (MBE grown) polycrystalline Si, (sputtered)epitaxial Au, polyimide) using (insert technique name or equipment name i.e. standard q transmission, Bruker a42d, HP VNA, ultrafast stroboscopic method). We observe the (insert property of the data i.e. absorption peak, lattice spacing, standard deviation of the height) (describe the trend in the main graph. i.e. decreases with temperature, oscillates in time with frequency f). This (insert trend description) (insert significance: indicates that...,can be explained in terms of..., is (in)consistent with....) (..... = some thing really cool i.e. we can suppress gravity, some big shot theory is wrong, )

    I'm currently writing an abstract for a presentation on all my thesis work that I will be presenting at a job interview. My recipe for abstract writing above breaks down when I have more than one technique and sample. Over the course of my PhD, 1) I participated in the advancement of two instrumentation techniques, 2) observed interesting phenomena in two different systems. Because of funding, my four projects were barely related. Is it even possible to write a 150 word abstract for four separate research projects?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 28, 2010 #2
    Sure, you just throw an overarching roadmap thesis (remember those things from your humanities classes) on top of it all.

    In the course of exploring [the theme/topic that relates all four projects], I advanced [t1] & [t2] and observed [p1] in [s1] and [p2] in [s2]. Then you just throw in super condensed versions of each abstract: In measuring A using B, we found/improved C.
    Then a concluding sentence: All the work I did furthers [topic/theme] because [insert big significant thing]
  4. Apr 28, 2010 #3
    Wow. That's a really cool technique. I should have paid more attention to my humanities classes.

    I'm thinking something like this.

    We present our research investigating the (insert what we investigated i.e. dynamics, stoichiometry, dieletric properties ) of (insert names of systems 1 and 2 and ...) using (techniques 1 and 2 and ....). In system 1, we observe [super condensed version]. In system 2 we observe [super condensed version]. Over the course of this investigation we have [advanced: i.e. increased s/n ratio's, reduced acquisition time, etc...] of technique 2 by [how I advanced this technique. i.e. implementing some nifty algorithm, coming up with some nifty way to increase beam intensity, etc...].

    Thanks for the help story645
  5. Apr 29, 2010 #4


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    These abstracts are missing a key component: WHY. Why perform these experiments?

    I've seen a nice outline by http://www.principiae.be/index.html" [Broken], an engineer who provides training in scientific communication:


    It works for an abstract (use a sentence each), a paper (a section each), or a thesis (a chapter each). It's beautifully symmetric: the first and last topics are very broad, often forgotten by writers, but crucial to readers; while the center contains the details that we scientists/engineers slaved over, love to write about, but aren't quite as interesting to the casual reader. :smile:

    For a job interview, placing your work in context (by including the motivation and the implications) is crucial. Nearly every abstract/presentation I see shortchanges these areas.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  6. Apr 29, 2010 #5

    You intuitively good writers tick me off. You guys don't seem to understand that "Context" is not enough of a description. It does not demonstrate how to write. You might as well say

    "Here's how to write an introduction. Write something that introduces the material!!! Isn't my advice great? :)"

    I bet one of your best pieces of writing advice is "you have to be clear", isn't it?
  7. Apr 29, 2010 #6


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    Ha, you compliment me. As a born engineer, I'm far more comfortable with equations than words, and I understand how hard it is to build an arsenal of phrases and statements to describe one's work. Writing papers is very hard for me.

    I've noticed that a good context sentence tends to be absolutely obvious to the researcher - so much so that they tend to omit it from the abstract, as above. But it's invaluable at orienting the reader. The context might be "(Alloy) is now the most common alloy used in (industry)" or "(Material) is predicted to be necessary for achieving (achievement) in the 2014 semiconductor roadmap" or (from an abstract I'm working on now): "Human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs) are therapeutically useful cells that are typically expanded in vitro on stiff substrata before re-implantation." Imagine that your friend picks the most important word in your paper or project title (and you should know this) and says, "What is [X], in one sentence?"

    Then the need could be something like "However, deformation mechanisms in (alloy) are poorly understood," for example. Here your friend's question is "Why study [X], in one sentence?"

    A paper shouldn't be much different from transcribing a description to an engineer friend in another field, except you get much more time to refine and organize your comments. (You do describe your work to friends and listen carefully to their questions, right?)
  8. Apr 29, 2010 #7
    This actually somewhat translates into what you were already doing 'cause it's mostly equivalent to writing a sentence per section of your lab report/paper etc (which is the standard abstract recipe):

    context/need = intro
    task - methods
    findings = results
    conclusion = conclusion
    perspective = discussion
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  9. Apr 29, 2010 #8

    You were born an engineer? Umm..... If I may ask, how exactly did that happen? I have this image of baby Stewie buliding a small aircraft in utero, and rocketing past the doctor during birth screaming "I'm free!!!! Aha!!! Now you all shall rue the day I escaped!!!!"

    "(Material) is predicted to be necessary for achieving (achievement) in the 2014 semiconductor roadmap"

    This is a solid piece of advice. Thanks

    I'm jealous of engineers in that they have clearly defined projects. I.e. reduce power consumption, increase thermal tolerance, etc.... While I technically have my degree in Applied Physics (which is considered engineering), my projects have been motivated by "Your funding is coming from here, so do it." In fact, I think my advisor gets mildly offended/defensive whenever I asked him "what's the practical application of my research?".

    My only problem with your advice is, how do mathematicians, theorists, and humanities people every write their first sentence in the abstract?
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