How to Write an Abstract
What is the purpose of an abstract?
The purpose of an abstract is to communicate the goals of a research study you would like to carry out or results of a research study that you have already conducted. In principle, think of what, why and how. In other words, you want to communicate what you want to do/did, why it is/was important to do and how you will do/have done it. In most cases, those reading it will not be experts in exactly what you did, so you want to provide a succinct, although brief, introduction.
In order to get your message across, it is crucial to be clear. This is your chance to entice the reader and make him/her interested in learning more about what your project. However, you must be brief, as most abstracts are approximately 250 words.
As long as you are at MSSM, you will be working with a mentor. One suggested system is to write the first draft of the abstract in your own words, after the two of you have agreed on the nature of the study. Then pass it on to your mentor for his/her comments. Since you are most likely not an expert in this area, you can use any materials from your mentor, e.g., abstracts, grants, papers or from the literature. However, rethink and rephrase concepts in your own words. In this way, what is not clear to you will become obvious. Moreover, you may even come up with some new ideas to incorporate into your project.
Always show the abstract to your mentor before you submit it. He/she has more experience and can offer advice and suggestions that might not have otherwise occurred to you. This can make your abstract more competitive.
How should it be organized?
Title, Authors, Department, and Institution:
Most of this should be clear. The title should be concise and to the point. As for the authorships, the first author is usually the one who has done most of the work and the last author is usually the senior author. Those in the middle have contributed to the project is different ways. Authorships are not gifts, but represent a reward for work done. The rules are not intuitive and are complicated, so check with your mentor.
An abstract on work you have already done:
In this case, you are trying to sell your project to someone else. Select a title that is short and informative. Begin the abstract itself with the WHAT: a statement that introduces the nature of the problem under study and the area in which you are working. You can devote 2-4 sentences to this. Next, the WHY: a statement about what led up the work, e.g., a need in the field, earlier work of your mentor's group and, then, specifically what you decided to do, e.g., the hypothesis you tested or the specific question you asked. Be sure that this enables the reader to appreciate the importance of the question. Again, 2-4 sentences. Now comes the HOW: what approach/test/system you used. This is followed by the results you obtained and/or the conclusions you drew. You should devote the most space to the results and conclusions, since the abstract is meant to communicate why your findings are worth presenting. End with a summary that briefly restates what you learned and/or where you are going in the future. If your work is important, it will open the door to subsequent studies, even if you don't do them yourself.
An abstract on work you have not already done:
This situation usually arises when you are applying for funding for a project. Your goal is to convince the reviewers that your study is worth investing in - sometimes at the expense of another project. You want to have a title that will engage interest and, at the same time, be informative. Begin with the WHAT, that is 2-4 sentences on what you want to do. Next, as for an abstract on work you have already done, comes the WHY: a statement about what made you want to work in this area or on this particular project. For example, mention some of the limitations on what is known about the problem or refer to work your mentor has done in this area that you will be building upon. Follow this with the hypothesis you want to test. Then comes what you plan to do specifically, e.g., the specific aims of your study and very briefly the methodology or approach you will take to accomplish the aims. Conclude with a statement about what the implications might be if you are successful.
Remember, it is to your benefit to clearly convey to the reader the point of your project in a compelling manner. Simple is elegant. Imagine that you are telling someone about your work, perhaps at a residency interview. Your ability to tell a gripping story can help to distinguish you from everyone else. Would you be impressed if you heard about this project from someone? Would you be bored? (If so, pick another project!) You can use this as an opportunity to determine where to go with your study - try to identify something that is missing and that, if done, would add weight to your conclusions. As you are writing your abstract, try to put yourself in the place of the reader who is a novice and the reader who is more experienced in the area. There should be something of interest for both of them, even if it's not the same thing. Make sure, upon rereading, that you like your abstract. If you don't you can be sure no one else will.
Karen Zier, PhD
Associate Dean for Medical Student Research
Christina Wyatt, MD
Grace Oluoch, MBA
Icahn School of Medicine
One Gustave L. Levy Place
Annenberg 13-30, Box 1257
New York, NY 10029