Thursday, November 21, 2013

Writing an abstract before finishing the research

It's Q&A time!

Recently, I received this mail from a reader:

I'm an early-stage PhD student in humanities, and my question is whether or not it is advisable to write an abstract for a conference before doing much of the research or any of the writing. I did this quite successfully for a graduate student conference, but I'm a bit more apprehensive about doing the same for my first professional conference.

Here's what Auntie Eva has to say on this topic:

I'd say - as goes with so many questions - "It depends".

IMO it depends on a few things:

1. Time schedule

There's a good number of conferences that require you to submit an abstract 2 years before the actual conference. For that situation, you have plenty of time between submitting the abstract and the due date of the paper - so you can plan to do your research in those months.

2. Contents of the abstract

How much of a grasp of the research do you have to make a conclusion to your abstract? Your concluding sentence does not need to be something like "it was found that property Y depends for X% on parameter Z", but you need to tell them if you are going to come up with recommendations, parallels - you need to point in the direction of what will be the result of the research already. So, if you have a schedule and know what you'll be digging into, you can have an idea of what TYPE of results you can promise in the abstract (the precise quantity can come later). Note that I write this from an engineering point of view - it might slightly differ in the humanities, although the general setup of abstracts and papers is the same along disciplines.

3. Tools

Do you have everything in your hands to get started on the research, or do you still need to sharpen your pencil and collect materials to make up your mind about where you will be going with this research? This question ties back to the time schedule part again as well.

With that said, I wrote my first abstract (for a conference for PhD students only, though) when I was less than 2 months in Delft, and the paper within 4 months of starting. It was all very preliminary, but it was a good lesson. By all means, conferences are one of the best places to learn, so if you have the chance, go to as many places as you can!


  1. I would urge caution here. Submitting an abstract containing claims or conclusions from research yet to be undertaken is a bad habit to get into and in some cases may be research misconduct.

    Remember the conference abstracts are often published so the claims you make are in the public domain and up for scrutiny!

  2. Yes, although the chance of going to a conference early on in your doctorate can be absolutely enriching (and getting early feedback from outside of your institution)

  3. ... and I must add, thanks a lot for your thoughtful comment!