By Trevor C. Hunt
This article originally appeared on Student Doctor Network on June 11, 2019.
Welcome to “Research for the Rest of Us”, a column about navigating the complex intricacies of life in the lab. These articles aren’t for the superhuman Nature-publishing, Nobel Prize-winning MD/PhDs out there, but rather for the rest of us: the Average Joes simply trying to get our feet wet in research. Join us as we journey through this complex world of academic adventures, from picking a project to matching into your dream residency and everything in between.
Abstracts are an essential currency of research, especially for students and early career scientists. They are the ticket to entry for conferences and symposiums, and the strength of your abstract directly impacts the amount of exposure your research will receive. The same project that is accepted for an oral presentation could easily have been assigned to a less competitive poster presentation or rejected outright if a less polished abstract had been sent in. Thus, learning to craft a good abstract is an essential skill and one that can open doors and elevate the success of your research during medical school and beyond.
Writing abstracts is not easy; the thought of compressing an entire project into just a few hundred words can be truly daunting. However, with the right framework and approach, even the most novice researcher can put together an abstract that will impress reviewers and increase the chances of success. This article will discuss the components of an abstract, how to go about writing one, and the importance of telling a story with your work.
The Blueprints to a Better Abstract
Abstracts are relatively standardized, and the vast majority follow a similar blueprint. Here, we’ll walk through this general format with the understanding that you’ll occasionally have to veer off the beaten path. At its heart, an abstract is meant to boil down and present the most essential elements of a research project or paper. Thus, most abstracts contain a heading with the title and author info and a body with an introduction, methods, results, and conclusions.
First and foremost, your abstract needs a title. Often times it is easiest to craft this after the abstract’s body is complete, and the same abstract can certainly have multiple suitable titles. Picking the right one for your submission is an acquired skill, but in general try to correlate it to the conference’s theme while clearly highlighting your major finding. An abstract for a basic science conference may describe the granular details while one for a clinical meeting might be better off mentioning the potential therapeutic applications. Strong wording is a must, as a powerful title will catch much more attention than a drab one.
To finish out the heading, be sure to properly credit your co-authors with complete institutional affiliations. When in doubt ask the co-authors how they’d like to be listed, and never submit an abstract without making sure each co-author is aware that their name is on the work. Generally, the abstract’s writer should be first author while the PI is last, with others listed in between in order of most to least contributing work on the project. In the case of equal contributions, alphabetical order for middle authors is always a safe bet. While not required, running the draft by your team before submitting is good practice and can make sure everyone is happy with their spot in the rank to avoid future frustrations.
The introduction or background begins the abstract’s body and is generally kept concise. The goal is to set the stage for your work, give the reader an idea of why it matters, and lay out your hypothesis. There is no need to write a novel or literature review here, just stick to the most crucial elements of background. The best abstracts will present the problem at hand and summarize the key findings of other studies within the first sentence or two. They will then point out or define a “gap” in what is currently known, and next propose how your research aimed to fill that gap and what it expected to find. This section, just like the title, can and should be tweaked and tuned to align with the theme or focus of what the abstract is being submitted to.
Methods come next, and once again should be concise. This section will vary greatly depending on the type of research conducted. You should state all aspects of your study and what was done, but you do not need to include the step-by-step details unless a method is novel. Stating that a western blot was performed is sufficient; listing the gel’s manufacturer is overkill. Don’t forget to include sample sizes in parentheses where relevant and state which statistical tests you utilized.
Next up is the results, arguably the most important section of your abstract and generally the longest by word count. This is your meat and potatoes, where you state the outcome of everything done in the methods and provide the evidence that will ultimately support or refute your hypothesis. No need to fully interpret your results here, simply list them and provide basic context to cue your reader into their importance. P-values should be included in parentheses along with other relevant measures like odds ratios and confidence intervals. Throughout, be sure to emphasize your major findings and only briefly mention the more extraneous measures.
Lastly, a discussion or conclusions section very succinctly ties it all together. Summarize the big picture or key takeaway of your abstract in one sentence, and then extrapolate it out to mention the impact it will have or the direction you must pursue next. No need to restate your introduction but be sure to close the loop on those topics raised initially. Ultimately, this is the place to insert that pivotal thought or compelling argument that you want your reader to walk away with.
Write with Your Audience in Mind
Nearly all abstracts contain the core components above, but the finer details often vary from one submission to the next. Additionally, tailoring your abstract to better fit the theme of the conference or journal you are submitting to, just as one might tailor a resume to a given job application, is a must. For these reasons, you should always write with your specific audience in mind.
Begin by locating the abstract submission guidelines, which are often listed online. Whether you are adapting an already written abstract or starting from scratch, this is where you should go first. Follow them to a T, as any deviations can make you look unprofessional and may even be grounds for removing your abstract from consideration. Pay special attention to word counts and formatting guidelines, as these are the most likely to vary. Be sure to title your subsections as requested (e.g., Introduction vs. Background) and include any additional sections that may be required. Take note of whether or not supplemental materials, such as a key figure, are allowed to be submitted. Following these guidelines precisely is crucial, as abstracts are often printed exactly as submitted and any errors can cause yours to be thrown out.
While writing, tailor everything to the purposes of your submission. As touched on above, this will be most prominent in the title, introduction, and conclusions with the methods and results remaining more standardized. When submitting to a conference for example, keep the sponsoring organization at the front of your mind and find out if there is a special theme for the meeting. Think about who will be attending the meeting, as this is the cohort that abstract reviewers will most likely come from. The more you can align your work with these factors, the better your chance of being accepted and getting a more desirable presentation slot.
Lastly, proofread and perfect your draft. If you haven’t included your mentor yet, this is the time to utilize their expertise. Just like when you wrote your personal statement for school applications, you will benefit from getting as many eyes as you can on this thing. Remember, you only get one shot to submit. Since you won’t be able to elaborate on or clarify your work to the reviewer, you need to make sure your submission is bulletproof. Once you are satisfied, tweak your intro and conclusion as needed so that they align and complement each other. Finally, put the bow on top by writing or re-writing your title to ensure it accurately reflects all of what you’ve put together.
Tell a Story
Most important of all, your abstract should tell a story. While everything discussed above is important for writing an effective abstract, this single factor is what separates the best from the rest. An abstract can be objectively good without telling a story, sure, but it will not be nearly as compelling. It can have all the required components and be more polished than its peers, but it will still just be an abstract. To be more, it must tell a story.
Achieving this is no simple task. It will not come easy, it will not happen overnight or by accident, and it will certainly not be done alone. However, with a great mentor guiding your efforts and plenty of practice, this skill is just as achievable as any other. Much of what was discussed above is necessary, but not sufficient, for telling a story with your writing. It should be tailored to your audience, it should be consistent from start to finish, and it should present a gap that it then goes on to fill in. Like a story, it must have a clear beginning, middle, and a satisfying end. These are the basic building blocks, and in time—and with patience—you will learn how to put them together just right to give rise to a compelling narrative.
When working to hone this skill, it is helpful to read the work of others and pick out what they did well and what they did not, from your perspective as a reader. If you ever have the opportunity to review abstracts for a meeting, snatch it up! Doing so will force you to think in a very organized and critical manner about the work you read, and relating these observations back to your own writing is an invaluable way to self-reflect and improve. Did their abstract tell a story, or did it merely describe an experiment? Why or why not? How does this compare to your own writing, and what aspects can you change or borrow to make your work stand out?
Ultimately, to tell a compelling story you must find a way to reach through the paper rather than simply putting ink onto it. Doing so will allow you to truly connect with your reader, and only then can your science’s story be told properly.
As a student, research productivity is unfortunately often measured not by what you do in the lab but by what ends up on your CV. When applying to residency, nobody sees the hundreds of hours you slaved away with your mice or your dataset if posters and presentations of your results aren’t listed on ERAS. Abstracts, of course, are the barrier to entry when it comes to acquiring these accolades. Presenting you work is an opportunity to both catalogue your productivity and improve your abilities. Learn to write a truly compelling abstract, and these opportunities will be endless.
About the Author
Trevor C. Hunt is a rising fourth-year medical student and a member of his school’s Research Distinction Track, currently completing a one-year research fellowship. He authors the SDN column “Research for the Rest of Us”, using his experience to help others navigate the precarious pitfalls of life in the lab. He enjoys reading and art, and when not in the hospital or conducting experiments can often be found on a golf course or a ski slope. Find him on Twitter: @TrevorHunt_ECU