The Curse of the Absolutely Astounding Abstract

Paula Hanasz  is currently writing a thesis on the geopolitics of water security in South Asia at The ANU. She is enrolled at the Australia National University but currently spends more time on her couch than in her office or the library.

The first time we met Paula she was experiencing PhD lifestyle guilt. Next she shared with us the problem of the research problem and wondered whether she would ever get a job.

When Paula proposed this topic to me I instantly said yes. How I could relate to The Curse of the Absolutely Astounding Abstract. Enjoy.

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 9.37.53 amThe call for papers came at a particularly fortuitous moment.

I was procrastinating over a thesis chapter and relished the opportunity to distract myself with something more legitimate to my PhD guilt-ridden mind than trawling lolmythesis or PhD Comics. So I wrote an abstract.

It was really rather straightforward – I just strung together some jargon with ambiguous references to a particularly debatable theory and hey presto, abstract done!

I submitted my 200 words of academic gobbledygook to the conference organisers and promptly forgot about it.

Months passed, seasons changed, thesis chapter drafts came and went. Suddenly, one fine day the email arrived. My abstract had been accepted! I did a little dance of joy in my seat. I was going to present at a major international conference half way around the world! All I had to do was write a paper based on my winning abstract…

So what exactly had I gotten myself in to?

I dredged out the long-forgotten abstract from my ‘PhD – misc.’ folder (I hadn’t written too many abstracts before, so never felt the need to create a separate folder for them). It took 10 seconds to read and 11 seconds for my heart to sink.

It was brilliant. It was an absolutely astounding abstract. It made sense, it clearly addressed an important idea, and would surely make an original contribution to the field. It was written in the sort of scintillating academese that I had read elsewhere. Had I not written it, I would have been jealous of the author’s prowess, knowledge and analytical ability. I would have immediately read the entirety of their article.

I slumped in my chair, the one that only moments earlier had been the dance floor for my bum. Why was such a good abstract so bad? Well, now I had to write a whole conference paper around it! I feared that all my subject matter expertise could only ever amount to 200 words of brilliance, not 5,000.

That fickle fiend the impostor syndrome had snuck up on me.

“Aren’t you pleased you’ve written something so good? You should be proud,” said my best friend. She successfully defended her own PhD a year ago, so she was probably a poor choice for giving me advice. The valley of shit was far, far behind her and I was convinced that even her most incoherent undergraduate essays were better than my best postgraduate efforts. No wonder she thought I should be pleased and proud – she certainly never had a reason not to be!

After the dust of my initial panic settled, I began to see the wisdom of my friend’s words.

I was pleased I had written something that made sense. I was pleased that all my years of study, wide reading, and work experience had culminated in me being able to swiftly identify a knowledge gap, lucidly establish a methodology for filling it, and set about gathering and analysing evidence. I shouldn’t have been so flippant in describing the effort it took to write that abstract. After all, sprinting 100 metres at the Olympics might only take 10 seconds, but represents years of hard work, determination, talent and passion.

After a short interlude of picturing myself receiving a gold medal at the podium of the conference I was to speak at, I set about writing the actual paper.

It turned out that in submitting that absolutely astounding abstract I had set myself an absolutely confounding challenge. It pushed me to dig deeper into my subject matter and think more broadly about my theoretical assumptions. It made me form stronger arguments and write in a clearer, more persuasive way. After all, my audience wasn’t going to be just my kind-hearted, gentle supervisor – it was going to be a lecture hall full of the world’s experts on my topic!

Surprise, surprise, it turned out I was more than capable of writing and presenting the paper on my absolutely astounding abstract, which in the end I amended to reflect my conclusions. And now that it’s all done, suppose I should get back to writing that thesis chapter. It should be a piece of cake now that I’ve gotten many relevant ideas written out in that conference paper.

How about you? Have you ever written an absolutely astounding abstract and then found yourself having to dig deep and write the actual paper. How did you go?

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14 thoughts on “The Curse of the Absolutely Astounding Abstract

  1. Oxford DPhile says:

    that always happens to me and I always panic and I always end up making leaps in my actual thesis writing. My entire thesis is driven by promises I cannot deliver (and then mostly deliver).

  2. abnormaldata says:

    I find that the most exciting and interesting part of the research happens when digging deeper and tying the paper’s motivation, methodology and results to existing literature. I’m trying to get into the habit of writing full papers rather than abstracts or technical reports for even small chunks of work, as I keep running into this same effect: it’s only when I write it out and “dig deeper” that the idea matures and is situated in the larger context (easier said than done, time-wise!). I have a colleague that does this, and I’m always impressed by his publication productivity. It’s a habit I guess – the more you write, the easier it is becomes to already start working towards a paper rather than just leaving it as an abstract (with the added benefit that if rejected, the extended version can just be resubmitted elsewhere with minimal effort).

  3. drjensjhansen says:

    A number of years ago, on a hot January afternoon, I wrote a two pager about preparing a useful abstract and I uploaded it onto my website

    To my pleasant surprise, it’s had almost 47,000 hits since then and has been bookmarked more than 500 times. The actual two pager can still be accessed on's%20guide%20to%20writing%20a%20persuasive%20academic%20abstract%20(Autosaved).pdf

    But my key point is that your comments about preparing an abstract in anticipation of gaining the green light to present at a conference resonates, utterly. Very often writers submit abstracts in eager anticipation without necessarily having determined the feasibility of that which they are promising. Hence, adjusting the abstract prior to presentation, in light of revised findings and/or thinking, makes a lot of sense. Good on you for your contribution.

  4. coppenheim says:

    Doesn’t just apply to PhD theses. Many’s the time I’ve submitted an abstract for a conference presentation and then regretted it nearer the time because it was too broad, too ambitious, etc.

  5. Christy says:

    Perfect timing! This exact thing just happened to me. But I am finding that writing the paper is going ok. Thanks for the encouragement.

  6. Janice says:

    I have had the opposite experience. I found that unless I’ve already got the paper in a mostly-publishable state when I write a conference abstact, inevitably, what I present at the conference is different (sometimes vastly so!) to what I wrote in the abstract.

    When I realise this at the time of preparing for the presentation, I always wonder whether or not to apologise to the audience at the start of my presentation…

  7. darlinguist says:

    I successfully did that, submitting a nicely worded abstract only for it to be accepted & I had 2 weeks to craft the entire paper. Managed to get it done since I had the preliminary data but I sure was re-directing my attention to writing the paper instead of writing my thesis…

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