Category: Thesis

How are abstract, introduction, and conclusions different? (they really are)

Darrion Nguyễn (@lab_shenanigans) shares the above meme and writes

Abstract: I will do this thing
Introduction: I’m finna do this thing
Conclusion: So about that… I kinda did the thing. However, it can only be done only under some specific circumstances, which are beyond the scope of this paper and would require additional studies 🙃

Hey, Darrion, guess I'm gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you there! One big caveat: Clearly, as so many things, this is ultimately a matter of taste or group tradition.

But (!), the way I see these things, the ambiguity (amtriguity?) vanishes, and each of the three parts Abstract, Introduction, and Conclusion can be used to fulfill a distinct and useful purpose.

Let's start at the beginnning, with the Abstract. Remember that the abstract is available to everyone visiting a journal's website, regardless of whether they have a subscription to read the full paper or not. Some authors prefer to treat the abstract like a movie trailer, just teasing the article, not giving away too much and certainly not the resolution. I think that's a wasted opportunity: I want the curious reader to get a complete summary of the paper without having to first figure out how to get your library to subscribe, or to actually buy the article. Most importantly, I want the curious reader to know what the insights are, the take-aways.

The purpose of the Abstract is to provide a complete summary of the article, including research question, methods, approach, results, and conclusions.

Next is the Introduction, and there's a whole post about that: Without simply repeating what I wrote there:

The purpose of the Introduction is to present an interesting research question and demonstrate you are able to solve it.

Finally, we have the Conclusions.

The purpose of the Conclusions are to identify your lessons learned, things that surprised you. Find 3-5 points that you want the reader to take away from the paper, order them from most important to least important.

No need to summarize the paper (if you really, really want, maybe include a very short sentence stating the research goal identified at the end of the introduction, but don't repeat what you did).

Also no need to spell out all the things that you didn't do because they are beyond the scope. That goes without saying: things you didn't do are not in your paper.

So, sure, go ahead and treat Abstract, Introduction, and Conclusion all the same at your own peril; you are unnecessarily sacrificing a big opportunity to make your paper much clearer and poignant.

Happy writing!


What’s the difference between thesis and paper?

We talked about how to structure an academic article, but now you want to finally (finally!) write up your thesis. Is it the same thing, just longer?

Well, no. But also, yes. Kinda. Also, it depends.

Generally, the structure of a thesis is indeed similar to the structure of an academic article. Abstract, Inroduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, and Conclusion can be used to outline your thesis structure.

But beware: Your school has their own requirements (and, ideally, template) that your thesis has to follow before it will be accepted. Look it up!

Let's recall what we said about the purpose of a paper:

The main purpose of a paper is to convey a new idea, and show that it has merit.

At this point, we have to distinguish between a Masters thesis and a doctoral dissertation. Indeed, the purpose of an M.Sc. thesis is quite different:

The main purpose of an M.Sc. thesis is to demonstrate that you are a problem solver with domain knowledge.

Do you see the difference to the article? In your thesis, you can (and, I think, should) also write about things that did not work out. Your M.Sc. thesis is the story of how you tackled a problem, and overcame challenges. Your idea A did not work out? What did you do then? Your experiment was stuck in stage B, how did you find an alternative approach? Etc. It is an account of your path.

Most importantly, it is not strictly necessary that everything worked out. Would it be desireable? Sure. Would it be more satisfactory? Of course. But for me, it is not necessary for an M.Sc. thesis to come out with a positive result, as long as you could demonstrate without doubt that you are an independent problem solver with domain knowledge.

That's different for a Ph.D. dissertation, which is more closely related to an academic paper:

The purpose of a Ph.D. dissertation is to demonstrate domain knowledge and to use it to advance the art.

You have to do something new, something no one has ever done. And something must work. It does not have to be revolutionary, it does not have to be better than previous methods/ideas/models/techniques, but you have to show that you did something that no-one has ever done.

Happy writing!


Things you should never ever write in a paper (or thesis)

I've seen all of these before. Maybe it's because some schools encourage filling pages, or because of simple lack of practice, or because it is honestly meant.

"Obviously", "It is common knowledge", "Trivially", etc. -> condescending, or you're too lazy to look up references. Easy to fix: just delete!

"We obtain the value by using the formula from the book" -> sounds like you don't know what you're doing. Call the equation or principle by its name instead! Also, in case you really don't know what you're doing -- read up on it!

"The function xyz of the software package we did not program returns us a value, called 'enthalpy', which we can use to" -> again, sounds like you don't know what you're doing. Talk about your tools once, in the Methods section, and never again after. But do make sure you do know what you're doing.

"However, [17] failed to do xyz" -> never talk bad about a fellow researcher, it makes you look like an ass. Talk about what they did instead, then identify a knowledge gap that you address. Whatever wasn't addressed before is your playing field!

"I call this the 'John Smith' effect, after myself"'. Just don't.

Happy writing!