The curse of the absolutely astounding abstract



The 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 had I read it elsewhere. Had I not written it I would have been perversely 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?