You have the opportunity to join an esteemed faculty member and research team to work on discovering insights that they don’t have answers for in school. You tirelessly interview research participants, review protocols, and infer meaning from data. With a little bit of luck and a lot of focused work, you uncover something meaningful to the PT and health community!
PT school teaches us a lot of clinical and theoretical skills: how to perform manual muscle tests, use goniometers, identify musculoskeletal impairments, and write SOAP notes—but what about how to write a research abstract? The task seems daunting at first. With this guide, I’ll dissect the components of an abstract and give helpful tips to make the process more approachable and less stressful.
Express interest to your faculty adviser
Your faculty adviser will likely be ecstatic to learn that you want to create a poster presentation. They can be your best ally, as someone with extensive experience in this process. Ask your faculty adviser for sample abstracts of his or her team’s abstracts from past conferences.
Have a clear focus and direction
One of the biggest challenges in writing anything is knowing what to focus on. Writing an abstract is no exception. Before you begin, have a clear idea of what you want to highlight, including the hypothesis, the results, what they mean, and the importance of your findings. Knowing these key points will streamline your writing and make writing other sections easier.
Start a Google document
Writing on a Google doc allows multiple team members to contribute to the working abstract simultaneously. There are also many excellent easy-to-use features that come with Google docs, including my personal favorite, writing and replying to comments.
Break down the parts of an abstract
Writing an abstract is similar to telling a story. There is background information; a purpose; methods, including the details and the journey of how you got there; and an ending, which has the results and conclusion.
Every conference will have a different set of requirements, including the sections and the word count of an abstract, so it is crucial to read their instructions carefully.
- Include the conference requirements in a note or on the document itself. This way you can check things off as you go to make sure you don’t miss a thing.
- Break up the work in pieces, so they seem more manageable and less overwhelming.
The following are the most common parts of an abstract for a Research Report. If you are writing an abstract for a case study or special interest report, the sections will vary. Reference the conference guidelines for these reports. Still, you can heed this advice for some sections.
- The title will be a comprehensive summary of your study in one line.
- Many conferences will have a character max limit for the title, of approximately 150 characters. You want the title to convey the maximum amount of information and still be within the character limit.
- If important, include what type of study it is, such as a comparison study or an association study.
2. Authors and School, Hospital, or Clinic Affiliation
- Determining the order of authors will be a discussion to have amongst your team members.
- Underneath the names, state your school, hospital or clinic affiliation.
3. Purpose/Hypothesis (Background)
- This section includes the background information and sets up the reason why you performed the study. It will highlight the importance and alludes to current gaps in research. This section should be a few sentences long.
- Include a purpose statement that clearly explains the intent of the study. Connect the purpose with the background.
- Include a strong hypothesis! This sentence will state what you expected to find in the study.
Example purpose statement: The purpose of this [type of] study was to investigate [intervention/technique] on [impairment/dysfunction] for [target population].
Example hypothesis: The hypothesis is that [impairment/dysfunction] would differ between comparison groups following [intervention/technique].
- This will be a short section that is 1-2 sentences on the number of participants used, including important characteristics, such as the mean age.
- Sometimes this section will be part of the “Methods” section.
- Explain in detail how the study was performed.
- This technical section can include participant descriptors, processes for participant selection, processes for control and experimental groups selection, what the participants did or what was performed on them, how techniques were performed, equipment used, and how data was collected.
- Also, include the statistical test(s) used to interpret the data.
- Convey the results of your study through statistical analysis.
- Highlight key findings and significant changes of your statistical test(s), such as mean, standard deviation, or effect size.
- Describe the interpretation of these statistical findings.
- Summarize your results clearly and comprehensively, in 1-2 sentences.
8. Clinical Relevance
- Most conferences do not require this section, but it is required by CSM.
- Explain why physical therapists or other clinicians will benefit from the discovery of your findings.
- If possible, relate your results to a generalizable population to highlight the importance of your findings.
- Remember to cite the references you used in your abstract.
- Some conferences will have a minimum number of references to include.
10. Pay attention to formatting guidelines
Make sure you are within the character or word count limit designated by your conference. Most conferences will require abstracts of 2,000 to 3,500 characters. CSM has a character limit of 3,125. You should include as much important information as possible, making sure that all the words you use are descriptive and serve a purpose.
- Look for ways to streamline your writing, such as taking out “the” and “a” words when possible.
- Make abbreviations when you can (i.e. Multiple sclerosis (MS), loss of balance (LOB), anterior/posterior (AP)).
- Write the phrase out completely first before using the abbreviation.
- To find the number of characters you have in a Word Doc, go to the “Review” section on the upper ribbon and look under the “Proofing” section. Then, click on the “Word Count” icon.
Edit, edit, edit!
Review your draft many times, both independently and with multiple people; and, especially, make sure to review it with your faculty adviser. The more sets of eyes on it, the better chance you have of catching any mistakes!
Know your deadlines
Identify when the abstract is due for the conference and set clear deadlines for yourself. Also, make sure to build in time for feedback on your first and second drafts prior to your final deadline.
Remember that every conference submission will be different
Some conferences require you to email the abstract to a lead person. Some require you to fill out an application and submit keywords.
Have fun with your poster presentation!
These are solely guidelines to assist you and shouldn’t be followed precisely. Allow your individual style to shine through in your writing. With proper time management, dedication, and teamwork, you can create an effective abstract that displays the importance of your research and conveys its significance to the PT and health community.
Lastly, don’t forget that contributing to conferences is exciting. Have fun with the process!