Writing a Dissertation Abstract for a Job Application
When you apply for any full-time teaching position at colleges and universities it is usually a good idea to include an abstract of your dissertation unless the advertisement clearly indicates otherwise. Remember: in most cases, you'll be applying to a department that has no historian in your field, and therefore you need to find ways to make your abstract appealing to others. Imagine a committee composed of faculty in this department with whom you have never discussed academic subjects; that's who you should be writing for. Do not use your formal dissertation abstract, the one that is officially submitted along with your thesis; this sort of abstract is generally too narrow and technical. Try to keep the abstract to no more than one single-spaced page or two 1.5-spaced pages.
Many will submit the same abstract with all job applications, but you might want to consider tailoring your abstract to the particular job you are applying for. What you should stress will depend partly on the department to which you are applying. To learn about the department you should use the AHA’s Guide to Departments of History (online if you are a member of the AHA, or available in Dealy 615) to identify the faculty's areas of coverage, research interests, and degree-granting institutions. All departments will want to see evidence that you know how to do research, but beyond that some departments will be particularly interested in theoretical or methodological sophistication, some will want to fill particular thematic niches (e.g. economic or religious history), and some will simply want to know that the dissertation is intelligently framed and interesting. A look at the recent hires will tell you a lot about the direction the department is going, and could help you decide whether to stress, say, your dissertation's contribution to medieval liturgy or to the anthropology of ritual in preindustrial societies; to take another example, one department may be particularly interested that you do Irish history, whereas another will want to know that you work on gender. Do not, of course, get yourself in the position of writing an abstract that you cannot back up in an interview.
Center the title of your dissertation at the top of the abstract, and be sure to include your name and institution somewhere. As with all abstracts, you should plan on writing 3 or 4 paragraphs that discuss, in turn, the state of the question, the sources and methodology, and your conclusions. In the first paragraph, do the best you can to place your topic in a very large framework appealing to non-specialists; if you are tailoring the abstract to the job, this would be the place to bring that out. In the bulk of the abstract, however, don't be afraid to write at length about the things you are most enthusiastic about; even if it ends up seeming a little narrow or parochial, your enthusiasm will be infectious. In addition to outlining the content of your thesis and pointing out your conclusions, make sure that the abstract indicates in some way your dissertation’s original contribution to specific debates or issues. Do not bother describing or identifying your research trips, prestigious sources of funding, major adviser, or timetable for completion; this is what your cover letter is for.
When you've finished a first draft, have your adviser(s) read it over, and see if you can get a candid opinion from someone who is not your adviser. It will take you several drafts to get the tone and content right.
D. Smail (1999), updated by M. Kowaleski (2009)