What goes into the introduction of a dissertation or thesis?

The introduction sets the theme for your thesis. It should provide the reader with the necessary background to understand the problem, an overview of what other people have done to solve it, and set out your problem and solving strategy. In more detail, the introduction should include:

  1. A general introduction into the background and the wider field of research. Keep it focused, explain only those facts a reader would need to know to understand your research. Don’t explain everything there is to your research area, but explain those things you would need to know, even if you assume them to be ‘common knowledge’.
  2. A literature review. What have other people done to solve this problem? Where was it first described? Who had other ideas how to solve it, and what were they missing? Try to include the main works and reviews of your field. Also, it won’t harm to include a paper or two of your examiners and supervisor here.
  3. A motivation for your research. Why is the problem you’re tackling important? How did it come about? What do you hope to achieve?
  4. The research problem. You can set this out as a hypothesis, or simply state what you’re trying to find out. Also, say what you are not doing – set out limits. If you can, cite references that deal with the bits you’re excluding from your research, but otherwise it’s ok to simply state “I’m doing this”.
  5. A plan how you’re going to answer the question. Often, this can come in form of a spelled-out table of contents, naming the most important chapters of your thesis. Give your readers a clear indication what to expect, and where to find it.

Make the introduction easy to read, and interesting. Try not to bore the readers, or they might still be bored when they’re done reading (and marking!) it. Don’t make the introduction to difficult. Most readers of your thesis might have a general idea what to expect, but they won’t know too much about your specific research. They might be familiar with your method, but not your application. Or they might understand the general field, but not know your method. You are adding something new to the established knowledge, so it unlikely that anybody apart from yourself understands all aspects of your research.

How do you structure the introduction? This depends on the overall length of your introduction and whole thesis. Generally, I would put all those points set out above into individual sections of the same chapter. But if you have an extremely long background overview, or multiple theories you need to compare, you could also move them to a separate chapter (and say so in the introduction).

The introduction is a chapter that will likely go through several draft versions. In the dissertation plan ‘Where to begin’, I suggest writing it after the methods and results chapter so you’ll have an idea of where your work is going. After you’ve written a draft of your whole dissertation, go back to the introduction and check that it really introduces the rest of your work, and not something else!

The introduction can link up well with the conclusions – in the introduction, say what you intent to do, and in the conclusions, say what you did. Often, it’s easier to summarise what you did, than to have the perfect overview right in the beginning.

Ready to do something right now?
Set out a plan for your introduction. Which sections should it include? Can you write down your research question, or a draft version of it?

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