How to write a dissertation introduction

The introduction is the first chapter of your thesis or dissertation and appears right after the table of contents. It’s essential to draw the reader in with a strong beginning. Set the stage for your research with a clear focus, purpose and direction. The introduction should include:

  • Topic and context: what does the reader need to know to understand the dissertation?
  • Focus and scope: what specific aspect of the topic will you address?
  • Relevance and importance: how does the research fit into existing work on this topic?
  • Objective: what problem and/or questions does the dissertation aim to answer?
  • Overview of the structure: what does each chapter of the dissertation contribute to the overall aim?

Starting your introduction

Although the introduction comes at the beginning of your dissertation, it doesn’t have to be the first thing you writein fact, it’s often the very last part to be completed (along with the abstract).

It’s a good idea to write a rough draft of your introduction near the beginning of the research to help guide you. If you wrote a research proposal, you can use this as a template, as it contains many of the same elements. But you should revise your introduction throughout the writing process, making sure it matches the content of your chapters.

For an effective introduction, make sure to include all of the following elements.

Topic and context

Begin by introducing your topic and giving any necessary background information. It’s important to contextualize your research and generate interestaim to show why the topic is timely or important (for example, by mentioning a relevant news item, academic debate, or practical problem).

Example topic

Young people’s attitudes to climate change.

Example context

Recent news stories about the children’s climate strike, and the increasing importance of youth engagement with climate politics.

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Focus and scope

After a brief introduction to your general area of interest, narrow your focus and define the scope of your research. For example:

  • What geographical area are you investigating?
  • What time period does your research cover?
  • What demographics or communities are you researching?
  • What specific themes or aspects of the topic does your dissertation address?
Example focus

British teenagers’ engagement with UK climate policy.

Example scope

The knowledge, concerns, perceptions and actions of London high school students towards the current UK government’s climate policies.

Relevance and importance

It’s essential to show your rationale for doing this research, how it relates to existing work on the topic, and what new insights it will contribute.

Give a brief overview of the current state of research, citing the most relevant literature and indicating how your research will address a problem or gap in the field. You will conduct a more in-depth survey of relevant sources in the literature review section or chapter.

Depending on your field, the importance of your research might focus on its practical application (e.g. in policy or management) or on advancing scholarly understanding of the topic (e.g. by developing theories or adding new empirical data). In many cases it will do both.

Explain how your dissertation:

  • Helps solve a practical or theoretical problem
  • Addresses a gap in the literature
  • Builds on existing research
  • Proposes a new understanding of the topic
Example relevance and importance

Young people will determine the future of climate policy, so it is important to gain an in-depth understanding of their engagement with this issue. While there has been previous research on British youth attitudes to climate change, none has focused specifically on how they engage with current UK climate policy. Furthermore, as the youth politics of climate change has been particularly prominent in the past year, it is important to build on previous work and expand scholarly knowledge of this contemporary phenomenon.

Objective

This is perhaps the most important part of your introduction—it sets up the aims and expectations of the rest of your dissertation. How you formulate your objective will depend on your discipline, topic and focus, but it should always answer the question: what is the central aim and purpose of your research?

You might start with a problem statement, particularly if your research addresses a practical problem. You should always have a main research question that shows exactly what you want to find out, and often also sub-questions that frame how you will address each aspect of the main question.

If your research aims to test hypotheses you can formulate them here, along with a conceptual framework that posits relationships between variables. Sometimes the hypotheses will come later in the dissertation, after your literature review.

Example main question

How do high school students in London engage with the UK government’s policies on climate change?

Example sub-questions

What level of knowledge do students have about government climate policy? How highly do they rate climate change as a matter of concern? How positive or negative are their perceptions of the current government’s policy? What practical actions do they engage in to support or challenge that policy?

Methodology

You can briefly mention the research design and methods that you used to answer your research questions: how, where, when, and with whom was the research conducted? What kind of data did you gather and/or analyze?

In general, you should keep this part of the introduction brief, as you will expand on it in your methodology chapter.

Example methodology

Following a review of the literature on youth engagement with climate policy, the research takes a mixed methods approach. Surveys allow for a quantitative analysis of students’ levels of knowledge, concern, and positive/negative perceptions of government policy, while focus groups and interviews give in-depth qualitative insight into their attitudes, perceptions, and modes of engagement with the issue.

Overview of the structure

To help guide your reader through the dissertation, end with an overview of its structure summarizing each chapter to clearly show how it contributes to your central aims. It is best to keep the overview concise. One or two sentences should usually be enough to describe the content of each chapter.

If your research is more complicated or does not follow a conventional structure, you might need up to a paragraph for each chapter. For example, a humanities dissertation might develop an argument thematically rather than dividing the research into methods/results/discussion. If your structure is unconventional, make it clear how everything fits together.

Checklist: Introduction

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Shona McCombes

Shona has an MLitt in English Literature and an MA in Gender Studies, so she's an expert at writing a great master's thesis. She has also been an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

1 comment

Mash
March 29, 2018 at 1:24 PM

Good Clear Article

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