How to Write a Dissertation Introduction

How to Write a Dissertation Introduction

Oct 09, 2012
The introduction is - as the name suggests - where you introduce the reader to your work. It should provide enough information so that a layperson (meaning a person outside your field) will be able to read your dissertation and understand the scope and importance of your work.
The introduction serves two purposes: it provides an overview of what you're trying to accomplish in your dissertation and also provides the general background information the reader needs to understand your research. When the reader is done with your introduction, they should know:
  • what topic you'll be addressing,
  • how your research fits within your field,
  • why your work is important, and
  • what your research question is.
In general there's no set structure for introductions, although your school may have specific formatting requirements. Generally it's a good idea to start your introduction with a broad discussion of your research area, then narrow the discussion to your particular research question.
Below is a list of eights areas every dissertation introduction needs to be complete.

Introduce your topic

The first thing you want to accomplish with your introduction is simply to inform your reader what your research is about. Start in broad terms - you want to tell the reader the larger issues your paper will address, then narrow the focus down to your particular research subject. No matter what discipline you work in, there are likely dozens of subspecialties and areas of research, so provide the reader with a guidepost that tells them where your work will fall in the research landscape.
Keep in mind that, while most of the people reading your dissertation will be familiar with at least some aspects of your chosen field, others will likely need help locating your work within a larger framework. So while a lot of this information might seem basic to you, it still needs to be included to start the paper.

Provide background information

Once you're introduced the reader to your general topic, you want to start going more in-depth into the specific area of your research. How much of this discussion is included in the introduction will depend on the format of your paper. If your paper includes a literature review, then this section can be simply a short explanation of how you came to choose your particular research methods. Demonstrate that you're aware of the work done by others in your field and explain how that shaped your research.
If your dissertation does not include a separate Literature Review chapter, then you need to include a discussion of previous research in your introduction. This should be an overview of the work in your field that bears directly on your own research, including everything from accepted methodologies to competing theories. You want to guide the reader through all the research available so they have a clear understanding of how your work fits within your field.

Explain the importance of your research

Once you've provided background information on your field, you need to tell the reader why your particular research topic is important. How is it different than the research that's come before? What important questions will it try to answer? You should be thinking about these questions when you're writing the background information or literature review so that you can highlight the needs your work addresses. You've worked hard on this dissertation - here's your chance to explain why all that work matters.

Set your limits

Your dissertation can't possibly cover everything there is to study in your field, so let the reader know up front what the scope of your work will be. If there's a particular theory or methodology important to your topic that you don't address in your work, explain why that is. Try to think of problems readers might see and address them early so that your readers aren't left wondering when you're going to get around to them.

Define terms

Keep in mind that those reading your dissertation may not be familiar with the vocabulary used in your particular field or specialty, so take the time to explain any terminology or concepts that the reader will need to know in order to understand your work. This includes terms specific to your field as well as ambiguous terms that you may need to clarify. You want it to be as easy as possible for people to understand your research.

State your research question

After you've provided background information you need to make a clear, concise statement about your research question and your research objectives. Often this will be a standalone section of the introduction where you clearly state the problem you're are addressing and also state as succinctly as possible what question are you trying to answer.

State your hypothesis

As with your research question, you want to provide a clear statement of your hypothesis; often this will come directly from the research proposal or prospectus you submitted before your research began. Remember that it's not necessary for the final data to support your initial hypothesis - you have the entire discussion section to analyze your data, so don't worry about defending your hypothesis here.

Explain the organization of your paper

Every dissertation will be organized a little bit differently, so finish the introduction by explaining how your paper is structured. Walk the reader through your argument chapter by chapter so that they know what to expect as they go along. This might not be required in scientific dissertations, which have a fairly rigorous format, but it'll be important if you're working in the humanities since you have a lot more leeway in how your argument is structured.

And one more thing...

If you're having trouble getting started with the introduction, consider putting it off until the rest of your paper is complete. Once you've organized your argument and worked through your methodology and conclusions you'll likely have a much better idea of how to summarize your work and introduce it to your readers.
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