Writing

Easily understand how to write a thesis introduction

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Get the introduction right and the rest of your dissertation will follow. 

Mess it up and you'll be struggling to catch up.

The introduction is the place to factually recount what it is you will be discussing in the thesis. It's something that most students think is simple, but can actually present significant problems

In this guide we discuss how to write a thesis introduction. We'll show you how to structure it in a way that allows anyone who reads it to understand the entire thesis and how to impress your examiners as you do so. 



What is the purpose of a PhD thesis introduction?



An effective PhD thesis introduction does three things:  


1. Establish your research territory (by situating your research in a broader context)

One of the first things the introduction should do is to provide general statements that outline the importance of the topic and provide enough background information so that the reader can understand the context in which your research sits (although being careful not to enter into an in-depth review of the literature. More on this below). In doing so, you will need to reference existing studies.


2. Establish and justify your niche (by describing why your research is needed) 

The introduction should also discuss the gap that your research will fill. 

Then, you outline your research questions and the problems the study addresses. 


3. Explain the significance of your research (by describing how you conducted the research)

The introduction needs to also discuss the value that this study brings to the broader field or discipline (i.e. your contribution). You do this by detailing the central argument, the research aims, the structure of the discussion (with reference to any theories or concepts you used), the methods employed, the study's limitations and the layout of the thesis.

Like the abstract, the introduction should provide the reader with all they need to know about: 
  1. What your thesis is about
  2. Why it is important
  3. How it was conducted
  4. How it is laid out. 

Unlike the abstract though, in the introduction you need to go into more detail and set the research up.

What does this mean? Well, above all, the introduction as a whole should outline the significance and relevance of the thesis. The main criteria for a PhD is its role as an original contribution to knowledge, so the introduction is the space in which you very clearly outline that contribution. By talking about what the research is about, why it is important, how it was conducted and what you found, you will, all being well, clearly show the contribution that your thesis makes.

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How to structure an PhD thesis introduction


A typical PhD thesis introduction follows the following format: 

  1. Introduction to the introduction: a short version (of only a few paragraphs) of the thesis' aims, research questions, contribution, objectives and findings.
  2. State the overarching topic and aims of the thesis in more detail
  3. Provide a brief review of the literature related to the topic (this will be very brief if you have a separate literature review chapter)
  4. Define the terms and scope of the topic
  5. Critically evaluate the current state of the literature on that topic and identify your gap
  6. Outline why the research is important and the contribution that it makes
  7. Outline your epistemological and ontological position
  8. Clearly outline the research questions and problem(s) you seek to address
  9. State the hypotheses (if you are using any)
  10. Detail the most important concepts and variables 
  11. Briefly describe your methodology
  12. Discuss the main findings
  13. Discuss the layout of the thesis

Much like the abstract, the reader shouldn't have to wait long before they understand the contribution, what you are doing and how you are doing it. So, you'll start by presenting your research in a clear, concise way in the opening few paragraphs. These opening paragraphs should briefly summarise the aims, objectives, research questions, main argument and contribution. 

A useful exercise here is to try and write the core elements of an introduction on a post-it note. Keep trying until they fit. When they do, use that as the basis for these first few paragraphs. This is the same technique you use when filling out the PhD Writing Template
As you go through the chapter, you will dial down into more and more detail. That means that the next stage, after the first few paragraphs, is to provide some context (steps 2-10 above).

Here you provide all the detail necessary to situate the study and make sense of the opening few paragraphs.

But, there are two things to bear in mind. 

You will need to ease into the detail gently. Don't launch straight from your opening paragraphs into huge amounts of detail. Follow the order of the 13 steps above and you will gradually ease into your discussion. 

The danger of presenting too much information too soon is that you will confuse the reader. They will struggle to understand how the information you present is relevant and will struggle to understand how it relates to your thesis aims and objectives. 

Simply follow the steps above.

You need to bear in mind that the level of detail you will go into (and therefore the length of the introduction) depends on the structure of your thesis. 

If you have a standalone literature review, you will go into less detail about the current state of the literature and the gaps within it. 

Similarly, if you have a dedicated theory chapter, you will not need to spend too much time on developing your theory framework. 

The same is true for your methods. 

The goal in any case is to present enough context to situate and make sense of your research questions but not overburden the reader with information that is superfluous to the goal of situating the research and which you will repeat at a later juncture anyhow. 
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Your PhD Thesis. 
On one page.

Use our free PhD Structure Template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.


Common problems when writing your introduction


When we proofread PhDs, we see the same mistakes again and again. 


Providing too much detail

There is a tendency to provide too much background information in the introduction. As we saw above, quite how much information you present in your thesis will depend on whether you have a standalone literature review or methods chapter. What you want to avoid is any unnecessary repetition. 

Sometimes there is necessary repetition though. You need to present just enough information to contextualise your study and to be able to situate your aims, research questions an argument, but not too much that you end up confusing and bombarding the reader. Keep things simple here; it's fine to overlook some of the more technical detail at this stage. Think of a newspaper article: the first couple of paragraphs provide a brief overview of the story. The detail comes later. 

Not providing enough detail

On the flip side, some students don't provide enough detail. The danger here is that the reader is left asking questions at the end of the introduction. Remember: they should be able to understand what your thesis is about, how it was conducted and why it is important just from reading the introduction. If you present too little detail then they won't be able to. Read through your own introduction; is it clear what your contribution is and why it is important? If not, you haven't got enough detail. 

Launching into too much detail 

Make sure you introduce gently. Don’t suddenly rush into lots of detail. Instead, you should make the aims, questions and contribution clear in the opening lines and then gradually layer on more detail. That way, the reader can keep up. Present too much detail too soon and the reader is confused. The last place you want confusion is in the introduction; if the reader can’t follow your introduction, they won’t understand the thesis.


Not following a coherent structure so that the reader is left confused

Some students don't follow a coherent logic when they write their introductions, which means that the reader is left confused.

For example, if you present too much background information and literature review before you outline the aim and purpose of the research the reader will struggle to follow, because they won't know why the background information is important. 

The same is true if you discuss the methods before your research questions. 

What we see often is important information being spread throughout the introduction in such a way that the reader has to hunt for it. Follow our layout guide above so that each piece of vital information is contained in its own mini section. Make your reader's job as easy as possible.


Using too much technical language not properly defined

It's more than likely that your research relies upon lots of technical terms, concepts and techniques. If you must talk about any of these in the introduction, be sure to offer clear and concise definitions. A failure to do so means that the reader is left confused. 


Conducting a literature review

Unless you are explicitly avoiding a standalone literature review chapter, the introduction is not the place to review the literature. Sure, you will need to situate your study in a body of literature, but the introduction isn't the place to critically discuss it or justify its inclusion in that literature. It's enough to say that you will contribute to X body of literature and briefly discuss its core features and shortcomings. The literature review is the place to justify that decision and elaborate upon its features. Read our guide to writing literature reviews and our guide to being critical when you do so


Finalising your thesis introduction


Once you have finished your thesis, ask yourself the following questions: 
  1. Does the first line of the introduction discuss the problem that your thesis is addressing and the contribution that it is making?
  2. Does the introduction provide an overview of the thesis and end with a brief discussion on the content of each chapter?
  3. Does the introduction make a case for the research?
  4. Have the research questions/problems/hypotheses been clearly outlined (preferably early on)?

Conclusion


Now you know how to present your research as clearly and concisely as possible. Your reader (and examiner) will thank you, because they'll be able to understand exactly what your study is about just from reading the introductory pages. Keep this guide to hand, whatever stage of the writing process you are at.

Have you downloaded our free one page PhD Writing Template? It's a really effective way to visualise your entire thesis on one page. 

Having your PhD proofread will save you time and money

Our top-rated PhD proofreaders check your writing, formatting, references and readability. The goal? To make sure your research is written and presented in the most compelling manner possible. 


That way, you'll have complete peace of mind prior to submission and save yourself months of costly revisions. 

Author


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Dr. Max Lemprière is the founder of The PhD Proofreaders. He is an expert in presenting PhD research in the best possible way and maximising students' chances of success.