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Writing your Thesis Introduction: Part I

In this series, we will attempt to provide general information that should apply to most graduate students, particularly in the United States and Canada. While there are some differences in terminology between the UK and the US, most everything else applies on both sides of the Atlantic. Graduate research and writing your thesis: planning and preparation  (part five of a series)Click here for parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Introductions: Part I

Your entire college writing career should have prepared you to write a top-notch introduction. After all, you have written countless research papers since your freshman year, and yet the Introduction seems to be the biggest hurdle for many writers.

Perhaps this is because it’s tedious; you are merely skimming the surface and providing talking points rather than getting into the deeper study that you have so passionately undertaken during your post-grad years.

Still, we know that the introduction can make or break a thesis or dissertation. Done poorly, it can result in a substantially lower grade because it did not engage the reader.

The introduction is your reader’s first impression of you and your brilliant idea, but it is no place for a lengthy preamble. The Introduction should conform to a basic structure, and your field of study will determine exactly what information should be included but the Introduction to the thesis should contain nine distinct parts:

  1. The introductory sentence
  2. Background of the Problem
  3. Statement of the Problem
  4. Purpose of the Study
  5. Research Questions
  6. Significance of the Problem
  7. Definition of Terms
  8. Assumptions, Limitations, Delimitations
  9. Conclusion

The following illustration explains further:

The Introductory Sentence

The good news is that once you’ve cleared this hurdle, you’re well on your way. The bad news is that starting to write can be excruciating. Consider starting off with one of the following methods:

  • Relevant quote.
  • A point in time (historical review).
  • Definition (Note: starting out with a dictionary definition - “Webster’s dictionary defines …” is poor scholarship.).
  • Transition the reader from their worldview to the less familiar world of the thesis.
  • Illustrate.
  • Use an anecdote.
  • Pose a question.
  • Begin with the thesis statement.

Background to the Problem

It seems intuitive to place the Statement of the Problem first, but there is a compelling reason why we don’t: readers and future researchers need to understand the context of the problem, and what research has already been conducted. In terms of structure, the background section should move from a broad to narrow scope. According to the USC Rossier School of Education there are five things you should observe in moving down the hierarchy:

  • Broad
    • Discuss two or three problem areas that provide a foundation for your statement of the problem.
  •  General
    • This can be empirical, pointing out the most significant data presented in existing literature, as well as show a need for further study.
  • Specific
    • This part narrows your focus and provides a list of significant concepts, themes, or perspectives on the problem in terms of prevailing literature that informed your decision to study the problem.
    • Provide an explanation of the broad problems in the research literature led to your topic.
    • What is the “argument” for conducting your study?

 Statement of the Problem

This is the heart of the matter; essentially, the “five W’s”: who, what, when, where, and why. By convincing the reader that the problem is important, you also heighten awareness of the issue, so you should present accurate terminology, as well as consider shared mindsets and values of your readers while addressing canonical works (those that are widely accepted).

Purpose of the study 

The purpose of the study describes what your research will accomplish. It should touch on the direction and scope of your research, as well as what means you used for data collection. It should assure the reader that a problem will be solved once the objective and goals are obtained. Here is a list of things to keep in mind:

  1. Signal the reader with identifiers: “The purpose of this (qualitative/quantitative/mixed method)/(methodology) is to …”
  2. Expound on the central idea or phenomena being explored.
  3. Clearly define any variables.
  4. Describe the intent of the study by using higher order terms like analyze, determine, or evaluate.
  5. Indicate the setting (geographical location) if appropriate.
  6.  Indicate the participants in the study.

Make sure you avoid contradictions, errors in logic, wordiness, clichés, and jargon. Allow the reader to sense who you are, and, above all, make sure that the purpose matches and compliments the problem statement. This would be a good point to pause and seek some assistance in proofreading and editing, since a fresh set of eyes will pick up on any of these issues. If you’re not a strong writer, hiring a professional can be well worth the investment.

Next post: Introductions, Part II: Addressing the Rest: Research Questions, Significance of the study; Definition of Terms; Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations; and Conclusion.