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Writing a Thesis Introduction: Part 2

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 thesis writing: planning and preparation (Part 5 continued.)

Introductions Part II: Addressing the Rest: Research Questions, Significance of the Study; Definition of Terms; Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations

Our last post dealt with the first sections of the Introduction, from the introductory sentence to the Purpose of the Study. We continue this week with the final components of the introduction: the Research Questions, Significance of the Study, Definitions of Terms, and Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations.

There is one important thing to note: The introduction is a good chance to fine-tune your overall thesis. If something doesn’t seem to fit or make sense in your introduction, it will probably be out of place in the expanded discussion.

Research Questions: While your thesis or dissertation may rest on one burning question, other questions can derive from the main focus of your study, and this is the section in which to pose them. Remember that your reader wants to know your thought process: what questions arose from your research, and how you pull all the threads together.

Significance of the Study: The “significance” is different from the “purpose.” While the Purpose of the Study deals with what the study is for and what purpose it serves, the Significance of the Study section deals with why the study is important. A good opening sentence gets straight to the point: “This study is significant because … “

Definition of Terms: Definitions of terms serve the reader, who may or may not be familiar with some terms, especially if they are new ones. Many graduate students are writing in what might be described as a bubble populated by people in their own field; or they assume (mistakenly) that the only people who will read their thesis or dissertation are the professor of record and the committee.

In most cases, however, any electronic thesis or dissertation will be available for perusal by anyone who has access to the internet, including future scholars doing research. They may not understand some terms associated with the study. Definitions also serve to show professors that the writer knows what he or she is talking about and clearly understands the meaning of each term.

Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations

Let’s look at each of these individually:

  • Assumptions: Assumptions are things that are outside of your control, or factors pertaining to or influencing your study for which you have no real data or proof. For example, you assume that respondents to questions will answer truthfully, but you have no way of proving whether they told the truth or not. Assumptions are also dependent on the paradigm in which you are conducting your research. Marilyn K. Simon, PhD, points out that the qualitative researcher “assumes reality is objective and singular and can be separated from the researcher. Quantitative researchers also assume that their studies can be replicated and that generalizability is possible.”
  • Limitations: Limitations are potential weaknesses related to decisions made in your study. These are usually out of your control. Some examples of limitations are funding constraints; data collection strategies: geographical or cultural constraints when dealing with populations, flawed random samples; choice of qualitative or quantitative paradigm for the study. It is most important that you are aware of your assumptions and that you can justify why they exist.
  • Delimitations: Delimitations are the features of the study that can be controlled and help determine the scope of the study. Researchers can control things such as the selection of participants and subjects, geographic location, length of the study (i.e., students only enrolled during a specific time period), and other factors that create boundaries for your study.

At this point, you should be able to move on to the next part of your thesis or dissertation, which is usually the Literature Review. Keep in mind that this blog only serves as a guideline for what sections are commonly included in the Introduction to a thesis or dissertation and it is up to the individual student to check with their thesis or dissertation director to find out exactly what is necessary for their particular field.

Next: The Literature Review