How To Write A Dissertation Introduction Chapter:
The 7 Essential Ingredients
If you’re reading this, you’re probably at the daunting early phases of writing your dissertation or thesis. You need to get started, but you don’t know where to begin.
Fret not! In this post, we’ll explain the 7 key ingredients used to create a dissertation or thesis introduction chapter that will not only tick those boxes in your rubric, but will help organise your thoughts and set you up for writing the rest of your research paper.
Start with why.
Before we can get to those 7 essential ingredients, it is important to understand what your intro chapter needs to achieve. What is its purpose? Well, as the name suggests, it needs to introduce the reader to your research – specifically, your research problem. By the end of the chapter, you need to have addressed the following questions in the reader’s mind:
- What are you researching?
- Why is it worthwhile?
- Who will your research benefit?
- How are you going to research it?
In other words, your intro chapter serves as a rationale for the research, and a succinct explanation of what is to come in the rest of the paper. In other words, this chapter has to explain the “why” of your research.
Simple enough, right?
Well, the trick is finding the appropriate depth of information. As the researcher, you are extremely close to your topic and this makes it easy to get caught up in the minor details. While these details might be interesting, your introductory chapter must be written more on a need-to-know basis. The extra pepperings of nice-to-know information come later. So, as you’re writing your intro chapter, pretend your reader knows nothing and you are tasked with explaining things to them without boring them or overwhelming them.
Now that you understand your task, let’s get into the detail. While the requirements for your introductory chapter may vary between institute or research field, there are some basics that most universities will require. We call these the 7 essential ingredients of a winning intro chapter.
#1 – THE INTRODUCTION
Yes, it may seem silly, but you do need an introduction to your introduction chapter. In fact, every chapter needs an introduction to prepare the reader for what is to come. However, being the very first chapter, the intro to this one is particularly vital.
Your intro paragraph needs to engage the reader with clear, concise language that can be easily understood and digested. If the reader (aka, your marker!) has to struggle through it, you’ll lose their engagement and might not get it back. Just because you’re writing an academic paper, it doesn’t mean you can ignore the basic principles of engaging writing used by marketers, bloggers, and journalists. At the end of the day, you are all trying to sell an idea. Yours is simply a research idea.
While a good intro is by no means black and white, it is good practice to include the following four foundational sentences in your introduction paragraph:
- A sentence generally introducing the field of your research.
- E.g. “It is understood in research that skills development is a vital consideration for a growing business.”
- A sentence introducing your specific research problem.
- E.g. “However, there are conflicting perceptions of whether skills development should be directed by staff themselves, or by their managers.”
- A sentence stating your research objectives.
- E.g. “This research aimed to determine how best to direct skills development for improved company performance”.
- A sentence detailing the chapter structure.
- E.g. “This chapter provides an introduction to the research by explaining the background of the research problem, the research objectives, significance, scope and limitations.
This intro section needn’t be lengthy – it should fit neatly into one or two paragraphs max. Keep it short and simple…
#2 – BACKGROUND TO THE STUDY
This section should explain the context of your research and set the scene. For example, it could explain the history of the topic, common perceptions, or recent news. It should help the reader understand why delving into this study is important, and provide detail to support the foundation of your research. In other words, it should help you justify your claim that this is a legitimate field of study.
For example, if we stick with the skills development example above, our Background to the study may explain why skills development is necessary and briefly cite previous research and statistics that support this.
#3 – PROBLEM STATEMENT
Leading on from #2 above, the purpose of this section is for you to “bring it home”, so to speak. In other words, this section should identify the gap in the existing literature that you are trying to fill – the problem you are trying to solve, in the precise context in which you are studying it.
Simply put, this section is about making the problem crystal clear so that you have the platform to present a solution.
To create a rock-solid problem statement, you should try to include three elements:
- Context: This is a “backdrop” to your topic. It should give your reader a simple frame of reference so that they can grasp the significance of your study.
- Implication: This should hint at the gap in knowledge relating to the topic and clarify the importance of your research in filling that gap. By doing this, you are helping your reader understand the connection of the study to the real world.
- Objective: This should communicate the tangible outcome that your research aims to achieve. At this point, you are focusing on what you want to achieve, not yet how. That comes later.
Using our previous example, the problem statement could read something like:
“Skills development is important for employee satisfaction and company performance. It has been argued that a company’s skills development programme has a direct influence on company success, but it is unclear how these programmes should be directed. Looking at the South African financial services sector, this research aims to determine how best to direct skills development programmes to maximise company performance.”
A side note – scope is important here, and you should have established this clearly when choosing your research topic. If your problem statement is too broad, you risk losing focus or stating a problem which is too big to solve within the limitations of your dissertation. So, you should consider clear boundaries in your research, for example, limiting it to a specific industry, geography or time period.
#4 – RESEARCH QUESTIONS
As you probably discovered when choosing your topic, meeting your research objective(s) may require answering several more specific questions – your research questions. So, in this section, you will present your research questions, which will “unpack” your objective into digestible parts. These will help address the elements or variables involved in achieving your research objective.
While this section is commonly presented in numbered lists or bullets, it is good practice to include an introductory sentence or two, explaining how you came to these questions (for example, having been informed by literature, by observing the research problem first-hand, or by looking at internal company reports).
Using our fictional example, the research questions could read something like:
“Through observation of the research problem at Financial Services Company X, the below research questions will be investigated:
- RQ1 – What are the benefits of staff-led skills development initiatives?
- RQ2 – What are the benefits of management-led skills development initiatives?
- RQ3 – Which development initiatives have delivered the most valuable outcomes?”
#5 – SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STUDY
By this point, you would have already briefly hinted at the importance of your study in your background and problem statement sections, but you haven’t explicitly stated how your research findings would benefit the world.
So, now is your chance to clearly state how your study will benefit either the industry, academia, or – ideally – both. How will your research make a difference? What implications could it have?
“This study will contribute to the body of knowledge on skills development by clarifying the benefits of skills development initiatives when driven by a) staff and b) management. It will fill an existing gap in this area, and open doors for further research into the field. Additionally, by understanding these benefits, it can be determined which method is best suited for the financial services industry in South Africa.”
This section does not need to be too detailed as you will likely address this again later in the paper, but it should pointedly present the value of your research and where it can be applied.
#6 – LIMITATIONS
No piece of research is perfect (especially not a dissertation, which usually has no budget). So, your research will invariably have limitations. This is completely acceptable, as long as the limitations don’t yield your findings useless. The key is to recognise the limitations upfront and be completely transparent about them, so that future researchers are aware of them and can improve the study.
Therefore, your limitations section should show that you have thought about the ways in which your study is limited. For example, you might consider how the findings are limited in terms of:
- The research method (for example, the subjective nature of qualitative research).
- The resources of the researcher (for example, time, money, equipment).
- The generalisability of findings (for example, studies on a specific industry can’t be generalised to other industries).
Don’t be shy here – the markers want to see that you are aware of the limitations (this demonstrates your sound understanding of research design), so be brutal.
#7 – STRUCTURE
In the final section, you need to provide a brief summary of each chapter in the paper (including chapter one). Done correctly, it will help your reader understand what to expect and reassure them that you will address the multiple facets of the study. If you’re unsure of how to structure your dissertation or thesis, check out this post.
In terms of style, bulleted paragraphs are commonly accepted (one bullet per chapter) but, as with section 4, it is good practice to start with a sentence or two. As this is your concluding paragraph, it’s a good idea to use these sentences to briefly reinforce your research field, problem statement and objective(s).
Here’s an example of what this section might look like:
Keep calm and carry on.
Hopefully, after reading this article, you feel a bit more prepared for this challenge. Take a deep breath and remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day – conquer one ingredient at a time and you’ll succeed.
To recap on the 7 essential ingredients:
- Introduction – give a very brief, high-level overview of what your research will be about
- Background – sets the context for the study by laying down foundations
- Problem statement – explains what the problem is that you’re going to try fix (your research objective)
- Research questions – breaks your research objective down into clear questions
- Significance – explains what value your research will provide to the world
- Limitations – explains what the shortcomings of your research are/will be
- Structure – provides an overview of the structure of the entire document
Bake these ingredients into your intro chapter and you should be well on your way to building an engaging introduction chapter that lays a rock-solid foundation for the rest of your research. If you need to, feel free to reach out for some support from the Grad Coach team.