How to write a dissertation introduction

The introduction is the first chapter of your dissertation, and it’s essential to draw the reader in with a strong beginning. Set the stage for your research with a clear focus and direction.

The overall purpose of a dissertation introduction is to tell your reader what you’re writing about, why it matters, and how you approach it. To write your introduction, you can break it down into five steps:

  1. Topic and context: what does the reader need to know to understand the dissertation?
  2. Focus and scope: what specific aspect of the topic will you address?
  3. Relevance: why is this research worth doing?
  4. Aims and objectives: what did you aim to find out and how did you approach it?
  5. Overview of the structure: what will you cover in each chapter?

    Starting your introduction

    Although the introduction comes at the start of your dissertation, it doesn’t have to be the first thing you write – in fact, it’s often the very last part to be completed (along with the abstract).

    It’s a good idea, though, to write a rough draft of your introduction at the beginning. If you wrote a dissertation proposal, you can use this as a template, as it contains many of the same elements.

    However, you should revise your introduction throughout the writing process and return to it at the end, making sure it matches the content of your dissertation.

    Step 1: Introduce the topic and context

    Begin by leading into your broad topic and giving any necessary background information. Aim to spark interest and show why this is a timely or important topic for a dissertation (for example, by mentioning a relevant news item, debate, or practical problem).

    Example topic

    Young people’s attitudes to climate change.

    Example context

    Recent news stories about the children’s climate strike, and the increasing importance of youth engagement with climate politics.

    Step 2: Narrow down your focus

    After a brief introduction to your general area of interest, zoom in on the specific focus of your research. For example:

    • What geographical area are you investigating?
    • What time period does your research cover?
    • What demographics or communities are you researching?
    • What specific themes or aspects of the topic does your dissertation address?
    Example focus

    British teenagers’ engagement with UK climate policy.

    You should also clearly define the scope of your research: that is, the boundaries of what you will and won’t cover.

    Step 3: Show the relevance of the research

    You need to explain your rationale for doing this research, how it relates to existing work on the topic, and what new insights it will contribute. What is the relevance of this dissertation to your academic field? Does it have broader social or practical relevance? In short, why does it matter?

    Here you can give a brief overview of the current state of research on the topic, citing the most relevant literature and indicating how your work fits in. You will conduct a more in-depth survey of sources in the literature review section or chapter.

    Depending on your field, your research might have practical relevance (e.g. in policy or management), but it might mainly be relevant to other researchers (e.g. by developing theories or contributing new empirical data).

    To make the relevance clear, explain how your dissertation:

    • Helps solve a practical or theoretical problem
    • Addresses a gap in the literature
    • Builds on existing research
    • Proposes a new understanding of the topic
    Example relevance

    Young people will determine the future of climate policy, so it is important to gain an in-depth understanding of their engagement with this issue. While there has been previous research on British youth attitudes to climate change, none has focused specifically on how they engage with current UK climate policy. Furthermore, as the youth politics of climate change has been particularly prominent in the past year, it is important to build on previous work and expand scholarly knowledge of this contemporary phenomenon.

    Step 4: State your aims and objectives

    Next, you have to answer two questions:

    • The overall aim: What did you want to find out?
    • The specific objectives: How did you go about finding it out?

    The overall aim is often formulated as a research question.

    Example research question

    How do secondary school students in London engage with the UK government’s policies on climate change?

    The objectives are more specific: they tell the reader how you went about answering the question.

    The objectives should give an initial insight into your research methods, giving a preview of the type of data and analysis the dissertation deals with. However, you don’t need to outline your methods in detail here if you’re including a separate methodology chapter.

    Example objectives
    • Gather and analyse quantitative data on students’ levels of knowledge, concern, and positive/negative perceptions of government policy
    • Determine whether levels of concern are associated with age, gender and social class
    • Conduct qualitative research to gain in-depth insight into students’ attitudes, perceptions, and modes of engagement with the issue

    Step 5: Give an overview of the dissertation’s structure

    To help guide your reader through the dissertation, end with an overview of its structure, summarising each chapter to clearly show how it contributes to your central aim.

    It’s best to keep the overview concise. A few sentences should usually be enough to describe the content of each chapter. However, if your research is more complicated or does not follow a conventional structure, you might need to elaborate a full paragraph for each chapter.

    For example, a humanities dissertation might develop an argument thematically rather than dividing the research into methods/results/discussion. Especially if your structure is unconventional, make it clear how everything fits together.

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    Shona McCombes

    Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

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