PMean: Writing the introduction section of a research thesis or dissertation

Steve Simon


The introduction section of your research thesis or dissertation is the first thing that most people will read after reading the abstract. Some people use the introduction section to provide a literature review, and I won’t talk about that here. I did offer a nice recommendation on how to write a literature review in an earlier post. The introduction should provide present your research problem (research question, research hypothesis), but first you have to offer some context.

What does context mean? It varies from study to study, but in a health care setting, the context almost always involves people. They might be people with a particular disease, or people who are getting a particular type of care, people exposed to something harmful, or people in a particular demographic group. Describe the disease, care, or exposure in broad details. Here are some examples.

Note that the context is far broader than any particular intervention could address. That’s okay. You start with a broad area because you want everyone to feel comfortable with your topic and not just those who are highly specialized in your area.

Then add a second dimension to the mix.

Now you can bring in a third dimension, if you like. Or you can narrow down one of the first two dimensions to a more manageable size. Get to a specific problem that needs to be solved.

This has to be a problem that is largely unsolved. Otherwise, why are you doing the research. Talk briefly about some of the failed attempts or about the gaps in knowledge or the preliminary nature of proposed solutions or something else that implies a deficiency.

Then introduce your work as an attempt to address this deficiency.

You may end up repeating this structure in more detail in your literature review. The difference, other than length, is that you want more of the focus in the Introduction to be on your research. You only give enough context in the Introduction so that people can understand the research problem and your proposed solution.

Now I have to admit that I cheated here. The examples I used are from papers that do not have an introduction that is separate from the literature review. To be honest, it looks like the separation between the introduction and the literature review occurs mostly for theses and dissertations, rather than research papers. I hope that this summary is still helpful, and I will try to find better examples, possibly from actual theses and dissertations when I have time.

Meanwhile, there are a ton of good resources on this topic out on the Internet. Here are a few.