Structuring a Thesis Introduction

A few weeks ago, I had a post on writing introductions, in which I discussed the standard three moves of an introduction. This model works very naturally in a short space such as a research proposal or article but can be harder to realize on the bigger canvas of a thesis introduction. Many thesis writers struggle with the need to provide adequate contextualizing detail before being able to give a satisfying account of their problem. Truth be told, this inclination—the feeling that our problem is so complex that any explanation will require extensive background—can be a bit of a graduate student weakness. Understanding that your thesis can be explained in a compressed fashion is often a step forward, if for no other reason than it can give you the wherewithal to answer the inevitable questions about your thesis topic without the stammering and the false starts and the over-reliance on the word ‘complicated’. I suggest that thesis writers take every possible opportunity to articulate their topic under severe space or time constraints. One possibility: look to see if your campus is having a Three Minutes Thesis competition this term; the first round at U of T is being held on March 22.

When I approach a thesis introduction, I start from the assumption that the reader shouldn’t have to wait to hear your guiding problem until they have the full context to that problem. You have to find a way of giving them the big picture before the deep context. Let’s take an imaginary example. You are writing your thesis on the reappearance of thestrals in the 1980s in Mirkwood Forest in the remote country of Archenland after a devastating forest fire caused by mineral extraction in the 1950s.* How are you going to structure an introduction in such a way that your reader doesn’t have to read 10 pages of bewildering and seemingly unconnected background? When a thesis writer attempts to give the full context before elaborating the problem, two things will happen. First, the reader will labour to see the significance of all that they are being told. Second, the reader will, in all likelihood, struggle to find connections between the various aspects of the context. Once you have explained what we need to know about thestrals, you will need to discuss the topography of Mirkwood, the endangered species policy framework in Archenland, the mineral extraction practices commonly used in the 1950s, and the way forest fires affect animal populations. If you haven’t started with your problem—the thing that brings these disparate areas into a meaningful conversation with each other—your introduction will begin with a baffling array of potentially disconnected bits of information.

The simplest solution to this problem is to provide a quick trip through the whole  project in the first few paragraphs, before beginning to contextualize in earnest. I am picturing a thesis introduction that looks something like this:

  1. Introduction to the introduction: The first step will be a short version of the three moves, often in as little as three paragraphs, ending with some sort of transition to the next section where the full context will be provided.
  2. Context: Here the writer can give the full context in a way that flows from what has been said in the opening. The extent of the context given here will depend on what follows the introduction; if there will be a full lit review or a full context chapter to come, the detail provided here will, of course, be less extensive. If, on the other hand, the next step after the introduction will be a discussion of method, the work of contextualizing will have to be completed in its entirely here.
  3. Restatement of the problem: With this more fulsome treatment of context in mind, the reader is ready to hear a restatement of the problem and significance; this statement will echo what was said in the opening, but will have much more resonance for the reader who now has a deeper understanding of the research context.
  4. Restatement of the response: Similarly, the response can be restated in more meaningful detail for the reader who now has a better understanding of the problem.
  5. Roadmap: Brief indication of how the thesis will proceed.

What do you think about this as a possible structure for a thesis introduction? While I realize that it may sound a little rigid, I think such an approach is warranted here. Using this type of structure can give thesis writers an opportunity to come to a much better understanding of what they are trying to say. In other words, in my experience, thesis writers tend to feel better after reconstructing their introductions along these lines. For some, it may prove a useful way to present their introduction in their final draft; for other, it may just be a useful scaffold, something that they can improve upon once everything is on a surer footing.

Using this structure can help the writer craft an introduction that responds to the needs of the reader, rather than the demands of the material. Typically, the thesis introductions that I see provide an introduction to the topic but not necessarily to the piece of writing. Writers—especially writers in the throes of trying to conceptualize a book length research project—often forget that the audience’s ability to engage with the topic is mediated by the text. Introducing your introduction is one way to meet your key responsibility to guide the reader through the text. The thesis reader’s journey is a long one—why not do what you can to ensure that your reader sets off with the maximal understanding of their destination?

* With apologies to J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.

11 responses to “Structuring a Thesis Introduction

  1. Pingback: Structuring a Thesis Introduction | University Life, Reviews and Study |

  2. Pingback: Explorations of Style | the postmodern novel & beyond

  3. The resurfacing of this post is so timely. I am currently drafting my introduction and am startled to find myself struggling to articulate my research question after just under a year working on it….! Thanks for another very helpful post.

  4. Thank you for this post! I was hesitating about writing what you call “the introduction to the introduction” because it seemed a bit prim to me, but now that you gave this nifty example, I feel it is a great idea!

    • Thanks. I really like the word ‘prim’ to describe our trepidation about being more explicit about the moves we are making in our writing. I think it’s very possible to feel slightly embarrassed about spelling things out or about repeating ourselves in our writing. I wonder if we feel that we ought to be able to convey what we are doing in our writing without having to tell the reader what is going on, but I think this sets the bar pretty high! What I try to do in my own writing is to go ahead and make my intentions as explicit as possible, with the understanding that I may wish to go back and polish it later. Even if we don’t end up liking the first version very much, we always benefit from the exercise of making our intentions plain.

      • Yes, the best is that we will just going on and try to pursue our intentions. Editing or polishing it afterwards will help us refine anything what we wished to happen. Just like “thesis making”, it needs critiques to reach “our intentions” as you said.

    • Yes Tabea, writing “introduction” is the most difficult part of thesis making. It seems I was in the abyss looking for a single streak of light to guide me to the right path for my younger sisters’ thesis proposal as her prerequisites for graduation, 2 decades ago. Actually, writing “introduction” will not just happened once, but you keep editing your “introduction” especially when you are about to finish your chapter 3. The tips I can share at you is just try to make your “introduction” and make some edits afterwards . . .

  5. I’ve been royally struggling with the entire format of my thesis, despite being what I would consider a competent writer. Thank you for de-mystifying things :)

  6. I would love to know what to call the introduction to the Introduction. Mine needs a heading of some description!

    • If the introduction chapter has a name other than “Introduction”, then you could just call the opening bit “Introduction”. If, on the other hand, your introductory chapter is going to be called “Introduction,” I guess you have two options. You could just leave it unnamed. That is, your first section would have no heading; once the intro-to-the-intro is complete, you would provide your first heading. Or you could give it a name that is either generic (“Overview” or “Setting the Stage”) or specific (something broad that plays on your thesis topic).

      • Thanks Rachael. My introduction is called just that but has several sub-headings. I was also thinking along the lines of ‘overview’.

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