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 Minute Thesis competition.

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.

34 responses to “Structuring a Thesis Introduction

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

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  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’.

  7. thanks that helped me alot

  8. WOW this helps me a lot. Thanks!!!

  9. Thanks for your insight into writing a thesis introduction. I was just wondering if you could expand slightly on the “roadmap”. Where I’m going with my thesis sounds like what I would be writing in my response. Thank you again!

    • Thanks, Haley. By roadmap, I just mean the elaboration of what is to come in the thesis. “In the next chapter, I will …” and “The following chapters will be devoted to …”. That sort of thing. Since different theses can have such different introductions and then such different structures, the reader will usually benefit from an explicit elaboration of the overall plan. In my experience, writing a roadmap can also be quite instructive because it pushes us to lay out the relationships among the various parts.

  10. Thanks. This is quite helpful. Quick question though. Under Introduction to the introduction, you mention that ”The first step will be a short version of the three moves…..

    ”What are the ”three moves” that you talk about here?

  11. As what I have said earlier that doing an introduction is the most difficult part of thesis making but everything in introduction is your intentions about the problem you want to study and that is the title of your thesis, actually as coach, I will let my clients to follow 8 steps to make their introduction complete because the first part of thesis is called Chapter 1 and others preferred to call it as “Introduction”. Either of these two has all the same purpose. It is always refers to “The Problem”. To know those 8 steps to follow and to make your introduction complete please click this link

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  15. This is absolutely brilliant exposition. You have confirmed everything my experience has taught me about what an introduction should be. Thank you!

  16. Pingback: How to Write a Good PhD Introduction: Collected Resources | Turbulent London

  17. This is exactly what I’ve needed. I’ve been taught the basics so many times that I feel it unraveled any ability I had to formulate a thesis. I appreciate this deconstruction so much. You have no idea.

  18. I found this reassuring, as this was exactly what I was instinctively doing in my introduction. Thank you so much!

  19. By “this” I mean writing an intro to the introduction chapter 🙂

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  21. What a gem of a post! I’m currently working on my thesis and it can seem so overwhelming but this advice has definitely helped. thank you so much 🙂

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  25. Petr Doležal

    I came here after writing quite a good introduction in a search for an answer whether to do subheadings in there or not (of which I’m still not convinced).

    I was happy to see that my introduction does most of what you recommend, except for the intro to the intro. For my project, I can’t really get behind it, partly because it would slightly break the flow of what I’ve written, but also because it seems slightly formulaic.

    I think it makes sense only when your introduction is of a certain length. Mine is not yet a PhD thesis, only a Masters project, and as it is slightly less than a page, I feel it can probably be left out. If someone reads the whole thing back-to-back they would have came by the abstract already anyway.

    • Thanks, Petr. You are right–an intro to the intro would be redundant in a short introduction. As a separate point, while most people will come to your introduction having already read the abstract, it’s good practice to make sure the introduction stands alone.

      I would say that subheadings aren’t going to be helpful in a short introduction. The goal of subheadings is to help a reader understand the linkages in your work; when they are deployed in a short text, they tend instead to undermine linkages and make things feel choppy.

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