Writing the Introduction

As I continue working with new clients I am discovering a great deal of common ground: graduate schools appear to do very little to help prepare their students for the rigors of academic writing.

The first draft of most dissertations seems to be very similar: the student is trying to demonstrate competence in all the major literature in any way remotely connected to his or her study. This is not only unnecessary, it is annoying for the average reader.

The Introduction or introductory chapter is often rambling and extensive, leaving the reader who is interested in the actual subject of the research feeling very frustrated. Get to the point! one wants to shout. The literature review and methods sections continue in the same vein.

This is perhaps most characteristic of the qualitative study. Unlike quantitative studies, which have very specific expectations for how one is to proceed, qualitative studies have no predetermined methodology or research design. Often, especially in certain fields for which qualitative studies have only begun to be accepted, there is still the need to JUSTIFY doing qualitative instead of quantitative research. And very often one needs to review and integrate large bodies of literature from outside the field, literature unfamiliar to many readers WITHIN the field. All too often that leads the writer to spend way too much time covering that literature before you get to your actual study. There are huge bodies of potentially relevant literature, and it is difficult to distinguish among literature that

  • 1) sets up the background for the study,
  • 2) provides the theoretical framework that
  •        a) justifies taking a qualitative approach,
  •        b) defines the acceptable parameters for the study, and
  •        c) enables interpretation of the data.

I find that  good deal of the material presented in first chapters is “front-loaded” — i.e., it more properly belongs to the literature review or methodology sections, or even the study section where the researcher explicates what is perceived to be occurring in the data.

The introduction to a dissertation must do the following, and the following ALONE:

  1. It identifies, locates, and justifies your study within your field. It demonstrates that your study attends to something entirely new, never examined before in the field.
  2. It states the specific problem that your study is to address, a problem not heretofore addressed by previous studies
  3. It states the research questions to be addressed by your specific study
  4.  It states the methods to be used
  5. And finally, it outlines the chapters to come.

The introduction answers the following questions:

  • What is the problem? Why do I study this issue? Why should it be solved?
  • Who will benefit the most from this piece of writing? What is the contribution?
  • What is my purpose?
  • What are my methods?
  • What can the reader expect in the subsequent chapters?

Except for an overview of the literature that needed to demonstrate that the study at hand is unique and adds important NEW understanding to the existing literature, the major literature reviews are saved for the literature review and/or to the methodology sections.

The introductory chapter of a dissertation is much like that first paragraph in the old “five paragraph theme”: essentially, you tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em. The big difference is that you must also demonstrate that the study about to be read is unique and makes a major contribution to the field in which it is located. .

I will discuss the literature review and the methodology sections in separate posts.