Writing the Introduction to Your Thesis
August 14, 2017
The introduction is what people will read first – and it’s always important to make a good first impression. In terms of telling the story of your research, the introduction sets up the main themes and lets the reader know what they should expect.
What is the Problem, and Why does it Matter?
This is what the first one or two paragraphs of the introduction should tell the reader.
Usually, the two questions are answered together. In many of the scientific papers you read, you will find that the general context is described in the first couple of sentences, followed by the problem that arises in the context. For both the context and the problem, authors will usually give references to the scientific literature which explain them in more detail.
Example: Context: Older people are more likely to have several chronic illnesses, and they need to take multiple medications. Remembering those medications is difficult. Problem: Older people often have impaired vision, and so need reminders that are easy to see.
You need to make sure that the problem is the one that your thesis actually addresses. Very often, people set out to solve a large problem (e.g., create medication reminders for everyone), only to find that they need to address a smaller problem first (e.g., create a reminder system that is easy to use for people with visual impairment).
As you explain your problem and its context, you will also mention the people for whom the problem matters in particular. In our example, this would be older people with visual impairments.
How did you Solve the Problem?
Usually, there are many ways to address a given problem. This is particularly true in Human Computer Interaction and Health Informatics, which use methods from disciplines that range from Computer Science to Anthropology. By outlining your approach, you tell the reader what kind of paper to expect, with what kind of research traditions you align yourself, and what methods you are likely to use.
- I conducted field research with older people to determine what strategies they use to create easily visible reminders, and distilled the results of my research into design guidelines. (Ethnographic, Design angle)
- I created an app that automatically recognises medication information from prescriptions and feeds the information into an existing reminder app that is for people with low vision. (Computer Science, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) / Computer Vision)
How are you Building on Previous Work?
Since you are usually not the first person to attempt to solve this problem, there should be plenty of other work you can draw on. While the introduction is not the place to conduct a detailed literature review, you can still let you reader know what the main theoretical approach or methodological approach is that you used. Tools are not methods. Using NVivo is not an analysis methodology, thematic analysis or grounded theory is. Using python with scikit-learn is not a machine learning methodology, support vector machines or recurrent neural networks are.
Does it Work?
Perhaps the biggest misconception in Masters and Honours students is that a solution has to work flawlessly, or an experiment has to confirm a hypothesis, for the thesis to be good. Some bugs are inevitable, sometimes, users turn up their noses at the most lovingly created apps and visualisations, and some experiments just won’t turn out the way you want them to. That’s life. However, you do have to have solid methods in place to determine whether your solution or your app works, whether your experiment was sound, whether the conclusions you draw from your field work and qualitative research are valid. In your introduction, you should state what these methods were, and refer to key papers on the methods.
- I analysed field notes and pictures using grounded theory. Themes were validated through conversation and co-analysis with my supervisor and through discussion with my participants. New themes still emerged from the last piece fieldwork, so I was unable to achieve saturation in the time period available. (Saturation in Grounded Theory means that no new themes come up in your data collection.)
- I extended an existing OCR solution by using algorithms X, Y, and Z. I trained on data set D and tested my solution with actual prescriptions provided by five older people. The baseline OCR solution outperformed X, Y, and Z.
The Actual Structure of the Introduction Chapter
In the previous sections, we’ve looked at the content of your introduction. A good structure is Motivation (where you talk about the problem, why it matters, and refer to previous work, if necessary) Aims (where you talk about your approach and link it to other approaches, if necessary), Research Questions (concise) and structure of the thesis, where you list each chapter and the rough contents.
Be Short and Sharp!
The most important advice for the introduction is to keep it relatively short, and point forward to other parts of the thesis were you will provide more detail about relevant aspects of your work. The Introduction should be a couple of pages, an initial overview of what the reader is about to encounter, that helps them situate your work in its context (theory, approaches, methods, applications), before you dive deep into the fine details.