How Long Should a Dissertation or Thesis Introduction Be?
How long should the introduction to your thesis or dissertation be? The most obvious answer is as long as it needs to be – no longer and no shorter. This is absolutely true, but also rather unhelpful if you do not yet know exactly how long your introduction needs to be. The problem with providing a simple answer that will apply universally to every scholarly thesis and dissertation is that each research project is unique and will therefore present its own specific requirements. Several factors may play a role in determining the length of the final document. The level of the research conducted by the student, the academic or scientific discipline, the depth of specialisation, the topic or problem investigated and the preferences of the department as well as the advice of the student’s mentors are among these. The nature of the research, then, will determine the length and much else about the introduction because it is that research that the introduction must introduce, and introduce well, to examiners and other readers.
The first thing to do when you are wondering how long your thesis or dissertation introduction should be is to consult the guidelines or regulations for theses and dissertations provided by your department or university (or other research or educational institution if you are not studying at a university). Be sure to look at the instructions specifically intended for the type of thesis or dissertation you are writing and use the guidelines relevant to your discipline, department and subject area. There will usually be some sort of overall word or page limit set on the length of a thesis or dissertation, sometimes a lower limit that must be met as well as an upper limit that must not be exceeded. Occasionally, there will also be information on how long each part of the document, such as the introduction, should be, but this is rare. You may also find it helpful to discuss the matter of introduction length with your supervisor or primary mentor, who will probably be able to give you more specific advice about the length of introduction expected for your particular research topic and approach. Another excellent strategy is to consult successful theses and dissertations that have recently been completed in your department and discipline; their introductions, especially when the research is similar to your own, may serve as useful models of length.
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Generally speaking, the more advanced the research, the longer the thesis or dissertation written to report it, so an undergraduate dissertation will be a lot shorter than a doctoral thesis researched in the same department and even one exploring the same research topic. This does not mean, however, that undergraduate dissertations will always be of the same or a similar length, or that all doctoral theses will resemble each other in length. A doctoral thesis in the humanities might consist of a good many more words and paragraphs than a PhD thesis in the sciences does, but that scientific thesis might in turn make up the difference in tables, charts and other presentations of data. In a traditionally structured scientific thesis at the postgraduate level, where the introduction is followed by chapters dedicated to methodology, results, discussion and, finally, conclusions, an introduction that constitutes about 10% of the overall length is generally acceptable. Some instructors and guidelines might recommend a little shorter introduction of about 7% or even 5% of the total length of the document, but in other disciplines and especially when the background information needed to understand the research is extensive, an introduction might grow to 12% or even 15% of the entire thesis or dissertation.
As you are designing and drafting the introduction for your thesis or dissertation, the guidelines, advice and models available to you will help you aim for an appropriate length, and as you finish and polish your work, they will help you edit for that perfect length. Even more important, however, will be the content you are required to include in your introduction. Here, too, those guidelines, mentors and successful theses and dissertations will prove invaluable. Department and university guidelines may list or describe the basic contents expected in the introduction; your mentors may have very specific ideas about what must be communicated to clarify your research; and those successful theses and dissertations will reveal what other students chose to write about in their introductions. Although precisely what a scholarly introduction should contain varies, so that a master’s dissertation in the social sciences will provide entirely different kinds of information than a doctoral thesis in art history will, the basic structures and purposes of both are usually not so very different at all.
In fact, the introductions to scholarly theses and dissertations of all kinds tend to have very similar primary functions, so I have listed a number of these below. Do be aware, however, that these points are particularly relevant to a thesis or dissertation that makes an original contribution to knowledge. Some of them may not be necessary or useful for your thesis or dissertation, they might be presented in a variety of different orders, and disciplines and departments will vary in the terminology used to describe them, so it is essential while using this list to prioritise any instructions you obtain from your own educational institution and mentors. Generally speaking, however, the introduction to a scholarly thesis or dissertation should
• Identify clearly, accurately and with as much precision as possible the topic, problem or phenomenon on which your research focuses. This can be done at any point in the introduction, but mentioning it in a brief and engaging manner near the beginning and then developing it into a more comprehensive statement often works well.
• Provide background information for the topic you are exploring. This can take many forms including a survey of the history of the occurrence of the problem or phenomenon and a summary or brief review of previous research on the topic.
• Explain the value or significance of your research, which is often achieved as or immediately after you introduce background material. Significance can be demonstrated by describing the impact of a problem, its complexity or mysterious nature, its occurrence and persistence, and the number of people or regions affected.
• Indicate gaps, problems, misconceptions and the like in the published research on your topic or in your subject area, and suggest how your research aims to fill those gaps, resolve the problems and correct any misconceptions by presenting new ways of perceiving and understanding the situation.
• Introduce, usually briefly, the methods and approaches you have adopted or devised to investigate the topic or problem. Your methodology need not be new, but it should be the most effective possible, and for postgraduate research it is usually best if its application to the problem is in some way innovative, so do emphasise those aspects.
• Describe the context of the research. The intellectual and theoretical context of your research might be covered in your discussion of the background or scholarship, but it can be described separately. The physical context of the research should also be clarified by explaining where your research takes place, who is involved and why the location you have chosen is appropriate.
• Establish a conceptual framework for the thesis or dissertation. A conceptual framework is very much like an accurate textual map of the territory investigated in your research, so it should allow you to include in meaningful ways everything you wish to report, discuss, interpret and argue.
• Outline the aims and objectives of your research. The aims and objectives of a thesis or dissertation should not only be reasonable and attainable, but also clearly stated, so displaying them in a list can be particularly effective and so can numbering them in order of importance.
• Present your research questions and hypotheses. Determining exactly what your research questions and hypotheses are can be an excellent means of defining and understanding your research more clearly, and therefore reporting it more effectively to your readers. A list can be helpful here as well, and you may want to arrange questions and hypotheses in relation to your methods.
• Define or clarify any key theories, specialised terminology, archaic vocabulary, unusual concepts or nonstandard abbreviations that you make extensive use of in the thesis or dissertation.
• Explain the ethical considerations associated with your research and its methodology. Generally speaking, ethical issues arise in research that uses living subjects, and your university will almost certainly have regulations about how such subjects can be used in your research.
• Provide a brief summary of the contents of the thesis or dissertation. Academic and scientific writing tends to lay out the ground of a document for its readers, and this can be an excellent way of connecting the end of your introduction to the beginning of your next chapter or section.
Remember as you are working to observe guidelines and heed the expert advice you receive that the primary goal of any scholarly introduction is to set the stage for writing about the procedures and results of the research. You therefore need to provide your readers with everything they require to understand the nature, value and meaning of the research you describe in greater detail in the chapters and sections to come. If you have achieved this, then you have written an introduction both long enough and not too long. Unfortunately, it may still prove a little too short or long as far as those guidelines are concerned, in which case some creative editing may be required, but guidelines can often be flexible when the research demands it, so do be sure to discuss the matter with your mentors and examiners before finalising your introduction.
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