The Introduction is where it all begins… A favoured phrase of one of my colleagues is “setting out your stall”. In the Introduction, this is where you do just that. You invite the reader to take the time to read your work. They may be reading this having read your Abstract, or they may be coming at it completely cold. When advising students on writing their doctoral thesis, I try and balance a split personality. On the one hand, I sincerely believe that you should respect your reader and you should give them every chance to follow your work, to help them understand that what you have done is incredible and why. This is not just because you are dependent on a select number of readers in order to graduate – every reader should be treated with the same respect, every reader should be able to follow your thinking with ease. On the other hand, you the researcher are due a certain amount of respect for the years of your life that you have given up and most readers will not really be that bothered unless you give them a reason to be: from that perspective I am all for grabbing them by the scruff of the neck and saying ‘follow me!’. But that is clearly not a way to win friends and influence people.
Recalling the post on Concluding Remarks, I suggested a particular structure. In an ideal world (at least from the perspective of these blogs) I would come before C (except after E) – this would have meant that I could have talked about the structure of the Introduction first, which in some ways would have made more sense. Oh well. As I wrote for C, the Introduction and the Concluding Remarks book-end the thesis. The meat of your research is presented in the chapters in-between, but in these two chapters you explain how the research fits into the big picture. So, whilst the two chapters perform slightly different functions, they are in some respects mirror images – where before we were talking about finishing with a summary followed by key findings followed by further work, in the Introduction we have Context followed by Scope (or if you prefer Aims and Objectives) and then the Outline. I would budget about 2-3 pages for the whole chapter.
In the interests of full disclosure, I actually wrote an Introduction that was 14 pages long – and was accused of being ‘too philosophical’ by one of my supervisors. In hindsight, I feel that he might even be right, although I had very good reasons for writing it the way that I did: I think that an Introduction of this length is justifiable if there is a particular point that needs to be made before you crack on with the literature and if you need to review something which needs to be said, but which would distract from the literature, or which does not fit comfortably with the rest of the Literature Review. If I got the opportunity to go back in time and rewrite it, I don’t know whether I would or not – especially as I was able to reuse some of this material as the basis of a review paper some eight years or so after I defended. Hypocritical or not, I would advocate keeping the Introduction short, but I’m amenable to arguing, *cough*, discussing the point.
So, with the Introduction, I believe very much in the tactics of shock and awe: start with the big picture, and big numbers. Shock and awe works particularly well if you are working in an apparently mundane area where the reader suddenly finds out that something big, expensive and dangerous happens every day in close proximity and they knew nothing about it. So if you’ve invented a better mouse trap, you can start with the fact that there are estimated to be between 7 and 20 billion mice worldwide… (you’d hope that I just plucked those numbers out of the air, wouldn’t you…).
With the Scope, you need to outline your research question, hypothesis or some other succinct justification for your proposed body of work. This then leads to 3-7 specific objectives that you will undertake to complete, again with some thought as to how this builds to a whole and helps answers the research question.
Finally, your introduction closes with an outline of the entire thesis and the purpose for each chapter’s existence. My colleagues and I talk a lot about sign-posting: despite my assertion that you should knock the reader off-balance and then drag them along your line of thinking with your charisma, it is important to provide a road map for the reader so that they know what to expect from the rest of the thesis. You can still dazzle them all over again in the right places with your brilliant results, but they need to know that you are going to be at least slightly conventional and put Experimental Methods after the Literature Review, or you need to provide a good explanation as to why you’ve written a relative short Background, and that each chapter is a self-contained mini-project with it’s own literature and all the rest.