Writing A Dissertation Introduction

7 Common (But Costly) Mistakes To Avoid

By: David Phair (PhD) and Alexandra Shaeffer (PhD) | March 2022

Your dissertation or thesis introduction chapter is critically important as it tells the reader what your study is about, why it’s important and how you’ll approach it. Simply put, it serves as a starting point for your reader to orient themselves with your study. Get the introduction chapter wrong and you’ll quickly lose your reader (and your marker!).

Over the years, we’ve reviewed thousands of introduction chapters. In this post, we’ll discuss 7 common but deadly mistakes that students make, so that you can avoid the pitfalls and craft a high-quality introduction chapter.

1. Not providing enough context for the study

A recurring issue we see is that students don’t lay enough of a contextual foundation for their research topic. In other words, they don’t clearly explain where their research is situated within the existing literature (and the real world).

A good introduction should outline the contextual factors from the outset. Ideally, you should describe the what, where, who and when type factors to help orient your reader. This contextual base will help your reader understand what’s going on in the field, which will lay the foundation for your research justification (more on that coming soon).

While it can be easy to brush over this information, it’s important to remember that your reader likely doesn’t know your perspective, and thus you need to set the scene. Always write for the intelligent layman – someone that’s intellectually curious but not an expert in your field. Don’t make assumptions about what your reader already knows; start from the bottom and build a firm contextual foundation.

A good introduction chapter should outline the contextual factors - specifically the, what, where, who and when of your research project.

2. Insufficient justification for the research topic

Another common mistake we see students make within the introduction chapter is not providing sufficient justification for their research topic and research aims. All too often, students rely on the overly simplistic justification of “it hasn’t been done before”. While this may seem like a good justification (and indeed, originality is an important part of your justification), it isn’t enough on its own to justify your research. A good introduction should not only discuss the novelty of a project, but also the practical and theoretical importance of finding the answers to your research questions.

When writing up your introduction, be sure to address the “what”, the “why” and the “who”. In other words:

  1. What are you researching (and how is this novel/original)?
  2. Why is it important (will add value to the field)?
  3. Who is going to benefit from the research or who will struggle without it?

These are essential questions that you need to answer thoroughly and with reference to previous research. Don’t skim over this section of the introduction. No matter how good the rest of your dissertation or thesis is, if your research topic itself isn’t well-justified, the rest won’t matter all that much.

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3. Having a research topic that’s too broad

Another common mistake that we encounter when reviewing dissertations is that students often pursue a topic that isn’t focused or specific enough – that is, a topic that’s too broad. While this issue has its origins much earlier in the dissertation development process, it tends to reveal itself in the introduction chapter and acts as a tell-tale sign of pending problems.

As a researcher, it’s understandable that you want to try to tackle the world’s problems with your research. However, it’s important to realise that as an individual, you’ll seldom be able to single-handedly solve a research issue. However, you can contribute to a larger field of research by building on the work of others (and producing research that others can build on). For this reason, your topic can’t be too broad, or you’ll end up just scratching the surface and not generating any meaningful insight. Conversely, a narrow, tightly-defined research aim will allow you to go deep.

For example, if you’re looking at the impact of telecommunications on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), try narrowing it into one aspect of telecommunications. Ask yourself what specifically about telecommunications are you interested in. By doing this, you can narrow your research question, and end with something like, “How are SMEs using Zoom for business meetings?” This will narrow your research scope, allowing you to go deeper and generate richer insights.

You’ll seldom be able to single-handedly solve a research issue, but you can contribute to the body of knowledge by building on the work of others.

4. Having poorly defined research aims,
objectives and research questions

This mistake often goes hand in hand with the previous one (too broad a topic). Without clear research aims, objectives and research questions, your study can get a bit murky and lack direction. Therefore, it’s important to make sure that you clearly define and communicate your research aims, objectives and research questions within your introduction. These three elements set up the expectations for the rest of your project and (should) form a “golden thread” of consistency throughout your dissertation or thesis.  

Let’s return to the example of telecommunications and SMEs.

The topic was too broad, so we narrowed it down to focus on how Zoom is used by SMEs for business meetings. Now we need to look a little closer and answer the question of what exactly it is that you’re interested in understanding about Zoom and SMEs. You could, for example, look into how Zoom facilitates collaboration in business meetings, or how Zoom breakout rooms are used.

With this narrower focus, you would then frame it as a research aim. For example, “This project aims to investigate the impact of Zoom breakout rooms in collaborations of SMEs”. By narrowing the scope, the reader has a much better idea of what you’re trying to do, and you have a much clearer focus for both your literature review and fieldwork.

Importantly, your research aim (or aims) should directly lead to your research questions, and your research objectives should be specific steps you’ll take to answer your research questions and address your research aims. When crafting these three elements, aim for specificity and clarity. Clearly communicate in the introduction chapter exactly what you’ll be investigating by detailing your research aims, objectives and questions.

The research aims, objectives and research questions should align to form a “golden thread” of consistency throughout your document.

5. Having misaligned research aims, objectives
and research questions

Related to the previous mistake is the common issue of having research aims, objectives and questions that pull in different directions. In other words, misalignment between the three elements of the golden thread.

Misalignment within the golden thread is a major problem, as it means that the study cannot achieve its research aims (or perhaps has the wrong aims altogether!). So, it’s essential that your research aims, objectives, and research questions are all tightly aligned.

Your research aim (or aims) needs to answer the question, “What is the main goal and purpose of your research?”. This is typically pretty formulaic, where you can say something along the lines of, “This project aims to/seeks to/will investigate the impact of Zoom breakout rooms in SMEs.” Simply put, the research aims describe what you’re trying to achieve in high-level terms.

Your research objectives are the “how” of your research. This is where you turn your aims into actionable points, a bit like a to-do list. Sticking with the Zoom example, the research objectives might look something like the following:

  1. Identify what proportion of SMEs make use of Zoom breakout rooms
  2. Identify what the purpose/function of such use is
  3. Assess the value generated by such use

When you write up your research objectives, make sure that you stay on topic and aligned with the research aims. For example, if your study focuses on Zoom and SMEs, don’t drag in Skype or MS Teams.

Lastly, your research questions are the specific questions you’ll look to answer with your study. The easiest way to create research questions (and ensure they’re aligned) is to take your research aims and objectives and turn them into questions. For example:

  • “What is the impact of Zoom breakout rooms in SMEs?”
  • “How do SMEs make use of Zoom breakout rooms?”

The most important thing is that your research aims, objectives and research questions are all tightly aligned. These should move from broad to narrow and follow the same direction. So, make sure that everything matches and that you don’t go off on any unnecessary tangents.

6. Having a poorly defined and/or justified scope

A further mistake we see students make with their introduction chapter is having a poorly defined and/or justified scope. Naturally, it can be tempting to try to achieve the “next big thing”, but as we mentioned earlier, the overall aim of your study is to contribute to a body of research. While you may want your research to be generalisable and applicable to different contexts, this is typically extremely difficult (if not impossible) to achieve in reality. Therefore, you need to narrow your scope and get specific about the boundaries of your research.

In your dissertation or thesis introduction chapter, it’s important to talk about the where, the when, and the who of your research project. If we return to our example of Zoom and SMEs, which types of SMEs are you looking at specifically (and how do you define SME)? What industry are they in and where are they situated? Is the focus on start-ups or later stage SMEs? You could, for example, narrow the scope of your topic by choosing to work with SMEs in the financial sector and centring on UK-based companies that have been active for 5 years.

By narrowing your scope,  your project will become a lot more focused, manageable and replicable. A good scope not only helps you stay focused but also helps other researchers if they want to recreate your study.

Next, make sure that you provide a clear justification for your scope. It’s fine, for example, to focus on SMEs in the UK, but it’s important to explain why you made this choice. Why these SMEs specifically? Why are they worth studying?

Make sure that you also mention how much research has already been undertaken in your research area of interest. If there isn’t much extant literature, that will form part of your justification. However, don’t just say, “It hasn’t been done before”. Why hasn’t it been done? For example, when studying SMEs in the UK, there may be something about their policies, culture or mindset, or maybe that the banking sector is highly regulated and getting access to information is challenging. These contextual factors will all form part of your scope justification.

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7. Not providing a clear structural outline

The final mistake we’ll discuss in this article is that of not providing a clear outline of the dissertation/thesis document structure. A good outline serves to help orient the reader by getting a clear view of what to expect in the document and where to find any specific information they’re looking for.

In practical terms, your outline should appear at the end of your introduction chapter, as it prepares the reader for the rest of your document. Without it, your introduction chapter will end very abruptly and disparately.

The outline itself needn’t be lengthy. A line or two covering each chapter should be ample. The writing itself can be quite formulaic, simply describing what each chapter covers. Here’s an example:

In Chapter two, the theoretical framework will be developed, with a view to first conceptualising and defining organisational trust, and then identifying potential antecedents thereof, leading to the formation of hypotheses.

In Chapter three, the adoption of a quantitative, deductive research approach will be justified, and the broader research design will be discussed, including the limitations thereof.

In a large document like a thesis or dissertation, it can be hard to achieve a flow or to maintain a golden thread throughout your document. As you can see from the example above, a good structural outline helps tie it all together, as it tells the story of your research project and helps to prepare the reader for what is to come.

A good outline gives the reader a clear view of what to expect in the document and where to find any specific information they’re looking for.

Recap: Dissertation Introduction Mistakes

In this post, we’ve covered 7 common mistakes we see students making with their dissertation or thesis introduction chapters. Naturally, this isn’t a comprehensive list, but it’s a useful starting point to help you avoid the common pitfalls.

To recap, the mistakes include:

  1. Not providing sufficient context for the study
  2. Not presenting a strong justification for the research topic
  3. Having a research topic that’s too broad
  4. Having poorly defined research aims, objectives and research questions
  5. Having misaligned research aims, objectives and research questions
  6. Not having well-defined and/or justified scope
  7. Not providing a clear structural outline of the document

If you have any questions about these mistakes, please leave a comment. Remember, you can also download our free introduction chapter template here to help fast-track your writing.

If you’d like hands-on help with your introduction chapter, check out our 1-on-1 private coaching services here to book an initial consultation with a friendly GradCoach.

Psst... there’s more!

This post was based on one of our popular Research Bootcamps. If you're working on a research project, you'll definitely want to check this out...

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