Masters Dissertation Introduction Outline

What types of information should you include in your introduction? 

In the introduction of your thesis, you’ll be trying to do three main things, which are called Moves:

  • Move 1 establish your territory (say what the topic is about)
  • Move 2 establish a niche (show why there needs to be further research on your topic)
  • Move 3 introduce the current research (make hypotheses; state the research questions)

Each Move has a number of stages. Depending on what you need to say in your introduction, you might use one or more stages. Table 1 provides you with a list of the most commonly occurring stages of introductions in Honours theses (colour-coded to show the Moves). You will also find examples of Introductions, divided into stages with sample sentence extracts. Once you’ve looked at Examples 1 and 2, try the exercise that follows.

Most thesis introductions include SOME (but not all) of the stages listed below. There are variations between different Schools and between different theses, depending on the purpose of the thesis.

Stages in a thesis introduction

  1. state the general topic and give some background
  2. provide a review of the literature related to the topic
  3. define the terms and scope of the topic
  4. outline the current situation
  5. evaluate the current situation (advantages/ disadvantages) and identify the gap
  6. identify the importance of the proposed research
  7. state the research problem/ questions
  8. state the research aims and/or research objectives
  9. state the hypotheses
  10. outline the order of information in the thesis
  11. outline the methodology

Now read the following two examples from past theses, noting which stages are included in each example. How does example 1 differ from example 2?

Read the following sample sentence extracts from Honours theses Introductions. When you have decided what stage of the Introduction they belong to, refer to the stages in a thesis introduction and give each sentence extract a number. Then check the suggested answer to see if your answer agrees with ours.

Example 3: The IMO Severe-Weather Criterion Applied to High-Speed Monohulls (School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering)

Example 4: The Steiner Tree Problem (School of Computer Science and Engineering)

What does this tell you about thesis introductions?

Well, firstly, there are many choices that you can make. You will notice that there are variations not only between the different Schools in your faculty, but also between individual theses, depending on the type of information that is being communicated. However, there are a few elements that a good Introduction should include, at the very minimum:

  • Either Statement of general topic Or Background information about the topic;
  • Either Identification of disadvantages of current situation Or Identification of the gap in current research;
  • Identification of importance of proposed research
  • Either Statement of aims Or Statement of objectives
  • An Outline of the order of information in the thesis

Note: this introduction includes the literature review.

Example 5.1 (extract 1): The effects of Fluoride on the reproduction of three native Australian plant Species (School of Geography)

Stage 1Sample sentence extracts (the complete Introduction is 17 pages long)
Give some background (p.1 of 17)

1.1 Fluoride in the environment

Molecular fluorine (F2) is the most electronegative of the elements and therefore is highly reactive. Due to its high reactivity it is never found in its elemental form in nature. It combines directly at both ordinary or elevated temperatures with all other elements except oxygen, nitrogen, and the lighter noble gases (Cotton & Wilkinson, 1980).

Example 5.2 (extract 2): The effects of Fluoride on the reproduction of three native Australian plant Species (School of Geography)

Stage 2Sample sentence extracts
Provide a review of the literature related to the topic (p.2 of 17)The main source of elevated fluoride in plants comes from atmospheric industrial pollution. Because of its extensive industrial use, hydrogen fluoride is probably the greatest single atmospheric fluoride contaminant and is generally considered to be the most important plant pathogenic fluoride (WHO, 1984; Treshow, 1965)… However, fluorides can cause damage to sensitive plant species even at extremely low fluoride concentrations(Hill,1969), accumulate in large amounts within the plant and cause disease if ingested by herbivores(Weinstein, 1977).

Example 5.3

Stages 4 and 5Sample sentence extracts
Outline the current situation; Evaluate the current situation and indicate a gap (p.12 of 17)Doley (1981) summarized several unpublished studies that compared the sensitivity rankings of 24 species according to the responses of photosynthesis and the development of visible injury symptoms. This analysis showed that for nine species, photosynthesis measurements indicated greater sensitivity than was obvious from visible assessment, and for seven species the converse applied. This indicated that, while it may generally be true that physiological responses occur at lower doses than visible injury, this does not always appear to be the case.


Example 5.4 (extract 4): The effects of Fluoride on the reproduction of three native Australian plant Species (School of Geography)

Stage 7Sample sentence extracts
State the research problem(p.4 of 17)In many Australian plant species, young expanding leaves appear much more severely injured by gaseous fluorides than are old leaves. This suggests, either that the young leaf tissues are more sensitive to fluoride than mature tissues, or that sufficient fluoride enters the tissues directly through the cuticle to disrupt normal leaf development before the stomata have fully developed and opened(Doley, 1986a). This question has not been resolved due to the inability to accurately localize low concentrations of fluoride(Doley, 1986a)

Example 5.5 (extract 5): The effects of Fluoride on the reproduction of three native Australian plant Species (School of Geography)

Stage 8Sample sentence extracts
State the research aims and /or research objectives (extract p.16 of 17)Knowledge of the effects of fluoride on the reproductive processes of species within a forest community will help predict potential changes within the community following an increase in atmospheric fluoride due to additional industrial sources, such as aluminium smelters. For these reasons, this project was designed to investigate the reproductive processes of selected species in a woodland near the aluminium smelter at Tomago.


Example 5.6 (extract 6): The effects of Fluoride on the reproduction of three native Australian plant Species (School of Geography)

Stage 11Sample sentence extracts
State the outline of the Methodology (extract p.17 of 17).Germination trials were performed on seeds collected from each species along the fluoride gradient to determine if fluoride has an effect on their viability and hence the regeneration fitness of each species. A density study was used to determine if there were any differences between numbers of mature and immature trees, number of trees producing seed follicles and the number of trees flowering in this season along a fluoride gradient. By using soils collected at various distances away from the smelter the study also investigated differences in germination from the natural soil seed reserve along a fluoride gradient.

How to Write your Introduction, Abstract and Summary

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These are the most important components of your thesis or report.  Put your biggest effort into getting them perfect.  Most professors read the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusions chapters of a thesis first, then they dive into the main body text afterwards.  This means that you have to be particularly careful in wording these sections, since there is some content overlap.  If you just copy and paste text between them, people will notice and it won’t leave them with a very favourable impression.  Many people read technical reports in the same order – in fact, some people actually never read anything but the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusions!  

There are some fairly specific rules related to these thesis (or technical report) components that you must know about. There are also some common sense guidelines that are useful to know – the main one being the advice above not to cut and paste text.  Another is that you write these three thesis/report components last.  Yes, that’s right – you write the Introduction and Abstract last – after you have written the entire report or thesis contents.  (You can be stubborn and write them first if you like; just be prepared to do them twice, because you’ll find they have to be completely rewritten in the end anyway.) 

The fact that these are written last generally means they are often the most poorly written – since most people naturally start to burn out as they approach the end of such a large writing project.  However, keep in mind that these are the sections that will get the most attention and scrutiny – so you absolutely have to make them your best content in the document.  Here’s a general overview of how to write these important sections, presented in the typical order in which they are written.

What goes in your ‘Introduction’?

A good technical report/thesis Introduction does four things:

1.       It introduces the problem and motivation for the study.

  • Tell the reader what the topic of the report is.
  • Explain why this topic is important or relevant.

2.       It provides a brief summary of previous engineering and/or scientific work on the topic.

  • Here you present an overview what is known about the problem.  You would typically cite earlier studies conducted on the same topic and/or at this same site, and in doing so, you should reveal the yawning void in the knowledge that your brilliant research will fill.
  • If you are writing a thesis, you’re going to need a full-blown literature review with very specific details of all of the scientific or engineering work done on the topic to date.  This literature review is usually contained in its own chapter, particularly for PhD theses.  In the introduction, just present a brief overview, sufficient to establish the need for your research.

3.       It outlines the purpose and specific objectives of the project.

  • These are linked to solving the problem or filling the knowledge gap identified above.
  • Often, the specific objectives are listed in point form. Sometimes a numbered list is used.

4.       It provides a ‘road map’ for the rest of the report.

  • This is so that the reader knows what’s coming and sees the logic of your organization.
  • Describe (in approximately one sentence each) the contents of each of the report/thesis chapters.

What doesn’t go in your Introduction?

  • Never put any results or decisions in the Introduction.  Just because you are writing it last doesn’t mean you should give away the story. After all – it’s called the “Introduction” for a reason. 😉

What goes in your ‘Conclusions’ chapter?

The purpose of this chapter is to provide a summary of the whole thesis or report.  In this context, it is similar to the Abstract, except that the Abstract puts roughly equal weight on all thesis/report chapters, whereas the Conclusions chapter focuses primarily on the findings, conclusions and/or recommendations of the project.

There are a couple of rules – one rigid, one common sense, for this chapter:

  • All material presented in this chapter must have appeared already in the report; no new material can be introduced in this chapter. (rigid rule of technical writing)
  • Usually, you would not present any new figures or tables in this chapter. (rule of thumb)

Generally, for most technical reports and Masters theses, the Conclusions chapter would be~3 to 5 pages long (double spaced).  It would generally be longer in a large PhD thesis. Typically you would have a paragraph or two for each chapter or major subsection.  Aim to include the following (typical) content.

  • Re-introduce the project and the need for the work – though more briefly than in the intro;
  • Re-iterate the purpose and specific objectives of your project.
  • Re-cap the approach taken – similar to the road map in the intro; however, in this case, you are re-capping the data, methodology and results as you go.
  • Summarize the major findings and recommendations of your work.
  • Make recommendations for future research.

What goes in your ‘Abstract’?

(generally called the Executive Summary in technical reports)

In short, everything goes in the Abstract.  Its purpose is to provide a summary of the whole report or thesis.  In this context, it is similar to the Conclusions chapter, except that the Abstract gives the individual chapters more even weighting and is typically much shorter overall.

There are also a few rules for the Abstract.

  • All material presented in the Abstract must appear in the report body as well; no new material is allowed. (rigid rule of technical writing)
  • Do not present any figures or tables in the Abstract. (rigid rule of technical writing)
  • Do not cite references the Executive Summary. (if you need to, then you are getting too detailed)

Generally, the Abstract would fit on one page (single spaced) with approximately one paragraph for each chapter.  Here is the typical content.

  • Present the project topic and the need for the work.
  • State the specific objectives of the project.
  • Re-cap the approach taken, major decisions and results.
  • Summarize the major conclusions and recommendations of your work.

It’s important to keep in mind that some universities put very stringent length restriction on theses Abstracts, which makes them even harder to write.  If you are faced with this challenge, don’t deal with it by leaving out your results and conclusions.  Everything above must still be covered; but you will have to be extremely brief and articulate.  Generally, you will not be able to get into any details on the methodologies and decisions.

In my next post, I will give some advice on that most dreaded of all chapters – the Literature Review.

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