HOW TO SET UP THE INTRODUCTION TO YOUR PAPER WHICH WILL SET OUT THE OVERALL GUIDE TO THE REST OF YOUR THESIS

  1. Attention grabber: Why should we care?

Write one paragraph to awaken reader’s interest in your topic. This could be a recent event, a startling fact, an anecdote: something that showcases the deeper importance of the issue

  • Setting the stage: What is the problem?

Write one paragraph explaining the larger context of the issue you just highlighted, and highlighting the “problem” that your question is going to address. What is the broader societal relevance of this topic? Why do we need to know more about it?

  • Sketching the debate: What do we already know about this?

Chances are, you’re not the first person who thought about this topic: other people have tried to address the problem you just outlined above. What do they say? Write a paragraph or two foreshadowing your literature review. You don’t have to go into any detail, but you should give the reader a sense of the range of existing opinions. The most helpful way is to structure it as a debate: highlight the areas of disagreement, the lack of understanding, “gaps” which your own research is going to fill.

Note: this is the seed of your literature review. In that chapter, you will basically take this paragraph and unpack it in greater detail.

  • Statement of contribution: How do you contribute to the existing debate?

Now that you have explained what other people say about the problem, and what is still missing, state as clearly as possible how your research will contribute to the debate. Perhaps you will show some position wrong; perhaps you will add to our understanding of the mechanism of theory x. Maybe you will simply shed some light on a phenomenon that has been understudied but is worth more attention (see no.2).

  • Sketching the research design: How are you going to do it?

Write one or two paragraphs explaining how you will go about fulfilling the promise you just made in p. 4. What exactly will you do? State your research question here: it should be closely related to the problem you described in point 2 but should be stated in more specific terms; it should also logically follow from the debate you outlined in point 3. After stating the research question, say something about how you will go about answering it: which cases will you look at (and why)? Which materials/sources/research methods will you use?

Note: this is the outline of your empirical chapter(s).

A mixed approach?

  • Expected findings: What is the argument?

Even if you don’t really know what to expect, try to formulate your expected findings here. In the final version of your introduction, you will replace these by the actual findings, but it’s good to get you in the habit of thinking about your thesis as an exercise in looking for answers to a question[1]. Remember that a thesis is essentially an argument, so try to phrase this paragraph as such.

  • Implications: Why does it matter?

In the concluding paragraph, you go back to points 1, 2, and 3 and you link your findings back to the larger problem/debate. Now that we know the answer to your specific question, what do we understand better about the larger debate/broader problem you were trying to address. This may feel very obvious to you, especially after you’ve gone through the whole process of writing the thesis, but the reader has not been with you on this journey, so take your time to spell it out for them here.

Note: Points 6 and 7 may be very difficult to write at first, so you can leave them very sketchy or leave them out, but make sure you come back to them at the end of the writing process.


[1] Pro tip: when people ask about your thesis, don’t say “I’m working on…” or “I’m writing about…”. Try to say “I’m trying to understand how…” or “I’m trying to figure out why…”.

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