3.1 Writing the Introduction for the Proposal

The introduction you write for your proposal is really a first attempt (or second attempt if an earlier version of this chapter was your first piece of writing for your supervisor) at writing the introduction that will ultimately open the thesis (see Sections 1.2.1 and 2.2 and Section 4.3). To state what is probably already obvious, the introduction introduces your research project to your readers, and just as every doctoral research project is unique, so every introduction is unique. Different universities, disciplines and thesis committees may require or expect introductions to accomplish different things, include different information and feature different titles and sections. The whole chapter may be entitled ‘Introduction,’ for example, and ‘Background’ might form a section within the chapter, or vice versa; the introductory chapter may not bear a main title at all, but include a number of separate sections with specific headings; and sections within the introduction might contain subsections, so a subheading such as ‘Chemotherapy and Its Effects’ might follow the heading ‘Background,’ or the subheading ‘Knowing Readers through Their Marginalia’ might follow the heading ‘Introduction.’ However, whether you are studying the effects of chemotherapy on the recovery time of cancer patients, comparing the efficiency of emergency responses to various natural disasters, determining whether domestic robots are appropriate for use in apartment buildings or characterising the readership of a medieval text via contemporary marginalia, there are certain basic ingredients that either must or almost always appear in an introduction and others that might be included or not depending on the nature of the thesis. The following list presents the most common and necessary purposes of a thesis introduction:

  • To identify the topic, problem or phenomenon on which the thesis will focus. This might be introduced at any time in the introduction, though mentioning it briefly near the beginning and developing it as you proceed into a more comprehensive statement often works well. You should aim for absolute clarity and a precise definition of the nature and parameters of your topic, and be prepared to adjust your statement(s) in response to the feedback of your supervisor and other committee members. It is essential to get this element of the proposal right during the proposal meeting if not before, because it lies at the heart of the thesis and changing it once the thesis is drafted can involve a great deal of work. The research you do in the course of the thesis may well necessitate some later adjustments to the problem as initially stated, but that is a very different matter.
  • To establish a conceptual framework for the thesis. A conceptual framework is very much like a textual map of the territory that you intend to investigate – a map that serves to define exactly what the territory covered by the thesis is. Like the topic, problem or phenomenon explored by your thesis, the conceptual framework you describe in your proposal introduction may well change somewhat as your research develops, and it may also require some refinement in response to suggestions from your supervisor and thesis committee. It is essential to begin with a framework that allows you to include in meaningful ways everything you wish to investigate in your research. Tables and figures are sometimes used to visualise and clarify the conceptual framework of a thesis, so you may want to design and include some in your introduction (see Section 4.4.1 for advice on designing tables and figures).
  • To provide background for the topic, problem or phenomenon you are exploring. This can take many forms including a survey of the history of the occurrence of the problem or phenomenon and a statement or brief review of previous research on the topic. Sometimes a longer review of the literature is included in the introduction, but in most cases, the complete review appears as a separate chapter (see Section 1.2.2 and Sections 3.2 and 4.3) and only an overview is required in the introduction.
  • To explain the significance of the topic, problem or phenomenon; this is often achieved in the course of or immediately after describing its background. The significance of the topic, problem or phenomenon can be indicated in a number of ways, such as describing its impact, its complexity or mysterious nature, its occurrence and persistence, and the number of people or regions affected. The significance of the topic of your research is intertwined with the nature and methodology of your research, and your thesis committee may have suggestions for improvements and clarifications that are well worth consideration.
  • To indicate gaps, problems, misconceptions and the like in the research that has already been done on your topic, problem or phenomenon, as well as demonstrating how your thesis aims to fill the gaps, resolve the problems and correct the misconceptions by presenting new ways of perceiving and understanding the topic, problem or phenomenon on which you are focussing. It is often the case that more experienced committee members will have knowledge about or immediately perceive problematic issues of which you are not yet aware, so they may be able to offer advice that helps you refine your comprehension of the original contribution to knowledge that you intend to make.
  • To introduce, usually briefly, the methods and approaches you plan to adopt or devise to explore the topic, problem or phenomenon. Occasionally, a good deal of detail about the methodology is presented in an introduction, but in most cases detailed descriptions of methods appear in a separate chapter (see Section 1.2.3 above and Sections 3.3 and 4.3 below). The members of your committee may have much or little to say about your methods, but it is essential that those methods are appropriate for your research topic and its significance, and viable for providing answers to the questions you need to ask. Your methodology need not be new, but it should be the most effective you can find or devise for exploring the topic, problem or phenomenon you have chosen, and it is usually best if its specific application to the problem is in some way innovative, especially if there is already a considerable amount of scholarship on the subject.
  • To describe the context of the research. The intellectual and theoretical context of your research might be covered in your discussion of the background or in your introduction to the scholarship and methodology; if not, it can certainly be described separately. The physical context of the research should also be clarified and justified by explaining where your research takes place (in a university laboratory, in cathedral libraries, on the street, in the homes of users or participants, or in a foreign country), who is involved (trial participants, survey respondents, research assistants, animal subjects or you alone) and why the context you have chosen is appropriate for your research. The resources available at your university may be a limiting factor here, so any potential difficulties should be discussed with your committee.
  • To provide relevant information on the background of the researcher. This is not the place for an autobiographical record or a report of the educational journey that has led you to the thesis, but if you think there are certain assumptions, preconceptions, ideals, biases, limitations and so on that might influence your research, it is good to get them out in the open. Your committee members may have helpful suggestions about how to make good use of or (if necessary) compensate for or adjust your unique perspective.
  • To outline the aims and objectives of the thesis. The aims and objectives of a research project are closely tied to the nature of the topic, problem or phenomenon, its significance, the methods and approaches used to investigate it and your intentions regarding your research. In all cases, your aims and objectives should be clearly stated – displaying them in a list can be particularly effective and so can numbering them in order of importance – and reasonable in relation to the nature of your research. The members of your thesis committee are likely to pay careful attention to your aims and objectives, so be prepared to discuss and refine them.
  • To present research questions and hypotheses if these are useful for your work. Research questions are the questions you ask about the topic, problem or phenomenon you are exploring in order to guide and shape your research, while hypotheses are the tentative working answers you develop based on previous scholarship, predominant theories, natural laws and tendencies, and your own assumptions and expectations. Determining exactly what your research questions and hypotheses are can be an excellent means of defining and understanding your research more clearly, and including them in your introduction not only allows you to focus on the exact wording and content of those questions and hypotheses, but also opens the door to commentary and assistance from your supervisor and other members of your committee. Your research questions and hypotheses will undoubtedly be closely related to the aims and objectives of your research, and they, too, can be effectively included in your introduction by displaying them in a list and/or numbering them in order of importance or in relation to your methodology.
  • To explain any ethical considerations associated with your research and its methodology. Generally speaking, ethical issues only arise in research that uses living subjects, whether human beings, animals or, more rarely, plants. Your university will almost certainly have regulations about how such subjects can ethically be used in research (only with informed consent, for instance), and you may have to obtain official approval from the university’s ethics board (or a similar body). Your supervisor and other committee members should be able to help you avoid problems and obtain the proper approval.
  • To outline the contents of the proposal or thesis. An introduction usually closes with a brief summary of the chapters and other sections that follow the introduction. In a proposal introduction, this may cover only what you include in the proposal itself or it may anticipate what will ultimately appear in the completed thesis. Your supervisor will be able to tell you which approach is most appropriate for the proposal stage of a thesis in your discipline and department.

Not all of these ingredients will necessarily be required in an introduction, and those that are needed may be most effective if they are presented in separate sections, which are always a good idea because they make your text more accessible and digestible for readers. You may be required to present these sections in a specific order determined by university or department guidelines, or you may be able to arrange them in whatever order seems most appropriate for providing the introductory material your thesis requires. The members of your thesis committee should be able to indicate what might be effectively rearranged, added, deleted, shortened, clarified or expanded, ideally before the proposal meeting. Clarity and precision of both thought and writing are essential in an introduction, because everything that follows depends on it. You may find that the information you provide and perhaps your overall intentions are not completely understood by your committee members or that you receive too little or too much advice, especially if the topic, problem or phenomenon you are investigating is unusual or your approach to it is unconventional, innovative or unique, in which case your readers may well emphasise what they think you should be doing, particularly if they do not thoroughly understand what you think you are doing. It is always a good idea to consider all criticism and advice as carefully and objectively as possible, of course, and you just might find that the members of your committee will arrive at solutions and approaches that you had not considered.

However, if your own plans seem in danger of becoming lost beneath the practical and theoretical concerns of your supervisor and other committee members, or if you are having difficulties as you attempt to define what you are only beginning to understand (far from an easy task), you might want to try this simple strategy in your introduction:

  • Start with the words ‘In this thesis I would like to’ and continue with a basic description in plain (rather than specialised or discipline-specific) language of what you hope to achieve: for example, ‘find out if the use of domestic robots is feasible in apartment buildings designed for elderly people.’
  • Then add ‘I intend to do this by,’ which might be finished with ‘providing ten elderly apartment-dwelling individuals with access to two different domestic robots designed to perform simple household tasks.’
  • Additional sentences might read ‘I plan to measure the success of the robots via a questionnaire completed by each of the participants’ and ‘This questionnaire will include items that focus on the two main functions of the domestic robots: taking out the trash and delivering groceries.’

Such a straightforward approach can continue until you have covered all of the introductory elements listed above and more. You probably will not use these sentences in their original form in the introduction you submit for your proposal or ultimately revise for your thesis, and you will no doubt need to elaborate the information with further details, ideas and references, but you will provide yourself with a simple and concise report of what you need to write about. This report will be especially useful for clarifying your intentions and meaning when discussing your introductory material with your supervisor and other members of your thesis committee, and it will probably also prove helpful when you are preparing your presentation for the proposal meeting (see Section 3.7).

PRS Tip: Although much of the advice provided in this book assumes that the thesis writer will be working in Microsoft Word (hereafter simply ‘Word’) or a similar word-processing program, this may not be the case with all students and theses. The LaTeX document preparation system, for instance, is used to format and structure scientific and other technical articles in a variety of disciplines (such as mathematics, computer science, physics, political science and economics), as well as documents featuring complex multilingual material (including Chinese, Sanskrit and Arabic). If you need or would like to prepare your thesis via LaTeX and are not already familiar with this system, you may want to consult some of the guidance currently available. The LaTeX Companion by Mittelbach et al. (2004), the LaTeX User’s Guide and Reference Manual by Lamport (1994) and the Guide to LaTeX by Kopka and Daly (2003) will no doubt prove especially useful, and the ‘learn by doing’ approach of Kottwitz’s LaTeX Beginner’s Guide (2011) may be particularly helpful for those new to LaTeX. There are many other print and e-book resources on the topic, however, so a careful search (on the internet or in the catalogue of a university library) will probably prove well worth the time invested. A number of resources are available online as well, including the LaTeX project site at http://latex-project.org/ and the Comprehensive TeX Archive Network (CTAN) at http://ctan.org/, both of which provide information on obtaining LaTeX (from CTAN) as free software. Smaller web sites can also be useful for introductory information (D.R. Wilkins’s ‘Getting Started with LaTeX,’ for instance, at http://www.maths.tcd.ie/~dwilkins/LaTeXPrimer/), as can some files available via the internet (e.g., M.A. Porter’s ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to LaTex’ at http://www.chaosbook.org/FAQ/lala.pdf).

Why PhD Success?

To Graduate Successfully

This article is part of a book called "PhD Success" which focuses on the writing process of a phd thesis, with its aim being to provide sound practices and principles for reporting and formatting in text the methods, results and discussion of even the most innovative and unique research in ways that are clear, correct, professional and persuasive.

The assumption of the book is that the doctoral candidate reading it is both eager to write and more than capable of doing so, but nonetheless requires information and guidance on exactly what he or she should be writing and how best to approach the task. The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples.

The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples. PhD Success provides guidance for students familiar with English and the procedures of English universities, but it also acknowledges that many theses in the English language are now written by candidates whose first language is not English, so it carefully explains the scholarly styles, conventions and standards expected of a successful doctoral thesis in the English language.

Individual chapters of this book address reflective and critical writing early in the thesis process; working successfully with thesis supervisors and benefiting from commentary and criticism; drafting and revising effective thesis chapters and developing an academic or scientific argument; writing and formatting a thesis in clear and correct scholarly English; citing, quoting and documenting sources thoroughly and accurately; and preparing for and excelling in thesis meetings and examinations. 

Completing a doctoral thesis successfully requires long and penetrating thought, intellectual rigour and creativity, original research and sound methods (whether established or innovative), precision in recording detail and a wide-ranging thoroughness, as much perseverance and mental toughness as insight and brilliance, and, no matter how many helpful writing guides are consulted, a great deal of hard work over a significant period of time. Writing a thesis can be an enjoyable as well as a challenging experience, however, and even if it is not always so, the personal and professional rewards of achieving such an enormous goal are considerable, as all doctoral candidates no doubt realise, and will last a great deal longer than any problems that may be encountered during the process.

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