PMean: Writing the introduction section of a research thesis or dissertation

The introduction section of your research thesis or dissertation is the first thing that most people will read after reading the abstract. Some people use the introduction section to provide a literature review, and I won’t talk about that here. I did offer a nice recommendation on how to write a literature review in an earlier post. The introduction should provide present your research problem (research question, research hypothesis), but first you have to offer some context.

What does context mean? It varies from study to study, but in a health care setting, the context almost always involves people. They might be people with a particular disease, or people who are getting a particular type of care, people exposed to something harmful, or people in a particular demographic group. Describe the disease, care, or exposure in broad details. Here are some examples.

  • Obesity is a disease with increased morbidity due to several conditions including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, and it is associated with increased risk of overall mortality. Salvolainen 2019.
  • Mobile health (mHealth) in the form of applications (apps) designed to be used on devices such as smartphones and tablets is a vast and growing industry, with more than 318 000 apps available globally in 2017. Lewis 2019.
  • Worldwide, the total number of elderly people is growing more rapidly compared to other age groups. Uddin 2018.

Note that the context is far broader than any particular intervention could address. That’s okay. You start with a broad area because you want everyone to feel comfortable with your topic and not just those who are highly specialized in your area.

Then add a second dimension to the mix.

  • Bariatric surgery is considered as a highly effective treatment option for severe to morbid obesity, some form or variation of gastric bypass being the most common procedure after unsuccessful conservative treatments.
  • Although most of these apps relate to general well-being such as diet and fitness, an increasing number now focus on chronic disease management.
  • A major challenge in handling an aging population is the effective delivery of healthcare services.

Now you can bring in a third dimension, if you like. Or you can narrow down one of the first two dimensions to a more manageable size. Get to a specific problem that needs to be solved.

  • Until recently, the role of physical activity has been considered minimal in bariatric surgery patients, and at the moment, there are no physical activity guidelines for bariatric surgery patient population.
  • However, with so many health apps available, choosing those that are most useful can be overwhelming for consumers.
  • Why are marginalized groups using combustible tobacco so heavily?
  • However, an overview of non-wearable ambient sensor-based systems would be valuable for analyzing the increasingly complicated care demands of elderly people.

This has to be a problem that is largely unsolved. Otherwise, why are you doing the research. Talk briefly about some of the failed attempts or about the gaps in knowledge or the preliminary nature of proposed solutions or something else that implies a deficiency.

Then introduce your work as an attempt to address this deficiency.

  • As skeletal muscle is a major site of glucose usage and peripheral insulin resistance, the aim of the current study was to investigate whether self-reported habitual physical activity associates with improved insulin sensitivity in whole-body level and especially in skeletal muscle tissue after bariatric surgery.
  • The purpose of this review was to systematically identify apps targeted at people with chronic kidney disease (CKD) including those requiring maintenance dialysis and especially those apps that promote or support self-management.
  • However, an overview of non-wearable ambient sensor-based systems would be valuable for analyzing the increasingly complicated care demands of elderly people.

You may end up repeating this structure in more detail in your literature review. The difference, other than length, is that you want more of the focus in the Introduction to be on your research. You only give enough context in the Introduction so that people can understand the research problem and your proposed solution.

Now I have to admit that I cheated here. The examples I used are from papers that do not have an introduction that is separate from the literature review. To be honest, it looks like the separation between the introduction and the literature review occurs mostly for theses and dissertations, rather than research papers. I hope that this summary is still helpful, and I will try to find better examples, possibly from actual theses and dissertations when I have time.

Meanwhile, there are a ton of good resources on this topic out on the Internet. Here are a few.

  • Shona McCombes. How to write a dissertation introduction. Scribbr, February 26, 2019. Available in html format.
  • Leonard Cassuto. On the dissertation: How to Write the Introduction. Chronicle of Higher Education, May 28, 2018. Available in html format.
  • Fei-Yu Chuang. Writing an Introduction. Global Pad Open House, June 5, 2017. Available in html format.
  • Bahadoran Z, Jeddi S, Mirmiran P, Ghasemi A. The Principles of Biomedical Scientific Writing: Introduction. Int J Endocrinol Metab. 2018;16(4):e84795. Published 2018 Oct 28. doi:10.5812/ijem.84795. Available in html format or PDF format.