Writing the abstract, introduction and conclusion for a dissertation
It might seem reasonable to think that the abstact chapter and introductory chapter of a dissertatin should be the first chapters you write since these are the first sections that will be read by the people your paper is aimed at. However, in truth, this is not really how it works. It can actually work out better for you to write the abstract, introduction, and conclusion chapters at the end – when every other section of your dissertation has been written.
Why is this the case?
In the first place, writing in retrospective fashion can mean that the introductory and concluding chapters of your dissertation match up better. Additionally, it is a good way of neatly tying up your thoughts and ideas.
In the second place, this method saves time. In the event you choose to write your introductory chapter before other parts, there is a likelihood that your ideas will keep evolving and morphing as your work develops. This means having to go right back in order to edit this chapter or completely rewrite it again.
In the third place, leaving these chapters until the end tends to ensure your abastract chapter contains every piece of information the reader needs to get a clear view of the work you have done and how you did it.
This guide is designed to take you through these three important chapters in considerable detail so that you are properly equipped when you start writing these chapters for your own paper. Furthermore, we have listed some of the mistakes that students often make, which should help you avoid them when you embark on your project.
Generally speaking, the introduction chapter in a dissertation should accomplish the things outlined below:
- Make clear what the focus of the study is.
- Give some preliminary information about the background to the research problem or question with a view to putting it into context.*
- Set out the specific aims and the objectives of your research.
- Draw attention to the value of the work you have done and how it contributes to existing knowledge.
While it is usual for any background or historical information to be presented in the introduction chapter of a dissertation, you have complete control over how you structure the other three points.
It is likely there will be some opportunities to join together some of the above sections according to your particular needs. As well as this, there are usually opportunities to include other sections over and above the four above-mentioned points. Some dissertation writers, for example, are inclined to include a statement about the research question(s) they are dealing with in their introductions. They do this to not only ensure their readers are aware of the aims and the objectives of their work but also to make sure they have a good idea about the direction the research is heading in. By contrast, other dissertatin writers may decide to leave their description of the research methodology to the latter part of the literature review chapter or the first part of their methodology chapter.
Where the length of an introduction chapter for a dissertation is concerned, there are no set rules since this usually depends on how long the entire paper is. However, in general terms, if you make the length somewhere in the region of 5% to 7% of the overall length of your paper, it is most likely this will be deemed acceptable.
It is usually expected that an introduction will include an appropriate number of sub-sections with suitable headings or subheadings. These should explain some of the key terms or references you intend to use over the course of explaining/describing your study. This is yet a further reason that demonstrates why it is beneficial to leave the writing of the introduction chapter until last. Since your literature review will already have been written, the most important authors and works you have drawn on will be evident and you will be able to showcase your research in the best possible way.
The section dealing with background information
One primary purpose for writing a section with background information is to introduce your topic to readers and lead them into your paper. Simply stating the focus and context of a study and saying what prompted you to do a particular piece of research is generally not considered to be sufficient in this section.
In addition, readers need to understand why a research project is valuable and worth undertaking. It is possible to achieve this by showing that there is or was a knowledge gap in a particular area and that the problem you are dealing with needs to be addressed. A frequent mistake that students often make is to attempt to justify their reason for researching a topic by merely stating that they find that topic interesting. Although this reason is certainly important in projects like these, and for the student’s own sanity, the content of a dissertation needs to be more than interesting. It should show it was necessary because of a specific need. The background information section can help achieve this.
The best way to create an outline for the section containing background information is to identify the most critical elements in respect of the topic – the things your readers need to know right from the beginning. A good way to start is to list five to seven of the most notable authors and works that you thought were most relevant and influential (the works highlighted in the literature review chapter of your dissertation). Once these have been identified, make some short notes about why these were relevant and influential. Show, too, how they fit well together and how they relate well to your topic.
It might also be that you want to give some thought to any key terms (or specific terminology) that your readers will need to properly understand the content of your dissertation. While your dissertation may have a list of abbreviated terms or a glossary contained within it, the section dealing with the background provides further opportunity to highlight or draw attention to some (say two to three) key terms.
When one reads this section of dissertations in general, two freequent mistakes are often evident on the part of the writers. These are that the information provided is often way too much or not enough! In truth, between one and two pages of background information is sufficient. The writer needs to make their focus clear quite quickly and then provide only enough essential information to enable readers to understand the nature and context of the research.
Check also our article: "Dissertation literature review"
The focus of the research
In virtually every research project, the focus has two functions: a) providing information on the focus of the research (obviously) and b) setting out the reasons or rationale for undertaking the study.
It is very important for you to make clear which area or areas you plan on researching and you need to explain your reason(s) for doing this piece of research. One critical thing to bear in mind is that the focus of your research needs to link back to the information in the background section you wrote earlier. Even though these sections may not be written on the same days or even in the same month, the flow needs to be continuous throughout. Make sure you use transitional words and phrases to show your readers how the different sections or chapters are linked to one another.
The focus as you reveal it should lead into the aims, objectives, and value of the research you are doing. Therfore, it can help to think of this as the glue that ties together what has been done already and the place where your work is heading for. Once again, your aim should be to ease readers carefully into your chosen topic. Hence, beginning with something along the following lines might seem overly abrupt “the focus of this research is ...” You might instead want to introduce the primary focus, explain why this area of research is important, and how this overall field of study is important. An approach like this should pave the way for presenting the aims and goals/objectives of your work.
What is the value of this research?
When you get to talking about the “value” of your work this part should be given a sub-section of its own within the introduction chapter. The reason for this is that “value” is vital to the people who will ultimately have responsibility for judging your work and its merits, and it shows you have thought about how this section has the potential to add considerable value to the project you are embarked on.
One big mistake that a lot of students are guilty of is leaving out this section. The idea of adding “value” need not mean advancing your research work in some significant way or profoundly affecting its contribution to a particular field, but it does deserve a paragraph or two that unequivocally and clearly draw attention to the worthiness of the work you have done.
When it comes to answering the question regarding value, there are a few ways to do this. You may want to point to the fact that the research topic or area you have chosen is under-investigated or has never been critically explored. It may be that you are looking at a topic or area from a new angle, which could be considered to be of great merit or value. In certain cases, it could be that the work you are doing has considerable urgency (for example, some medical matter) and this in itself can make a project value-added.
Regardless of what reason you feel is appropriate for addressing the question of value, you need to ensure that you state in direct terms how important your research is or how value-added it is.
Your research and its objectives
The first thing to know is that aims are not the same thing as objectives and each should be treated according to its meaning. It is usual for aims and objectives to be established at the time of writing the paper’s proposal or for getting a project accepted on ethical grounds. Therefore, stating these in the introduction of a dissertation is merely for the purpose of clarity and organization.
Most research projects typically have a specific aim. This aim needs to be stated clearly and in a direct manner. Objectives usually develop from the ultimate aim and they tend to explain how a stated aim will be achieved. It is usual to set out objectives in bullet points or in numbered lists. The wording shoud be clear, concise, and easy to relate to.
The following are four important things that need to be borne in mind when setting out the objectives for a research project:
- Each one needs to be appropriate (objectives should relate clearly to the topic or area you wish to investigate).
- Each one needs to be clear (there should be no ambiguity in your objecties).
- Each one needs to be distinct (objectives should be highly focused so that they incrementally help achieve the main aim of the research project).
- Each one needs to be capable of being achieved (objectives should be realistic and capable of being completed or achieved within a timeframe that is manageable).
When establishing objectives that fit with the above-mentioned criteria, here there are other factors worth considering:
- Begin by choosing an objective that is relatively simple and contributes to setting the scene for your study.
- Strart each individual objective with an appropriate keyword, e.g., “assess,” “determine,” “evaluate,” “examine,” “explore,” “identify,” “investigate.”
- Find a good balance in terms of the number of objectives you create (e.g., two is usually not enough while six can seem excessive so try for something in between, e.g., between three and five).
- Choose a key word to start.
If it happens that you meet all these factors and get the right balance, you will be in a good position to present a logical, clear, and competent reason for moving your project forward.
Do not forget that it is essential to address the objectives you set out in the course of your study. There is no point in just mentioning them in the introductory section and then ignoring them. As is the case with other parts of a dissertation, you will need to reference this section later on in the chapters on results and discussion and in your conclusion.
The above part of this guide has set out the basic requirements (and sections) for an introductory chapter for a dissertation. Additionally, there are a few other elements you may wish to incude. The research problem or question has been mentioned already as one possible option. Another possibility for inclusion may be an outline or overview of how your entire paper is structured.
Provided the introduction in your dissertation is clear and well organized, you are set up for a successful first chapter.
The concluding chapter
The concluding chapter of a dissertation has two functions to fulfil and your paper will need to do one of these. For example, you may feel that reaching the conclusion is reason to feel joyous since it means your paper is very nearly complete. Alternatively, your mental stamina may be taxed to the limits because, by now, utter exhaustion may be taking its toll on you.
When you reach this stage of your project, your task is to push yourself to make a final and valiant effort to ensure this last chapter is cohesive, memorable, and well organized. If the structure of this chapter is poorly-written or you ramble on in an undisciplined way, the individual whose job it is to mark your paper may get the impression your writing skills are not up to par or they may feel you have become disinterested in the project.
If pitfalls like these are to be avoided, it is essential you know what evaluators expect of you and what needs to be included in a concluding chapter to make it successful.
The conclusion to a dissertation needs to include at least three of the following parts:
- The objectives of the research – sum-up your results/findings and your conclusions.
- Any recommendations you have.
- A statement about the contribution your research makes to existing knowledge.
A section that is worth considering for this last chapter is one that involves some self-reflection. This means reflecting on your own progress in the field of research or a note about the limitations to your project (which you may have covered already in the methodology chapter). Something along these lines can add a little something different to a closing chapter while giving you the opportunity to say how you have been affected as a scholar over the course of writing this paper.
Moreover, as is the case with the previous chapters in your paper, the conclusion chapter should start with a short introductory section (e.g., roughly one paragarpah long). Typically, this final chapter in a dissertation should explain how the content is organized, draw readers’ attention back to the aims and objectives, and provide a short statement of what the writer is about to say or do next.
How long this chapter is (i.e. in terms of word count) can vary depending on the overall length of the paper. However, like the introduction chapter, a word count of between 5% and 7% is generally deemed about right.
The objectives of the research
The section of a dissertation that sets out the objectives only requires two distinct questions to be answered.
These questions are:
- From your review of available literature and having completed a considerable amount of empirical-type research, what have you discovered in terms of your own personal objectives concerning this research?
- What specific conclusions did you reach?
Another mistake that students often make when answering the above questions is this: going back again over their analysis of collected data and their findings. There is no need to do this since readers have probably just completed their reading of the discussion section in your dissertation and they probably do not want or need to have to read all of it again. Persuasion does not need to be used here. Your aim should be to merely provide a summary of what you found in the course of your study.
Before beginning to write, you might find it useful to make a list of your project’s objectives and then do a little brainstorming of the data in your results/discussion chapters. Create a few bullet points showing where you feel any data meets the objectives. A sort of mini or brief outline should develop out of this and it will prevent you falling into the pitfall of “rambling.”
What do you recommend going forward?
The section on recommendations serves a specific purpose, which is to tell readers what you believe the next steps are. Leaving out this part can lose you marks. Setting out your recommendations as implicit proposed actions in other chapters of your paper (e.g., in the chapters concerning analysis and discussion) can be a good way to start. However, if the concluding chapter does not explain these in greater detail, you may be putting yourself on course for a disappoing outcome to your work.
Recommendations can take two forms. Of these, the first type involves recommending a course of action that is grounded in various pieces of specific evidence resulting from your in-depth study of this topic. The other type is making recommendations about any research that may be required or desirable in the future. Although recommendations are likely to be closely linked to the specific data in your paper, there is almost always some that tends to arise consistently over the course of a project. These can include such things as larger size sampling, a different setting or context, a longer timeframe, and so on. If, when you reach this stage of the writing, you think it is necessary to add more words, the conclusion is a good place for doing this. Just remember that there is little benefit in recommending things that are not obviously linked (or linked at all) to the conclusions you have reached.
An effective recommendations section will provide a futuristic view that link back to conclusions that were mentioned previously. Then, because this part is essentially linked to the aims and the objectives of your research, this section will neatly bring the entire thing full circle.
How has your work contributed to exisiting knowledge?
The notion of ‘contributing to existing knowledge’ is more usually associated with work at PhD level and to a lesser extent to Master’s level work. Of course, a lot depends on the type of research. It might be advisable for student’s who are preparing for Master’s degrees to double-check with their course supervisors before they start writing this particular section. The focus of this section is, ultimately, to show how the research work you have done has added to or improved on what is already known about a topic.
It is quite likely that the most important contribution your work makes to existing knowledge has a lot to do with the empirical data you have uncovered (however, in some rare cases this can be drawn from the literature the writer reviewed). Within this section the idea that your work should contribute to research in some orginal way is implicit. Indeed, you are explaining to your readers what it is about your study that makes it unique so you need to be explicit when telling your readers this.
While there are different methods for doing this, the most usual one perhaps is to find out what work previous researchers have undertaken and show how your research builds on this. It can also help to mention any gap(s) in existing research (as identified in your introduction chapter or review of literature) and show how your endeavours have contribed to filling any identified gap(s).
Another way (perhaps an obvious one) of showing how your work has contributed to existing knowledge is to draw attention to any publications (in the event any exist) you are responsible for contributing to the subject area or field. If, for instance, any chapters of your paper have been published in a respected journal or you have presented at a conference, these could serve as good examples of contributions on your part.
When bringing this section to an end, do not forget that the concluding chapter in your dissertation is your very last chance to impress upon readers the thoughts and/or ideas you want them to take away and remember. Hence, it is important this chapter is comprehensive and includes as many sub-sections as you think fit.
Do not forget to refresh the memories of your readers about the objectives of your research. Tell them how these have been met, offer clearly defined recommendations for any future studies, and show that your work has contributed to existing knowledge. If time and/or word count permits, consider including a section of self-reflection or one on limitations.
It is not unusual for abstracts to have an “afterthought” feeling about them. As far as the student is concerned, their dissertation is almost complete with just a short section (a half or full page at most) left. However, abstracts are often deemed a very important and very influential part of papers of this magnitude. When they are well written, they serve as an enticing synopsis of an entire research project and they can tempt readers into reading the full dissertation.
An effective abstract should:
- Clearly state the issue or problem under investigation – to include reason for researching the topic.
- Describe research methodology/methodologies used.
- Explain key findings/results.
- Offer recommendations and set out conclusions.
Generally speaking, abstracts should be no more than a single neat paragraph of not more than a page (or less). These chapters usually follow a paper’s title or cover page and acknowledgements section.
Guidelines on abstracts can vary from one institution to another, so students are advised to check the requirements with their department before they begin.
When writing an abstract, it is important to strike the right balance between insufficient information and an excessive amount. Your aim should be to enable readers to get an overall view of your work from your abstract.
Try to keep the questions below in mind while you are writing:
- Have you properly identified the focus of your research and is this clear?
- Is it clear how you have conducted your research?
- Have you provided rationale for your study?
- Have you adequately summarized your key results/findings?
- Have you remembered to include your main recommendations and conclusions?
On occasion, you might be required to provide some keywords. If so, make sure these relate specifically to the work you have done. It is best to avoid terms that are generic, e.g., “science” or “education.” Instead, use more specific terms such as “biocatalysis” or “classroom learning.”
Last but not least, it is best for an abstract not to have an excessive amount of acronyms. This is because you want this chapter to be appealing to a wide readership. Hence, it is essential that a wide-ranging audience can understand your work if it is to be successful.
It can be said that it is as important for an abstract to be as well written as a dissertation itself. The synopisis you write needs to be well-organized and logical so that it shows what you achieved in your research. If you keep this goal to the forefront of your mind, you should be in a good position to go on to write a successful abstract!