It’s fair to assume that because the abstract and introduction are the first chapters to be read by someone reading your dissertation, it means they must be written first also. But in reality, this isn’t the case. You’ll actually be far better off writing your dissertation introduction, conclusion and abstract after you have written all the other parts of the dissertation.

But why?

Firstly, writing retrospectively means that your dissertation introduction and conclusion will ‘match’ and your ideas will all be tied up nicely.

Secondly, it’s time-saving. If you write your introduction before anything else, it’s likely your ideas will evolve and morph as your dissertation develops. And then you’ll just have to go back and edit or totally re-write your introduction again.

Thirdly, it will ensure that the abstract accurately contains all the information it needs for the reader to get a good overall picture about what you have actually done.

In this guide, we’ll run through each of these chapters in detail so you’re well equipped to write your own. We’ve also identified some common mistakes often made by students in their writing so that you can steer clear of them in your work.

The Introduction

Getting started

As a general rule, your dissertation introduction should generally do the following things:
  • Provide preliminary background information that puts your research in context

  • Clarify the focus of your study

  • Point out the value of your research

  • Specify your specific research aims and objectives

While the ‘background information’ usually appears first in a dissertation introduction, the structure of the remaining three points is completely up to you.

There are opportunities to combine these sections to best suit your needs. There are also opportunities to add in features that go beyond these four points. For example, some students like to add in their research questions in their dissertation introduction so that the reader is not only exposed to the aims and objectives but also has a concrete framework for where the research is headed. Other students might save the research methods until the end of the literature review/beginning of the methodology.

In terms of length, there is no rule about how long a dissertation introduction needs to be, as it is going to depend on the length of the total dissertation. Generally, however, if you aim for a length between 5-7% of the total, this is likely to be acceptable.

Your introduction must include sub-sections with appropriate headings/subheadings and should highlight some of the key references that you plan to use in the main study. This demonstrates another reason why writing a dissertation introduction last is beneficial. As you will have already written the literature review, the most prominent authors will already be evident and you can showcase this research to the best of your ability.

The background section

One of the main purposes of the background section is to ease the reader into the topic. It is generally considered inappropriate to simply state the context and focus of your study and what led you to pursue this line of research.

The reader needs to know why your research is worth doing. You can do this successfully by identifying the gap in the research and the problem that needs addressing. One common mistake made by students is to justify their research by stating that the topic is interesting to them. While this is certainly an important element to any research project, and to the sanity of the researcher, the writing in the dissertation needs to go beyond ‘interesting’ to why there is a particular need for this research. This can be done by providing a background section.

You are going to want to begin outlining your background section by identifying crucial pieces of your topic that the reader needs to know from the outset. A good starting point might be to write down a list of the top 5-7 readings/authors that you found most influential (and as demonstrated in your literature review). Once you have identified these, write some brief notes as to why they were so influential and how they fit together in relation to your overall topic.

You may also want to think about what key terminology is paramount to the reader being able to understand your dissertation. While you may have a glossary or list of abbreviations included in your dissertation, your background section offers some opportunity for you to highlight two or three essential terms.

When reading a background section, there are two common mistakes that are most evident in student writing, either too little is written or far too much! In writing the background information, one to two pages is plenty. You need to be able to arrive at your research focus quite quickly and only provide the basic information that allows your reader to appreciate your research in context.

The research focus

The research focus does two things: it provides information on the research focus (obviously) and also the rationale for your study.

It is essential that you are able to clarify the area(s) you intend to research and you must explain why you have done this research in the first place. One key point to remember is that your research focus must link to the background information that you have provided above. While you might write the sections on different days or even different months, it all has to look like one continuous flow. Make sure that you employ transitional phrases to ensure that the reader knows how the sections are linked to each other.

The research focus leads into the value, aims and objectives of your research, so you might want to think of it as the tie between what has already been done and the direction your research is going. Again, you want to ease the reader into your topic, so stating something like “my research focus is…” in the first line of your section might come across overly harsh. Instead, you might consider introducing the main focus, explaining why research in your area is important, and the overall importance of the research field. This should set you up well to present your aims and objectives.

The value of your research

The ‘value’ section really deserves its own sub-section within your dissertation introduction. This is because it is essential to those who will be judging the merit of your work and demonstrates that you have considered how it adds value.

The biggest mistake that students make is simply not including this sub-section. The concept of ‘adding value’ does not have to be some significant advancement in the research that offers profound contributions to the field, but you do have to take one to two paragraphs to clearly and unequivocally state the worth of your work.

There are many possible ways to answer the question about the value of your research. You might suggest that the area/topic you have picked to research lacks critical investigation. You might be looking at the area/topic from a different angle and this could also be seen as adding value. In some cases, it may be that your research is somewhat urgent (e.g. medical issues) and value can be added in this way.

Whatever reason you come up with to address the value added question, make sure that somewhere in this section you directly state the importance or added value of the research.

The research and the objectives

Firstly, aims and objectives are different things and should be treated as such. Usually, these have already been created at the proposal stage or for ethical clearance of the research project, so putting them in your dissertation introduction is really just a matter of organisation and clarity.

Typically, a research project has an overall aim. Again, this needs to be clearly stated in a direct way. The objectives generally stem from the overall aim and explain how that aim will be met. They are often organised numerically or in bullet point form and are terse statements that are clear and identifiable.

There are four things you need to remember when creating research objectives. These are:

  • Appropriateness (each objective is clearly related to what you want to study)

  • Distinctness (each objective is focused and incrementally assists in achieving the overall research aim)

  • Clarity (each objective avoids ambiguity)

  • Being achievable (each objective is realistic and can be completed within a reasonable timescale)

In creating research objectives that conform to the above, you may want to consider:
  • Starting each objective with a key word (e.g. identify, assess, evaluate, explore, examine, investigate, determine, etc.)

  • Beginning with a simple objective to help set the scene in the study

  • Finding a good numerical balance – usually two is too few and six is too many. Aim for approximately 3-5 objectives

If you can achieve this balance, you should be well positioned to demonstrate a clear and logical position that exudes competence.

Remember that you must address these research objectives in your research. You cannot simply mention them in your dissertation introduction and then forget about them. Just like any other part of the dissertation, this section must be referenced in the findings and discussion – as well as in the conclusion.

This section has offered the basic sections of a dissertation introduction chapter. There are additional bits and pieces that you may choose to add. The research questions have already been highlighted as one option; an outline of the structure of the entire dissertation may be another example of information you might like to include.

As long as your dissertation introduction is organised and clear, you are well on the way to writing success with this chapter.

The Conclusion

Getting started

Your dissertation conclusion will do one of two things. It may fill you with joy, because it signals that you are almost done. Or it may be a particularly challenging test of your mental strength, because by this point in the dissertation you are likely exhausted.

It is your job at this point to make one last push to the finish to create a cohesive and organised final chapter. If your concluding chapter is unstructured or some sort of ill-disciplined rambling, the person marking your work might be left with the impression that you lacked the appropriate skills for writing or that you lost interest in your own work.

To avoid these pitfalls, you will need to know what is expected of you and what you need to include in your successful dissertation conclusion chapter.

There are three parts (at a minimum) that need to exist within your dissertation conclusion. These include:

  • Research objectives – a summary of your findings and the resulting conclusions

  • Recommendations

  • Contributions to knowledge

You may also wish to consider a section on self-reflection, i.e. how you have grown as a researcher or a section on limitations (though this might have been covered in your research methods chapter). This adds something a little different to your chapter and allows you to demonstrate how this dissertation has affected you as an academic.

Furthermore, just like any other chapter in your dissertation, your conclusion must begin with an introduction (usually very short at about a paragraph in length). This paragraph typically explains the organisation of the content, reminds the reader of your research aims/objectives, and provides a brief statement of what you are about to do.

The length of a dissertation conclusion varies with the length of the overall project, but similar to a dissertation introduction, a 5-7% of the total word count estimate should be acceptable.

Research objectives

The research objectives section only asks you to answer two questions.

These are:

1. As a result of the completion of the literature review, along with the empirical research that you completed, what did you find out in relation to your personal research objectives?
2. What conclusions have you come to?

A common mistake by students when addressing these questions is to again go into the analysis of the data collection and findings. This is not necessary, as the reader has likely just finished reading your discussion chapter and does not need to go through it all again. This section is not about persuading, you are simply informing the reader of the summary of your findings.

Before you begin writing, it may be helpful to list out your research objectives and then brainstorm a couple of bullet points from your data findings/discussion where you really think your research has met the objective. This will allow you to create a mini-outline and avoid the ‘rambling’ pitfall described above.

Recommendations

The purpose of a recommendations section is to offer the reader some advice on what you think should happen next. Failing to include such information can result in the loss of marks. Including these recommendations as implicit suggestions within other parts of the brief (e.g. the analysis/discussion chapters) is a good start, but without having a detailed explanation of them in the conclusion chapter, you might be setting yourself up for failure.

There are two types of recommendations you can make. The first is to make a recommendation that is specific to the evidence of your study, the second is to make recommendations for future research. While certain recommendations will be specific to your data, there are always a few that seem to appear consistently throughout student work. These tend to include things like a larger sample size, different context, increased longitudinal time frame, etc. If you get to this point and feel you need to add words to your dissertation, this is an easy place to do so – just be cautious that making recommendations that have little or no obvious link to the research conclusions are not beneficial.

A good recommendations section will link to previous conclusions, and since this section was ultimately linked to your research aims and objectives, the recommendations section then completes the package.

Contributions to knowledge

The idea of ‘contributions to knowledge’ largely appears in PhD-level work and less so at the Master’s level, depending of course on the nature of the research. Master’s students might want to check with their supervisor before proceeding with this section. Ultimately, in this section, the focus is to demonstrate how your research has enhanced existing knowledge.

Your main contribution to knowledge likely exists within your empirical work (though in a few select cases it might be drawn from the literature review). Implicit in this section is the notion that you are required to make an original contribution to research, and you are, in fact, telling the reader what makes your research study unique. In order to achieve this, you need to explicitly tell the reader what makes your research special.

There are many ways to do this, but perhaps the most common is to identify what other researchers have done and how your work builds upon theirs. It may also be helpful to specify the gap in the research (which you would have identified either in your dissertation introduction or literature review) and how your research has contributed to ‘filling the gap.’

Another obvious way that you can demonstrate that you have made a contribution to knowledge is to highlight the publications that you have contributed to the field (if any). So, for example, if you have published a chapter of your dissertation in a journal or you have given a conference presentation and have conference proceedings, you could highlight these as examples of how you are making this contribution.

In summing up this section, remember that a dissertation conclusion is your last opportunity to tell the reader what you want them to remember. The chapter needs to be comprehensive and must include multiple sub-sections.

Ensure that you refresh the reader’s memory about your research objectives, tell the reader how you have met your research objectives, provide clear recommendations for future researchers and demonstrate that you have made a contribution to knowledge. If there is time and/or space, you might want to consider a limitations or self-reflection section.

The Abstract

An abstract can often come across as an afterthought by students. The entire dissertation is written and now there are only a few hundred words to go. Yet the abstract is going to end up being one of the most influential parts of your dissertation. If done well, it should provide a synopsis of your work and entice the reader to continue on to read the entire dissertation.

A good abstract will contain the following elements:

  • A statement of the problem or issue that you are investigating – including why research on this topic is needed

  • The research methods used

  • The main results/findings

  • The main conclusions and recommendations

An abstract generally should be only one neat and tidy paragraph that is no more than one page (though it could be much shorter). The abstract usually appears after the title page and the acknowledgements.

Different institutions often have different guidelines for writing the abstract, so it is best to check with your department prior to beginning.

When you are writing the abstract, you must find the balance between too much information and not enough. You want the reader to be able to review the abstract and get a general overall sense of what you have done.

As you write, you may want to keep the following questions in mind:

1. Is the focus of my research identified and clear?
2. Have I presented my rationale behind this study?
3. Is how I conducted my research evident?
4. Have I provided a summary of my main findings/results?
5. Have I included my main conclusions and recommendations?

In some instances, you may also be asked to include a few keywords. Ensure that your keywords are specifically related to your research. You are better off staying away from generic terms like ‘education’ or ‘science’ and instead provide a more specific focus on what you have actually done with terms like ‘e-learning’ or ‘biomechanics’.

Finally, you want to avoid having too many acronyms in your abstract. The abstract needs to appeal to a wide audience, and so making it understandable to this wider audience is absolutely essential to your success.

Ultimately, writing a good abstract is the same as writing a good dissertation; you must present a logical and organised synopsis that demonstrates what your research has achieved. With such a goal in mind, you can now successfully proceed with your abstract!

Many students also choose to make the necessary efforts to ensure that their chapter is ready for submission by applying an edit to their finished work. It is always beneficial to have a fresh set of eyes have a read of your chapter to make sure that you have not omitted any vital points and that it is error free.

Want some help with a chapter of your dissertation?
Our dissertation chapter service provides focused, expert advice on individual chapters and on your dissertation structure. Whether it's your dissertation introduction, conclusion, or other section, our academic experts are on hand to help you succeed.