The Difference in the Introduction and Background of a Dissertation

Although the format and content of dissertations differ dramatically across different fields of study, several core components appear in all disciplines. A typical dissertation includes an introduction, a background or literature review, discussions of the theories and methods used in the research, data analysis and results, a discussion or interpretation of the results, and a conclusion. Each of these components may be in a separate section or chapter, or you may address multiple components within sections.

Goals of the Introduction

If someone reads only one section of your dissertation, it’ll be the introduction, so the introduction’s primary goal is to demonstrate the importance, interest and originality of your research project. Above all, it should include a statement of the research question that your project investigates. This statement should give readers a broad sense of the current research on your topic, what’s at stake in learning more about the topic and how your specific project changes what people know about the topic. The introduction’s tone should be confident without being arrogant or dismissive. Finally, the introduction should define key terms you’ll use throughout the study, as well as map out the rest of the dissertation.

Goals of the Background

The background section is often called the literature review. “The literature” refers to other research on your topic. The background synthesizes current knowledge on your research question in far greater detail than your introductory section does. Its goal is to articulate patterns within the literature and to describe unresolved issues or questions, then to show how your study fits into the larger body of work in your field. You can organize your overview of other research in several ways, including in chronological order, by significant issues, or from broad information about your field to specific studies on your topic.

Separate Introduction and Background

Some disciplines organize the introduction and background as separate sections of the dissertation. Dissertations in the social sciences, for instance, frequently have an introduction followed by a literature review. The hard sciences also tend to follow this format, with each subsequent chapter representing a published article related to the broad research question.

Background Within the Introduction

In many humanities disciplines, the introduction will include a section called “Background” or “Literature Review,” which provides a history of criticism on your topic. Individual dissertation chapters then contain further discussion of the criticism related to specific texts that the chapter investigates. It’s crucial to consult your adviser to find out how you’re expected to organize the introduction and background.

About the Author

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.

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