6.3 Writing the Opening Chapter of Your PhD Thesis
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The opening chapter of the main body of your thesis is extremely important because this is where you begin to establish the all-important argument of your thesis.
It is vital that the thesis appears to be a unified piece of work even though each chapter will be concerned with a different aspect of the central proposal but the opening chapter is especially important because it sets the tone for both the argument and the writing style as well as establishing more firmly the methodology that you will be using throughout the thesis and which you have mentioned in your introduction.
Ideally, the opening chapter should cover an aspect of the thesis topic which can bridge the gap between the introduction and the development of the argument. Therefore, it is unwise to cover an intricate aspect of your thesis at the beginning, it is much better to introduce your reader to the thesis by means of a ‘bridging chapter’.
This does not mean, of course, that the opening chapter should not cover an aspect of your thesis in detail, it simply means that the writing of this thesis chapter should take into account its placement within the overall scheme of the doctorate more than in the other chapters.
As with professional writing (and remember that a Ph.D. must be written to publication standard) you must consider your audience and purpose when you are writing, as well as the subject matter.
Think about how this opening chapter will appear to the reader and ask yourself the following questions:
- What am I hoping to achieve in this opening chapter?
- What methods am I going to use to ensure that my writing engages the reader?
- How do I intend to use evidentiary support in this chapter?
- What makes this chapter different from the others?
- What do I hope to have achieved by the time this chapter is complete?
- How do I envisage this chapter fitting into the thesis as a whole?
Answering these questions will help you to get the opening chapter structured correctly. Indeed, many of these questions should be applied to all your chapters to give you a framework for each and ensure that the central theme is still the prime directive.
So, taking each of these in turn, let’s look at how the opening chapter can address each of them:What am I hoping to achieve in this opening chapter?
What you are hoping to achieve, whatever the topic, is first and foremost to begin to develop the ideas that you began in your introduction. The idea is that this chapter should form a bridge between the introduction and the main body of the thesis so this is primarily what you are trying to achieve.What methods am I going to use to ensure that my writing engages the reader?
This is, of course, primarily an academic piece, indeed it is the highest academic degree, and therefore the standard of English is expected to be impeccable. Nevertheless, within this rigid framework there is room for you to write both creatively and imaginatively in order to engage the reader. This can be primarily achieved through the use of persuasive writing running simultaneously with the argumentative register. Imagine that you are writing a book, in many ways you are, and that each chapter has to persuade the reader to continue to read on. Look at how the authors of the many critical works you have consulted engaged your interest and try to adopt the same methods and remember that a text book needs imagination too!How do I intend to use evidentiary support in this chapter?
Your approach to this should be helped enormously by re-reading the earlier section in this guide on analysis. This will show you how now that you are writing your thesis, you can develop analysis of texts in order to suggest new ideas. It is surprising how the smallest qualifiers make all the difference in a line of text. You can use these vital differences to make your evidence work more effectively for you. You might try looking at facsimiles of manuscripts (or the originals, if you’re lucky) in order to see just how an author makes these changes and capitalise on this in your own work by developing the changes and the difference they make to the finished work.What makes this chapter different from the others?
The opening chapter is very different from the others as it establishes the tone for the whole thesis. It also forms that vital bridge between the introduction and the main body of the thesis so that you need to ensure that it encompasses the main theme as well as addressing the individual and specific topic with which the chapter is concerned.What do I hope to have achieved by the time this chapter is complete?
This is extremely important as having a goal in mind can help ensure that you stick to the point of the chapter in hand whilst always keeping in mind the thesis as a whole. If you know where you are aiming, you are more likely to stay focused and less likely to produce a chapter that is effective only in isolation.How do I envisage this chapter fitting into the thesis as a whole?
This should be part of your planning for the thesis as a whole and also be applied to every chapter that you write. The chapters of your thesis address different aspects of the topic but should not be capable of standing alone nor should they be written in the manner of separate essays (albeit long ones).
Try to ensure that you are developing a central argument throughout diverse chapters, weaving back and forth logically and remaining totally in control – in the manner of a grand prix racing driver not a drunk one!
Conclude your opening chapter with a link to the next chapter to continue the theme.
"The opening chapter of your thesis makes the reader aware of your theme, methodology, style and execution and it is vitally important that you make it as effective as possible."
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