How to write a thesis you can defend easily

An unavoidable part of the thesis-writing process is that at some point an expert in the field is going to read and assess your work.

You could be asked to defend or justify any part of your thesis… they might point out mistakes or question the validity of your arguments… or even ask whether the research question is one worth answering.

Naturally, the thesis defence this can be a daunting prospect, but there are things you can do during the writing process to make the future defence easier.

1. Anticipate criticism

By anticipating criticism, you can strengthen your defences against it.

What other approaches or interpretations could be made? If you acknowledge them and give a reasoned justification for why you did what you did or think what you think, then your defence is built into the thesis.

It shows that you can take an objective view of your research and have considered many options, acknowledging and addressing any weaknesses before the examiner has a chance to.

2. Try to prove yourself wrong

Be active in examining doubts, rather than letting a sense of unease sit at the back of your mind.

If you have reached a surprising conclusion, you should be the first to question whether it is true. Check and recheck your data. Try to think of alternative explanations and ways to test them. Show your work to others and get them to question it- you don’t want the defence to be the first time you get feedback on your research.

If your conclusion survives that process, then you will be able to defend it with far more confidence.

3. Be clear about what you are claiming

As I’ve said before, the examiner can disagree with you, but they should never misunderstand you.

Make a clear statement about what you are trying to say, so that both you and the examiner know what you are defending.

This can be difficult, and sometimes you can end up writing in circles if you are unsure about what you want to say. If that’s the case, slow down and imagine someone has just asked you, “so what are you trying to say?”

4. Only cite literature you have read and understood

If you misrepresent someone else’s work, and the examiner notices, you could be in trouble.

Never include things just for the sake of increasing your bibliography.

5. Stick mainly to what you know

Your thesis is unique, as is your experience and expertise. Focus on what you know well (and if you need to learn something new, go and learn it before you write about it).

It’s better to bring the examiner into territory where you are strong, than to stray into weak areas because you think that’s where they want to be.

6. Focus on the work, not the outcome

It’s hard, but try not to worry about the defence too much. Instead, focus on doing the work to the best of your ability.

You cannot predict or control what an examiner will ask you.  All you can do is give each section of the thesis the care and attention it deserves.  If you do that, then the chances are it will work out OK.


See also: How to prepare for your thesis defence


How to choose a thesis topic

One of the most common questions I get asked is how to choose a thesis topic or research project. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as just “finding a gap in the literature”, and there are many complicating factors to consider. In this excerpt from the book, “PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life”, I outline what you need to know…

There’s a lot to consider, so take your time reading this!

What makes a good project?

Good research depends on many factors, and a good idea alone is not enough.

You can have a brilliant idea, but the ultimate quality of the research will depend on your execution; an average idea well-executed is much better than a brilliant idea executed badly.

In turn, your ability to execute the research will depend on your specific research skills (existing and developing), as well as your access to other resources such as equipment, funding, technical support and time. Since these factors vary greatly, what may be a viable project for one person may be entirely unsuitable for another.

Your research idea needs to be of interest to other academics in the field. Partly, this will depend on your ability to justify your research and the originality of your proposal, but it can also depend on timing, as technology makes new things possible and old
techniques obsolete and as various theories and areas of study come in and out of fashion.

The interestingness of your project to others depends on who your audience is, as some projects will be fascinating to some, utterly pointless – or in some cases even offensive – to others. This is worth bearing in mind not only when you present your
complete research for examination or publication and nominate examiners or referees, but also when you choose whom to work with; if your supervisor is fundamentally opposed to your project, then you should either choose another project or change


Although a degree of originality is a key requirement, research is never totally original. Rather, it operates on the edge of what is already known; venturing forward but still connected to and dependent on that which has been done before.

Not every aspect of your research needs to be original. The skilful application of unoriginal ideas and well-established techniques gives you a reliable foundation to work from, and even the most revolutionary research will rely upon much which is unoriginal, perhaps combining pre-existing elements from disparate fields in an original way.

Find an edge to work on

Academic research is analogous to learning, but on a societal scale. Just as when learning a skill, research pushes just beyond the edge of society’s current collective ability or knowledge.

Rather than searching for a gap where there is nothing, it may be better to search for an edge to work on where you can take existing research further. One way to do this is to ask yourself after reading a paper: “is there a way to expand upon this research, or to approach it in a different way, or to apply the same techniques to a different subject?” If you do this with several papers, you’ll find that there is no shortage of ideas.

Another approach is to test the basic assumptions that others in the field have used. It is quite possible for an assumption to become accepted fact simply because several authors have stated or cited the same idea, even though it has never been systematically tested or proven. If you find such an untested assumption and can think of a way to test it, then your work will be of great value to the field (provided it is well executed).

Developing an idea

The decisions you make early in your PhD about what research to pursue will affect everything that follows, and this puts a lot of pressure on your choice of project.

Creative processes tend to work best when you take the pressure off and allow yourself the freedom to consider many ideas without worrying about whether or not they are good. This freedom is important because, often, bad ideas serve as intermediate stages in the development of good ones. So allow your imagination to run free, think of many ideas and don’t worry initially about finding the one.

Developing an idea is not just about freedom of creativity though. Once you have a few ideas it then takes focused work to test their viability and to refine them into a potential research project. How, then, do you test viability?

You will certainly need to check the existing literature to find out whether your idea has already been investigated and what similar research has been done. This is partly to ensure that your idea is original, and partly to help you think through how you might conduct your own research.

The literature can show you how other researchers have approached similar problems, but it is also useful to talk to other researchers in your department; to get feedback on your ideas and to find out what resources and expertise are available to you.

Even if you are given a specific problem to work on there will be multiple possible ways to approach it, so it’s good to think through these alternatives, consider their practicality, and not necessarily just take the first option that comes to mind.

Developing a research idea means investing time and energy into some ideas that you don’t then pursue further. This is not wasted time—it is often through investigating a bad idea that you then develop a good one.

Sooner or later though, you will have to commit to a project. There is no set formula to follow here, but there are some questions you can ask yourself, which may help you decide.

  • Does the project have a clear aim?
  • Do you know what techniques you will apply?
  • What resources and funding will you need?
  • What skills will you need to develop?
  • Do others in your department have relevant expertise?
  • Are you interested in the project?
  • Can you justify why the project should be of interest to others?
  • And who will it be of interest to?

Start small

The natural temptation might be to set your aims as high as possible and make your project as comprehensive as you can. Such projects are easy to imagine, but much harder to implement.

Think of the simplest possible version of your project, and how you would go about it. Then you can add extra complexity, but bear in mind that you will have to achieve the simple version first.

A word of caution

Although it is good to choose a project you have some interest in, it’s possible to be a little too interested in the subject. Using research to prove something you passionately believe in can lead to confirmation bias, where you only pay attention to results that support your existing view.

It’s OK to expect a certain result, but as a researcher you should maintain a slight distrust of your own assumptions, and actively try to prove yourself wrong whenever a new result conforms to your expectations.


Depending on your PhD programme, you may have to write a research proposal. The requirements for this differ between institutions—you may have to write the proposal before being accepted as a student, or it may happen at a much later stage. It’s up to you to find out how it works wherever you are. Generally though, your proposal will need to show a clear research objective and choice of an appropriate methodology.

Clarity is the key. It should be immediately obvious exactly what you are trying to do, and this is only possible to communicate if you first have clarity in your own mind. Do not attempt to write down everything you could possibly imagine doing, nor everything you know about the subject.

Get the book

“PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life” is now available via amazon and other retailers



please do not ask me to give you a thesis topic!!


How to write a PhD literature review

In this post, I’m going to guide you through how to write a literature review on any topic from scratch, even if you haven’t read a single paper yet.

How to write a literature review from scratch

1. Pick a topic

It can be as broad as you like because this is just a starting point. If you are still picking your specific topic for your PhD, that’s fine, but you should at least know roughly what area you want to explore.

2. Find your way in

A quick google scholar search for your subject area could turn up as many as 1 million results. Clearly, you can’t read them all, so you need to look for an easy way in.

The vast majority of academic papers are written for people already familiar with the subject. They will refer to theories and methodologies assuming that the reader knows what they are.

So to start with just any paper at random would be a demoralizing waste of time, as you’ll be overwhelmed by the jargon. Instead, you need something you can understand easily to give yourself a foundation of knowledge to build upon.

Textbooks and review articles can be good places to start, though even these can be highly technical. If you can’t find one you can understand easily, then look for a book written for the general, non-academic public.

The idea is to gain a quick, broad background knowledge before getting into more specialised technical detail.

3. History, people & ideas

The idea of a literature review is to give some background and context to your own work. You need to show how your research fits into the big picture, relating it to what has been done before.

You don’t need to write a comprehensive history of your subject, but it helps if you know roughly how it has developed over time.

So as you read a few general introductions to your topic, you’ll start to get an overview of the key ideas and theories, who developed them, and when.

Also note any conflicting ideas, any controversy or disagreement in the field, as you’ll need to know this kind of thing.

Now you can start to look for specific papers.

4. Find the world-changing literature

Once you know who the world changers were, you can go in search of their papers.

You need to make sure you understand these key concepts, as they will help you decipher other papers which built upon these ideas.

Sometimes, those world-changing papers can be tough to read, but as long as you know roughly what they did and understand the key principle, that’s enough.

5. Get specific

Only once you have a grasp of the key ideas in your field should you get more specific.

There may be several angles you can take in your research, and you may have to explore many areas of the literature. So divide your literature search into sections to make it easier to manage. For each section, think of several keywords to try out in different combinations.

6. Filter

Even when you look at highly specialised sub-topics, there may still be thousands upon thousands of papers, so you need to filter them. Here are a few ways to reduce the numbers:

  • Look at the number of citations as an indication of quality
  • Make your keywords more specific
  • Scan the abstract and make a quick decision as to whether it will be relevant or not

Don’t be afraid to reject papers. You can always come back to them later, but you have to start with something manageable.

7. Filter again

You might not be able to read everything in depth immediately. From the papers you selected, give them a ranking A, B, or C.

A = must read, highly relevant, high quality

B = unsure, probably relevant, but not yet sure how

C = probably irrelevant, not what you thought it was when you read the title

If you’ve printed them , put the letter A, B, or C on the front so you can tell quickly when you come back to them (maybe months or years later)

8. Use other people’s bibliographies

Even if you can only find one good quality paper, read the introduction carefully and see who they cite. There may be a few gems there you didn’t find with the search engine.

Also, see who else has cited that one paper since it was published (this is also a very quick way to update your bibliography if you are coming back to it a year, or more, later).

9. Get to know the big players

In any research field, no matter how specialised, there will be leading experts or competing research groups. Figure out who they are, and read their work.

10. Make sure your research idea is original

As the saying goes, you can’t prove a negative. How can you prove that nobody else has done what you plan to do, without searching every paper ever published?

Well, it’s worth spending a day or two searching every keyword combination you can think of related to your specific research plan.

11. Write about ideas

When you finally start writing your literature review, focus on ideas and use examples from the literature to illustrate them.

Don’t just write about every paper you have found (I call this the telephone-directory approach), as it will be tedious to write and impossible to read.

The aim should always be to cite the best and most relevant research, rather than going for sheer quantity.

12. Remember, you aren’t writing a textbook

So you can leave out big chunks. Write about what is relevant to your research.

13. Vary the detail

When talking about a broad topic, only cite the very, very best papers. You’ll have a lot to choose from, so why choose anything but the best?

Then when you get into more specialised sections, you can include a larger number of less well-known papers (but still the highest quality you can find).

14. Don’t cite anything…

Don’t cite anything you haven’t read or don’t understand

15. Get experience

Your perspective on the literature will be quite different once you have done your own research. If you are in your first year, get your literature review done quickly so you can move on with your own work, and don’t let it hold you back.

It takes time to figure out what makes a good paper and what makes a bad one, and that comes with the experience of carrying out research, talking to other researchers and just reading more.

If you like this post…

Take the course on literature and literature reviews. You can find it here.

So good they can’t ignore you (Book Review)

There comes a point towards the end of every PhD when you start to wonder what the hell you are going to do with the rest of your life.

It’s times like this when you’ll probably hear advice like “follow your passion” or “follow your dream”. But this may not be the best advice according to a new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest For Work You’ll Love by Cal Newport.

Here’s my summary of some of the key points in this fascinating and thought-provoking book.

The search for the perfect job

What makes the perfect job? Is it following some kind of calling? Something you were made or meant to do?

That’s a lot of pressure to put yourself under, to find a job that fulfills some kind of predetermined destiny. It pretty much guarantees that you won’t be satisfied with any job you get because you’ll constantly be wondering if you are meant to be doing something else (I think this is a big problem for PhD graduates, because you’ll have naturally high expectations of yourself)

Or is it something more pragmatic?

The conditions for work happiness

The author gives 3 conditions for happiness in any job.

  1. Autonomy (the feeling that you are in control of your day and that your actions have significance to others)
  2. Competence (being good at what you do)
  3. Relatedness (feeling of connection to others)

None of these require matching your job to some pre-existing passion.

What makes GREAT work?

What makes a great job? Do you want total freedom? Do you want to have an impact on the world? Do you want to apply your creativity? Or do you want a ton of money?

Whatever combination of the above  factors go into making your dream job, they are rare (and therefore valuable).

So in order to get a job where you will be rewarded in this way, you’d better have some value to offer in return.

Building career capital

Career capital is basically marketable skill. The central idea of the book is that if you develop exceptional skill in one area and become “so good they can’t ignore you”, this gives you choices in your career.

Many people with great jobs don’t exactly plan their route to the top. Instead, they make themselves valuable by being as good as possible at whatever they do.

The craftsman approach

The difference between being good enough and being exceptional comes down to your approach to learning skills.

To improve, you need to go beyond your comfort zone and attempt things slightly beyond your range. If you are a musician and only practice what you can already play well, you will not improve. But if you try to play something challenging, and keep repeating again and again and again the parts you find hard, starting again every time you make a mistake you will get better and better.

It’s all about how you respond to negative feedback- do you avoid it by sticking to what is safe, or do you embrace it, and use it as an opportunity to improve?

Only once you have developed valuable levels of skill can you expect to get (or create) your dream job.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

So Good They Can’t Ignore You is  released on 20th September. Click here to order your copy.

This is a must-read.

The Amazon link is an affiliate link, meaning that if you buy a copy, I get a small commission. That said, I only recommend books I think are excellent, and this is certainly well within that category.

How to balance a PhD with full-time work (and other questions)

Continuing the series on reader’s questions, here are more answers!

Today we have questions about learning during the PhD, juggling the PhD with full-time work and overwhelming worries about time, supervisors and PhD failure.

If you have any questions, email me at, and if you have any tips, share them in the comments below.

Hi James,
I definitely struggle with time management and the volume of new research material there is to read. I sometimes wonder if I have learnt any new science during my PhD as I never seem to find time to read text books or attend lectures anymore.
Many thanks,

This is a common one! It’s easy to worry about whether you are reading enough or learning enough or doing the right things, and the feeling is always that you should be reading more.

You can’t read everything. In many fields, there are more papers published daily than it’s possible to read in a week, so you have to be selective.  Read the material that interests you,  and don’t worry about volume, because you’ll be fighting a losing battle.

As for learning… you’ve probably learned more than you know. A PhD is largely about gaining practical experience in academic research, so rather than thinking about the kind of book-learning you did before to pass exams, think about all the problems you have faced and solved since you started. That’s the basis of true understanding; facing problems and coming up with solutions yourself.

Hello James,

Like many mature age students I am working full time (Director of Nursing) and really struggling to quarantine PhD time. I find I am brain dead by the end of the day. I would like to study in the morning but that is the best time to get any work done without interruption so best time to do work work too and by 0830 it is all happening here or off to a meeting.

I have two years left of a part time load but would really like to finish end of next year. I have done my methodology chapter and data collection but that is it….seems a huge mountain to go. I have just been through ‘should I really be doing this?’ phase but want to keep going as I really do love it once I get down to it. My supervisors very understanding although this is not necessarily good!


Hi Susanne,

The common problem when juggling a PhD with work is that there are always “urgent” tasks to be done at work which seem to take priority. You end up responding to stuff happening right now, which leaves the thesis just sitting there.

There are only 24 hours in a day, and you have a limited reserve of energy and attention… So there comes a point where you can’t do more without something else being sacrificed. So the simple, unavoidable, blunt truth is that in order to have any hope of getting your PhD, you have to create space for it in your schedule (which means having time set aside where you don’t do work-work).

Writing requires uninterrupted time. No calls, no meetings, no emails, no internet. It’s up to you to create that space for yourself, but if you do, here are some tips to help you…

1. It’s hard to switch from work mode to thesis mode. 

If you sit down to work on the thesis, you’ll find all kinds of other thoughts interrupting you… I need to email back to Rodger about that meeting and  I need to finish that report and I really must go and sort out that situation with HR…  You need to ignore these thoughts and relax into the thesis. It might take 30 minutes to do this, but once you’re there, you’ll be able to work.

2. Consistency is key!

It needs to become part of your routine. The longer you leave it, the harder it will be to pick up again. But if you do something related to the PhD on a regular basis, then it not only maintains some momentum, but it also keeps it ticking over in your mind

3. Focus on the detail

The whole thesis is too big. Instead, just pick one thing to work on. It could be as simple as organising your data in the right format, or writing a single paragraph on a very specific idea. Whatever it is, immerse yourself in it and do it well. Do this consistently, and you will finish.

Consistency and routine has to start just by doing it once, so I’d suggest taking one day and setting aside 2 hours for the thesis, focusing on one specific task.

P.S. thanks for the kind comments!

I am in phase of writing up my thesis and really in stress
I am facing all situation , L.R overlap , cant control my Time
My supervisors not following me
Don’t know how to start writing up
short time allowance
Really I don’t know what to do
I think I will fail



Hi Shaihka,

I think you summed up the situation for many PhD students!

When you have many things you’re worried about at the same time, it reduces your capacity to work to your best. The lit review, for example, is difficult and requires a lot of focus and effort, but it’s possible if you really apply yourself.

The problem is that when you’re stressed and under pressure and worried about time and your supervisor and that you will fail, your attention is divided. You can’t focus, and that means you find the lit review even harder, and you can get stuck in a cycle of feeling out of control.

So what I suggest is that you look at each of the things you’re worried about and ask yourself what you can do to take control. Your supervisor isn’t following you, but you have options. You can make contact and explain how worried you are. If they don’t reply, email again, or call, or show up at the office.  If you still don’t get a response, you can look for someone else to talk to. You can talk to other students or academics about specific aspects of the thesis… Every situation has a solution, but the key is to try multiple things. As long as you can think of options you shouldn’t give up.

Support is there, but sometimes the hardest thing is to ask for it and to tell people how you feel. Get it out in the open, and if you don’t get support from the first person, try someone else.

Then once you’ve openly talked about the stress, it’s time to focus on what to do to take control. Not knowing where to start writing up, you can write down ideas on paper, pick one idea and start writing about that. Simplify the task and just try to focus on doing one thing well.

Everything is an experiment

In research, you never know in advance what the answers will be.

You can give your best guess, you can even give a detailed justification for why things should turn out that way.

But whenever you assume you know the results in advance, the universe has a habit of kicking you hard.

Everything is an experiment. It will work out however it works out. The skill then lies in responding to the results, asking more questions, refining your methodology and trying again.

The interesting stuff lies in the unexpected, and it’s when things go wrong that you can develop your skills as a researcher.

So if you are looking for that one big research idea, or that one methodology, you’re doing it wrong because you can’t predict how things will work out. Try something small, treat it as an experiment, and build from there.

Searching for literature: why Google Scholar is a blunt instrument

If you’re going to use a tool to help you with an important part of your research, it helps if you know a bit about how it works.

Searching for literature is a major, time consuming, and vital part of any PhD, so your choice of search tool matters.

There are some major drawbacks to using Google Scholar. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it, but you should know what it’s weaknesses are.

The Google Search Algorithm

When you do any kind of search through google, their search algorithm decides in what order to show you the results.

It’s an incredibly sophisticated system, taking into account all kinds of measures of importance and relevance for each search result. But here’s the problem…

Nobody knows what the algorithm is. So you don’t know how they’ve sorted them, and you have no control beyond selecting the search terms and what years to search.

An example

If I search for “scanning tunneling microscopy”, then I recognise some of the top results (including the nobel-prize-winning inventors of the technique). There are papers there which have been cited hundreds or even thousands of times. So far so good.

But there are articles there that (with all due respect to the authors) have no business being in the top 10.

Why Google ranks a paper with 3300 citations at number at number 6, and a paper with 21 citations (from 1990, so it’s had plenty of time to have more of an impact) at number 7, is anyone’s guess.

This stuff matters. There are over 200,000 search results, so if google is filtering and sorting the results for me, I’d first I’d like to know how, and second I’d like to be able to play with the settings to sort results the way I want.

The advantages of Google Scholar

Well it’s free, so anyone anywhere can use it (even if you have to pay for access to some of the results).

And of course you can change the search terms you enter to get more specific results (but that’s not really an advantage as you can do that with any search engine).

Alternative Tools

I always used Web of Knowledge, which gives far greater control and transparency over search results. It requires a subscription, but if your institution is registered then definitely use it.

The key thing is being able to control how search results are presented to you. Leaving it up to Google is not PhD-level thinking.

I’m going to throw this one over to you in the comments section. What tools do you use to search? And why?


The most important thesis writing tool ever invented

You can argue forever* about whether to use Google scholar or Web of Knowledge, Word or LaTeX, Excel or Origin…

But the most important tool is the simplest.

Get yourself a thesis writing notebook, and make it the first and last thing you use every day.

Start the day by writing down what you hope to achieve. Break down tasks into small, achievable milestones, and tick them off as you go.

Write down ideas and tasks for later throughout the day… so you don’t lose the thought, but you don’t get distracted from what you’re working on now, either.

And at the end of the day, write down ideas for tomorrow.

It’s the simplest technology in the world, but sometimes the simplest things make the biggest difference.


(* there is no argument. Use LaTeX, WOK and Origin.)

Leaving your thesis introduction till last? It could be a mistake…

The introduction to your thesis is the first thing the examiner will read. It’s your only chance to form a first impression, if the examiner doesn’t already know you. It sets the background, context and motivation for your work. And so it’s at least as important as every other chapter.

And yet a lot of people leave writing the introduction till last and if you’re near the deadline, it’ll be written in a rush. This is a mistake. If you write your introduction as a hurried afterthought, or as just a dry list of things that will be covered later then they will want to skim read it to get to the proper work in later chapters.

It is far better to write an engaging introduction, having spent time thinking about why your research matters and why anyone would want to read about it.

Why you might write the intro last

If you are writing chapters but you don’t yet know the full story, then it might make sense to write the introduction last.

If you’re doing this, I guarantee you will be stressed in the run up to submission. Why? because you’re trying to finish the research and the writing all at the same time.

It’s like cooking for a dinner party and constantly running out to buy ingredients while the guests are arriving. It’s not going to end well!

Stop, finish your research, then resume writing once you know what you’re going to say.

Writing an engaging thesis introduction

The job of the introduction is to make the reader want to read the rest of the thesis.

Examiners are busy people. When your thesis arrives on their desk, there will be that moment of dread… will this be an interesting read, or will it be like wading through wet cement?

A good thesis introduction will set up a sense of anticipation.

Why is this work important? And why should anyone care?

Here are a few tips to help you write an engaging introductory chapter:

1. Start with the big picture

Start with an idea of how the whole thesis will be structured. What will be covered in each subsequent chapter? Then when you talk about specific concepts in the intro, you can say “this will be discussed further in chapter …”.

Without these references to what you will cover later, the examiner might be wondering, “why are you telling me this?”

2. General > specific > general

A good structure to follow for the chapter is to start broad. Why does your field of research matter to the wider world?

Then you can talk about specific things related to your niche, and say why those matter to your field of research.

Then at the end of the chapter, try to link your specific niche back to the general, wider world again.

3. Give them something unexpected

Examiners have read a lot about your subject, but they don’t know you.

Give them something unexpected; a unique perspective, something that interests you or that you find fascinating, and they will be interested to read more.

4. Set boundaries

At some point early in the chapter (but not necessarily the first paragraph) tell the reader what you will cover in the chapter.

In my thesis, I included the following paragraph after a brief introduction of about 2 pages as to why nanoscience and nanotechnology matter:

Though there are several excellent general reviews of nanoscience and technology
(3–6), each to some extent reflects the authors’ personal research interests
and expertise. Due to the pace of development and breadth of research,
a truly comprehensive review is probably impossible, and certainly beyond
the scope of this thesis. The following brief review presents the properties
of semiconductor and metal nanostructures, in addition to the principles of
self-assembly and self organisation.

So I set out clearly what the review would cover, while pointing the reader to more general reviews for reference.

This meant I could be highly focused on specific principles, but also relate these back to the general motivation of the field.

It helps if you know what you want to cover, and how it relates to your research!

5. Relate your work to the best in the field

When you talk about the state of the art in your field, focus on the very best work.

This not only reduces the number of papers you have to reference, but it gives your thesis a feeling of quality by association. It shows that you have some standards and appreciation for good research.

Say why that work matters, and you help to justify your own.

6. Where are the gaps?

Once you’ve talked about the best work in the field, what gaps in the knowledge remain?

This is where you introduce your work:

Although giant strides have been made in recent years in the field of …, there remains an open question as to …

The work described in the following chapters attempts to …

7. Tying it up and introducing the next chapter

Your introductory chapter needs a conclusion, but it also needs to set up a sense of anticipation. You want the examiner to want to read the rest of your thesis (or at least the next chapter).

So it’s good to summarise the general principles you have just introduced, state a problem or question that needs an answer (and why it matters in relation to the general aims of your research field), and give a quick hint of how the next chapter will help to answer that question.

If man-made nanostructures are to follow a similar path [to nature], exploiting guided self-assembly to rapidly form functional structures, we must study both the physics of structure formation at the nanoscale and the influence of structure on function, specifically optical and electronic properties.

Scanning probe techniques provide a versatile means of characterisation of these structures.

Specifically, scanning near-field optical microscopy (SNOM)
provides a means of optical characterisation with resolutions beyond the classical diffraction limit, in parallel with topographic information. These techniques, along with synchrotron based spectroscopy to probe deeper into the
electronic properties of nanostructured assemblies, will be discussed in the following chapters.

Does this structure work?

My examiner wrote in his report that the first chapter of my thesis was one of the best introductions to the subject he had ever read, including those published in the literature.

I was never a particularly good physicist, compared to some of the people I have worked with. But first impressions count, and introductions matter.