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.

22 thoughts on “Leaving your thesis introduction till last? It could be a mistake…”

  1. Hi James,

    Thanks for posting this very useful article. I’m nearly finishing writing my thesis. I wrote the introduction first (of course as a draft), and then rest of the chapters (my chapter structure is chronological). I’m now going to start writing the conclusion and then go back to the introduction for modification and fine-tuning.

    I got a very useful advice from your article regarding setting up the context, introduction, its relevance, importance, and yes totally agree, keeping the readers interested. Will try my best to get that all in my introduction.


  2. Half way through writing my PhD thesis I felt lost…that’s how I ended up here. You give very helpful guidelines…thanks a lot!

  3. Hi. i’m currently working on my thesis. i still dont know what my first sentences should be. i dont know how to start it up. pls do notice me cause i need it so bad

  4. Dear James,

    I am just starting to write my PhD thesis, I am looking the way to write the thesis…
    You suggest to write the introduction first because whole picture of PhD work are in front …

    Please guide me the sequence of the chapters which I will write first and then sequential order..


  5. thank you for this advice. and could kindly cite the sup titles under the introduction that might help me more. thanks

  6. Pingback: How to write a F***ing awesome PhD thesis | The Three Month Thesis
  7. Quick question:
    How many readers should I ask to proof read my thesis?
    I’m quite worried about the mistakes that skip my eye, but as more people read it and suggest changes, the higher the probability of introducing new mistakes will be.
    My advisor is currently reading the chapters, but maybe I should ask one or more people to read it as well? (I feel bad to take the time of people to read my crap! :p )

    And second question, it would be great if you could write a post about defense as well. How to prepare engaging slides and the rest.


  8. I could not agree more with you James. I wrote my first chapter in my first year and over the years, I refined it. Of course, in the end, it does not look like the first draft that I wrote in my first year, but it has more “texture” too it.

  9. I wrote my first chapter first precisely for the reasons you gave.
    It was demotivating at times but it helped set the tone for the rest of the thesis.

    As an aside, my first intro draft was written in a style similar to your examples. I got hell from my supervisor and had to rewrite it in a ‘formal’ way. What read easily, at least to me and my less geeky friends, became a stodgy, pompous piece of writing, at least to me.

    Perhaps you can write an article on what is ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ writing from your perspective.

  10. I actually wrote my introduction first because I know that I am not good with writing. So, doing it first gives me the chance to keep on improving it until it is good. Yes, you are right that, some times, we do not know the whole picture yet.. so as I went along, I changed it here and there a number of times, until everything is clear. Not only it was a good practice for me, it is also an exercise in understanding the sequence of my experiments and the overall findings. Yes, it is true that doing it last will make it a bit of a rush. I agree.

  11. I would read a thesis like journal articles
    Abstract > Conclusions
    if interested, Intro > Discussion
    if still interested, Methods

    • But would an examiner read it that way?

      They have to read the whole thing, so you’d better hope that they are still interested!

      • Whatever the reason, this is almost what thesis examiners have reported to my graduate school as well, except that they also read the references straight up. If they are familiar with your field its a quick way to know if you have covered the literature (and covered their important contributions!)

  12. Thanks for these guidelines. Even though it is far too late for me to start with writing the introduction, I can still use most of your tips that (by the way) sound quite logical..(;

  13. Hi James.
    I’m in the process of writing at the moment and had decided to leave my introduction till the end. If you warn against this, what would you suggest should be the chapter written?

    • I would always say write what you can finish. If you can’t finish it, do whatever else you need to first.

      It’s not a disaster to write the intro last, but it shouldn’t be written as a hasty afterthought.

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