I'm currently struggling to structure and organize my "related work" chapter of my PhD thesis.

I've stumbled across the terms "related work", "background", "preliminaries" and "state of the art". Mainly, I understand that some deal with established knowledge that is being taught in textbooks, and which is the technological base for my work (e.g., elliptic curve (EC) cryptography and digital signatures to protect communication among servers). The other deal with the most recent academic state of the art, e.g., novel communication protocols based on elliptic curves.

It's also clear to me, that I need to differentiate my work by having contributions which go beyond the state of the art, and which differ from related work.

Hoever, I struggle to realted this terms, and to make up a meaningful chapter outline.

I was thinking of:

Background and related work chapter

  1. Background and preliminaries
    • Technology X
    • Technology Y
    • Technology Z
  2. Related work and state of the art
    • Overall related work to the kind of system I build
    • Overall related work to sub-aspect A
    • Overall related work to sub-aspect B
    • Overall related work to sub-aspect C
    • Difference to related work and state of the art

Can anyone help me clarify the relation of these terms, or hint me to page clarifying them? Also suggestions regarding my outline would be welcome.

2 Answers 2


Every scientific work needs to establish its context. What exactly you name the sections and how you organize them in order to present this context is less important, so long as you give the reader a good roadmap to understanding how your work fits into the larger intellectual environment.

Personally, I find that references tend to cluster into a few distinct groups:

  • Motivation of the work and the foundations that it builds upon
  • Contrasting to the works of others that do not accomplish the same goals, showing that you are aware of them and that your work is novel.
  • Justification of assertions
  • Pointers to methods that have been used

The first two are what typically ends up in a related work / background / whatever section, while the other two more typically end up embedded in other prose where they end up being relevant.

Given this, your proposed structure seems basically sane, though of course the details can't be determined without knowing the details of your work. The most important thing, I would say, is that if you end up with a very large and complex chapter (as often happens in a thesis), to make sure that you give the reader a good map to help them navigate it.


I would recommend to split this in two chapters. Preliminaries and State of the Art.

Preliminaries contains the basics, standards, established research, things you learn from text books. What you call technological base.

State of the Art is more recent research, these are other approaches to which you compare your research. This helps the reader to know in which current area your research is situated.

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