Concluding the thesis

I am co-supervising a PhD student who is handing in her thesis for examination in November. She is currently revising her whole thesis, working towards the conclusion (and finally, the introduction). Conclusions can be tricky things to write – pulling something as big as a PhD dissertation together into a final, clear chapter is not easy. It is both an intellectual and an emotional challenge, as conclusion-writing comes towards the very end of the process, and you are so tired, and probably feeling like there are no more coherent words or sentences in your brain. This post reflects a little on what a thesis conclusion is for, with some thoughts on how to construct one that does justice to your meisterwerk.

pulling ideas together

To begin with, let’s think a bit about what conclusions are for in a piece of written work. In undergraduate studies, students are typically taught that conclusions are summaries. You restate the thesis, or main claim, of your paper, reiterate what each paragraph has said that contributes to that argument, and then bring it all together with a firm final sentence or two that says something about the relevance of the paper, or argument. There should be no new information, just a summing up of what has already been said. Sometimes you are allowed recommendations, depending on the discipline. It makes sense, then, that we progress into postgraduate studies believing that we are writing summaries whenever we conclude (a paper, or a journal article, or a thesis). I have seen many conclusions like this in postgraduate, postdoctoral and early career writing. But, unfortunately, at these levels conclusions that merely summarise a paper the reader has just read are not adequate, or suitable. A shift is needed.

As Pat Thomson usefully argues in this post about writing a thesis conclusion, the conclusion to a thesis (or journal article) is not a summary of the whole. The summary part of a thesis conclusion should ideally be quite brief, and used rather as a springboard to the real work of the conclusion: using the preceding writing and research to show how the study has addressed the research questions, and in so doing, how it has made a valid, and useful, contribution to knowledge.

A strong conclusion shows your readers what your research means within the context of the field you have referenced in your ‘literature review’, and how in answering your research questions you have been able to speak back to this body of research in which you have located your own study. It answers your research questions, succinctly and clearly, so that your readers understand the overall claims of your study, the focus of your argument, the basis upon which you have advanced your argument, and the significance, meaning or value of that argument to your (their) field. It discusses – argues – for the place of your research within your field, and the contribution it is making.

arrows direction

There are a few ways in which you can approach writing such a conclusion (and Pat’s post above is very helpful here). There are also a few guidelines to consider in writing this vital part of your thesis.

To begin with, you do need to bring your reader up to speed with the thesis thus far. Examiners and other readers are unlikely to read your whole PhD in one go, so ending each chapter with a brief summary, and starting the next one with a short section that connects the present chapter to the previous one is a good idea for creating coherent connections between chapters, and is helpful for your readers. Thus, you should begin your conclusion with an overview, or brief summary, of the argument thus far.

Then, consider your research questions: what did you set out to do in this project or study? Your research questions could make useful sub-headings here, at least in a first draft, to help you organise your thoughts. Starting here, you can begin to pull out the answers you have found (in the ‘analysis chapter/s’) so that you can discuss the implications of your findings, their relevance in relation to your overall argument, and the way in which what you have found relates to the body of research to which you have connected your study. No new information: just an analytical discussion of selected aspects of your findings that are useful for answering your research questions, and further consolidating your argument.

Perhaps you have recommendations, on the basis of your findings and their implications for practice, and/or further research. You could include a section on these, discussing a step further the possible implications of your research in relation to your field. Something else that may be relevant to include here could be limitations to the size or scope of your findings: are there any that your readers need to know about, so that they don’t expect your study to have done something other than what it has done? Don’t just list all the things you could have done but didn’t do: think carefully about pertinent limitations that may represent counter-arguments you could defend or mitigate against.

At the end of the end, consider your argument again: what has your thesis claimed and to what end? Try to end your thesis with a paragraph that reiterates not just what your thesis has argued, but WHY this argument has relevance, or import, for your readers. What do you hope the outcome of your research will be? Why are you so passionate about it, and why do you think others should care too? Read a few thesis conclusions to get a sense of different ways of doing this, and check out Pat Thomson’s posts on conclusion writing, too. Then write a draft and share it with your supervisor for feedback.

It’s worth really taking your time and not rushing this chapter, even as it comes at the end when you are tired, and really just want to be done. End on the highest note you can: you owe yourself that much after all your hard work getting there.

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Paper writing V: answering the ‘so what?’ question

Writing papers for publication means making and supporting strong arguments. This is hard work: making a firm, well-crafted and persuasive argument takes time. But this time is worth taking because this is the most important aspect of your paper. Without a strong argument, you do not have a contribution to knowledge. And if you don’t have that, you don’t have a publishable paper.

Making arguments is not necessarily as simply as just saying ‘This paper will argue that’, and then making that argument. You also need to locate the argument within the field it is making a contribution to. You need to show your readers why your argument is relevant, or important, and worth their time and attention. This is what is often termed the ‘so what?’ question.

If you have ever tutored, lectured or coached other writers, where you have had to read and give feedback on drafts of their writing, you may have some experience of working with this tricky question, and its answers. You are reading a draft of a paper and you get to the end, and it has been full of interesting information, but you wonder ‘So what? Why have I read all of this? What’s the point?’

The first part of the answer to the ‘so what?’ question of this is the actual argument: ‘This paper is claiming that X is the case…’. It takes time to whittle down all the things you could write about to one tight, well-formed argument you can express in one or two clear sentences. But simply making your argument on its own is not enough. If all you do is make your argument, without considering why you are making it, you run the risk of locking your research into a potentially narrow context, and thus limiting your readership. You need to think about your readers, your audience: who are they? What do you need to consider in terms of making your (focused) argument relevant to them? What would they be able to learn, or gain in terms of their own potential research (or practice)?

In asking, and findings answers to, these questions about relevance you can find your way to answering the second part of the ‘so what?’ question: ‘Why am I making this argument? What is my contribution to my field?’ This is really important, and usually included firmly in the conclusion to your paper. It is important to make this clear, and argue for the relevance of your paper to the field, because this clarifies for the reader how you believe you are making a contribution to knowledge, and why you believe this contribution is relevant or necessary. You make this claim on the basis of your reading of the field, your identification of a gap that needs to be filled, and the research you have done to fill this gap.

Thus, there are two parts to the ‘so what?’ question and both need to be clearly answered in your paper. You need to state, and make your argument, and then you need to tell your readers why that argument needs to be made, and what your research is contributing to your field: a critique, an innovation in theory or methodology, an additional empirical case that explains a current problem in a new way, and so on. To answer both parts of this question in your own papers, then, make sure you ask yourself what am I arguing for (or against) in this paper, and why is this important to my field at this point? Answering both, clearly, will help you ensure that your contribution to your field is well made.

Paper writing IV: analysing data

One of the trickiest areas for researchers working with data – either primary or secondary (data you have generated in ‘the field’, or that gleaned from texts etc) – is the analysis of that data. It can be a significant challenge to move from redescribing findings, observations or results, to showing the reader what these mean in the context of the argument that is being made, and the field into which the research fits. There are a few moves that need to be made in constructing an analysis, and these will be unpacked in this post.

Often, in empirical research, we make our contribution to knowledge in our field through the data we generate, and analyse. Especially in the social sciences, we take well-known theories and established methodologies and use these to look at new cases – adding incrementally to the body of knowledge in our field. Thus, analysis is a really important thing to get right: if all we do is describe our data, without indicating how it adds to knowledge in useful ways, what kind of contribution will we be making? How will our research really benefit peers and fellow researchers? After all, we don’t write papers just to get published. We conduct research and publish it so that our work can influence and shape the work of others, even in small ways. We write and publish to join a productive conversation about the research we are doing, and to connect our research with other research, and knowledge.

data 1

How to make a contribution to knowledge that really counts, though?

First things first, you can’t use all your data in one paper (or even in one thesis). You will need to choose the most relevant data and use it to further illustrate and consolidate your argument. But how do you make this choice – what data should you use, and why? The key tool used to make all the choices in a paper (or thesis) – from relevant literature, to methodology and methods, to data for analysis – is the argument you are making. You need to have, in one or two sentences, a very clear argument (sometimes referred to as a problem statement, or a main claim). In essence, whatever you call it, this is the central point of your paper. To make this point, succinctly and persuasively, you need to craft, section by section, support for this argument, so that you reader believes it to be valid and worth engaging with.

So, you have worked out your argument in succinct form, and have chosen relevant section of data that you feel best make or illustrate that argument. Now what? In the analysis section, you are making your data mean something quite specific: you are not just telling us what the data says (we can probably work that out from reading the quotes or excerpts you are including in the paper). To make meaning through analysis, you need to connect the specific with the general. By this I mean that your data is specific – to your research problem and your consequent choice of case study, or experiment, or archival search and so on. It tells us something about a small slice of the world. But, if all we did in our papers was describe small slices of the world, we would all be doing rather isolated or disconnected research. This would defeat the aim of research to build knowledge, and forge connections between fields, countries, studies and so on. Thus, we have to use our specific data to speak back to a more general or broader phenomenon or conversation.

data 2

The best, and most accepted way, of making meaning of your data is through theorising. To begin theorising your data, you need to start by asking yourself: What does this data mean? Are these meanings valid, and why? There are different kinds of theory, of course, and too many to go into here, but the main thing to consider in ‘theorising’ your data is that you need a point of reference against which to critically think about and discuss your data: you need to be able to connect the specifics of your data with a relevant general phenomenon, explanation, frame of reference, etc. You don’t necessarily need a big theory, like constructivism or social realism; you could simply have a few connected concepts, like ‘reflection’, ‘learning’ and ‘practice’ for example; but you do need a way of lifting your discussion out of the common sense, descriptive realm into the critical, analytical realm that shows that reader why and how the data support your argument, and add knowledge to your field.

Analysis and theorising data is an iterative process, whether you are working qualitatively or quantitatively. It can be difficult, confusing, and take time. This is par for the course: a strong, well-supported analysis should take time. Don’t worry if you can’t make the chosen data make sense in the first go: you may well need to read, and re-read your data, and write several drafts of this section of the paper (preferably with critical feedback) before you can be confident of your analysis. But don’t settle for the quick-fix, thin analysis that draft one might produce. Keep at it, and strive for a stronger, more influential contribution to your field. In the long run, it’ll be worth more to you,to your peers, and to your field.

The relationship between your research question and your argument

In the last post I wrote about research problems, and working out one that is the right size and shape for the scope of your project and level of study. In this post, I want to go a step further, and reflect a little on research questions, and the relationship between your research questions and your argument, and how to think about building your argument from the start.

In the workshops I have been facilitating with postgraduate students, all of whom are in the early stages of their projects, it has become clear that they have research problems, and questions, but are still struggling to a) pin these down into a manageable project the right shape and size for their level of study and time available; and b) separate (yet also connect) their research questions from their proposed argument.

(b) is a tricky thing to do early on in an MA or PhD – how do you really know what your argument is if you haven’t even done the research yet? I didn’t really know clearly what my argument actually was until I had finished the research – generated and analysed the data and considered what kinds of answers I had found in response to my research questions. But I had a sense of where I was trying to go. Working out a basic, ‘holding’ line of argument, and clear research questions that can reasonably be answered within your proposed timeframe and project scope is important to work on at this early stage for two main reasons.

Clear strategy and leadership solutionsThe first is so that you have a track to stay on when you start  reading, sharing your work, getting feedback and so on. Having a sense of the point of your project can limit the risks of  being pulled in different, potentially confusing directions, especially by reading and other people’s responses to your early thinking. This track may shift and change shape a bit, but you need to try and argue for what your proposal says you will argue for, so having a basic idea of what that argument could be, even if it starts off a little more fuzzy and ill-defined than it will be at the end, is helpful.

golden-threadThe second reason for creating a line of argument refers to the golden thread I have written about here. The questions you ask, and the argument that you propose as the answer to these questions, will guide the rest of the work you do on your thesis. You choose conceptual tools and build your theoryology in order to create a framework within which the argument can be built; you create a methodology, and choose a research design and methods in line with the theoryology and the research questions and proposed argument; and you analyse your data within the bounds set by these frameworks, so that you can actually refine and strengthen your overall argument. Thus, having a fairly clear sense of what this golden thread will comprise, and how it will pull through the different parts of your argument-building process, is also important.

Your argument is your original contribution to knowledge in your field, at PhD more than an MA level. It is the answer, more or less, to your research questions. It is the most important part of your research. You may well find that it is difficult to pin down in a concise few sentences, in your proposal or early on, exactly what your argument is. You may only find this emerging from your research as it progresses, and your thinking deepens. If you have followed a more linear research process (theory, then methods, then data, then analysis, then pulling it all together) you might find it easier to see your argument, your contribution, from early on. If you have started somewhere in the middle, with data, and are moving back and forth to build your theoryology and methodology around the data, your argument might be more fuzzy and difficult to pin down.

The point is, though, that your argument is there, and that pulling it out and jotting it down, at various points, is a useful exercise. Ask yourself: ‘What is the point of my research? What am I trying to say here?‘ Write down what you think the point of your research is on post-its and stick them up where you work. Rewrite these every few months and update them, even if the changes seem small.  A workshop I went to during my PhD encouraged us to come up with a haiku to capture the contribution we thought our research could be making (this was actually pretty spot on, and fun to do, so it’s worth a try). Keep a research journal, and make a point of checking in every few months on what claims you are making, and how these might be slowly becoming more refined, sharper, and possibly changed.

At the end of your research project, at whatever level you are working, and whether you are writing a paper, a book or a dissertation, you need to have found an answer to the question that started the research process in the first place. This answer is your argument, and it is what will make that contribution to your field, whether bigger or smaller. This is your voice, joining the conversation, and you want it to be a loud, and clear, and relevant as possible. Taking some time, throughout your research process, to make notes on what that argument is shaping up to be is a useful way of keeping yourself on track with your research aims, and spinning that golden thread as you go.