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: opening with a strong abstract, title and keywords

The first thing fellow researchers read when they find your paper are the title and the abstract. They find your paper, often, by typing keywords into a database or search engine that match words in your title, abstract or keyword list. It is thus really important to spend time crafting these aspects of your paper carefully, as time spent getting them right pays dividends in the visibility of your work in keyword searches within your field.

Titles and keywords

To begin with, your paper needs a clear, descriptive and relevant title. Usually you have about 15-20 words for a title (check with the author guidelines of the journal you have targeted), and about 4-6 key words.

A first, useful, rule of thumb is to use all of these words strategically: don’t repeat words you use in the title in the list of keywords, and avoid acronyms, even well-known ones. Use the keywords to highlight elements of your argument or paper not referenced in the title. So, you really have a maximum of about 25-30 words to play with.

To begin with the title, a good starting place is to look at the title of papers you are referencing, and have enjoyed reading. What about the title caught your attention? The better paper titles indicate both what the paper is about, and something of the contribution the paper is making to the field. They are, therefore, relatively descriptive. They should be, really, because titles that are obscure, or only obliquely connected to the content of the paper will put readers off. Further, titles that try to be too catchy or clever may not contain the kinds of words researchers will type into search engines, resulting in your work being too far down the list (be honest, how often do you search past page 4 of Google Scholar?). Your work will be missed, and that would be a great shame considering all the work that went into publishing it.

A useful tool for crafting a title that balances a bit of catchiness with relevance and contribution is the subtitle. For example: ‘When arts meets enterprise: Transdisciplinarity, student identities, and EAP’ or ‘Chloroform fumigation and the release of soil nitrogen: A rapid direct extraction method to measure microbial biomass nitrogen in soil’. The first title marries a bit of fun with a focus on what the paper is about; the second uses the subtitle to indicate a method that the researchers are using to explore the phenomenon mentioned before the colon. Subtitles can also be used to sharpen the focus of your title, to create a limit or boundary to your research, to add additional context, or to expand on the scope of your research (See this article, and this one, for useful advice on title creation).

Use your list of keywords to add to the title: mention, for example, a key methodological tool (e.g. action research, or regression analysis) that researchers might be interested on, or the theory you have used (e.g. constructivism, or social realism), or key thinkers you draw on (e.g. Karl Marx, or John Rawls), and finally on the parts of your field the paper references that the title doesn’t mention (e.g. disability studies, or political theory). This should ensure good visibility for your published paper.

The abstract

The abstract, after the title, is the first thing researchers read of your paper. Often, given the current system of paywalls and needing access to databases or your library’s holding to find the full paper, it is the only thing people can read to decide whether they want to pay for it, or search harder for the free version. So, it is really important to craft a clear, persuasive abstract that makes them want to read more.

Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson helpfully refer to the abstract as ‘the Tiny Text’: all of the relevant parts of your paper have to be in your abstract, in much abbreviated form, i.e. the focus of your paper, the argument it makes, the methodology, the main findings and the significance of those findings for your field. This is a tough ask when you often have only around 150-200 words for the average abstract.

A useful tool I learnt at a workshop from Lucia Thesen, and now use with postgraduate writers in my courses, is ‘the fairytale’. It goes like this, with you taking two sentences or so to complete each line.

  • Once upon a time people thought that…
  • But then I/we thought that…
  • So what I/we did was…
  • And what I/we found was…
  • This may change the way people think about…

This helps you create a gentle, narrative story about your paper, covering the main aspects of the abstract – the area of research you are locating your study within, the gap you have located, the way in which your research was conducted, your major findings, and what contribution your research could make to your field (related to the problem you are responding to).

Then you can recraft this into a more formal abstract, using Pat Thomson’s basic structure as a guide:

• ….. is now a significant issue (in/for).. because…. . ( Expand by up to one sentence if necessary)
• In this paper I focus on …..
• The paper draws on ( I draw on) findings from a study of… which used…… in order to show that….. (expand through additional sentences)
• The paper argues that….
• It concludes (I conclude) by suggesting that…

A useful thing to do is to read carefully the abstracts of the papers you are citing, and critique them against this basic guide: do you understand why this research has been done, and what it aims to achieve? Do you understand how it has been done and what the main findings are? Do you have a sense of what the research contributes to the field? It is interesting, and well-written? If any of these elements are missing, consider how the abstract could have been better written for you, as the reader/researcher. Then apply this reflection to your own abstract. Think about your readers carefully, and what they need to know to understand what your paper is arguing, where this argument fits into the field of research it is concerned with, how the research was conducted and what it found, and why the research matters. (See this article for useful advice on abstracts).

You should start your paper writing process with drafts of your title and abstract, to give you focus and a direction for the paper as a whole. But these drafts should be carefully revised again at the end, when your paper is finalised, to ensure that they are connected, and that the title, abstract and added keywords best reflect your research, and get it noticed, read, and hopefully cited.

Iterativity in postgraduate writing: making peace with the mess

Lovely husband and I were talking recently about a workshop we both attended on postgraduate study, and our respective conversations with our own postgraduate students about what postgraduate study involves them in, specifically the over-and-over again nature of the reading, writing and thinking. Iterativity, we concluded, is the name of the game at this level, and in post-doctoral academic research; yet, it is an aspect of working at this level that produces much frustration, self-doubt and struggle.

Ernest Hemingway famously said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’. He was, certainly in my experience, right. If you look up writing advice on Pinterest, you will find many soundbites to inspire you; for example: ‘First drafts  don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be written’, ‘A crappy first draft is worth more than a non-existent one’, and writing first drafts as being like ‘shoveling sand into a box so that later [you] can build sandcastles’.  There is truth in all of these inspirational tips: first drafts are messy things: often incoherent in parts, full of both useful and useless information, lacking a proper focus. But, they are where we start any writing, and the key word here is ‘start’: writing is a non-linear, often chaotic, process, where we learn as we write, and our thinking develops with each round of feedback and revision.

This ‘logic of discovery’ is at odds, though, with the ‘logic of dissemination’ that we display in our finished thesis: the iterative process that produces the thesis is hidden from the view of the reader, as they are presented with our neat, polished, coherent argument. Many postgraduate students start their thesis process believing that these two logics are the same: that you start with Chapter 1, and the process unfolds neatly and logically from there. They become frustrated, then, when this turns out to be a lie:  when the truth is multiple drafts and mistakes, time spent writing paragraphs or pages of writing that have to be deleted when they are no longer relevant, and sometimes unexpected changes to your research questions, theory or methodology as the project evolves. This frustration can breed self-doubt if not carefully managed through supervision: many students believe that the more drafts you have to write, the worse you are as a writer; so many students I have met erroneously believe that the best writers don’t write that many drafts, and don’t make that many mistakes or revisions.

The opposite is the truth. The more successful writers, and postgraduate students, have learned to embrace the chaos and the frustration; they have learned to manage a balance between having a clear research plan and letting that process evolve so that they can still be surprised by what they find, or learn, as they write and work the data. This is a hard thing to do, live in a space where you know probably less than you don’t know, and where you have to be okay with the not-knowing, and move willingly between knowing and not-knowing over and over as your research moves forwards. This requires not just mental fortitude, but emotional resilience.

Researching and writing a thesis feels, at times, as if you are on a many-roaded route, trying to keep your eye on the GPS when it’s giving you more than one possible route and asking you to choose the best one to get you to your destination within minimal traffic and in good time. You may choose one route, and then find halfway you’ve made an error in judgement, and then choose to turnoff, and take a back road back to the main route you were on. There may be unexpected detours that the GPS didn’t know about and so couldn’t warn you of. You may feel like you are going around in circles at some points, and in a lovely, free-flowing straight line at others. A research degree, especially a PhD, represents a long road, with several possible routes to your destination. And it’s not a straight line. You may have to re-drive parts of the route at times, or try out different parts of the route than you expected to. But, if you try to trust the process, and make peace with taking your time and living with a bit of mess and non-linear chaos, you will hopefully get to your destination in one piece, and with a really good understanding of the area you’ve been driving around and around.

In research terms, this means getting more comfortable with the iterative nature of research, writing, and thinking. You cannot expect to write a chapter once, and be done. And you can’t expect to read something once and fully understand it, especially if it’s pivotal to your project, like theory. Writing multiple drafts, making mistakes, including knowledge and reading you don’t need along with that which you do, and making revisions that improve your writing, further your thinking and push your research forward is part and parcel of valuable, challenging postgraduate study that makes you a more capable researcher. Doing worthwhile research that pushes your field forward will require you to have a really firm understanding of that field, and the place your research can occupy within it. This means getting a bit lost sometimes, but having the means (through supervisors, peers, reading) to find your way onto your route again.

Terry Pratchett’s soundbite on first drafts is my favourite: ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story’. If you see your thesis as a story, evolving as the characters and plot take shape, and as the twists and turns reveal themselves through working with theory, methodology, data and analysis, it can be easier to embrace that uncertainty, and iterative rounds of writing, feedback, revision, and rewriting that push your research, and you as a researcher, forward. You start by telling yourself, and move to telling your supervisors, examiners and finally your wider audience – and you make a contribution that is valued and relevant. It won’t happen in a nice, linear way, but the depth of knowledge you gain, of your field and the research process, will be worth all the ‘driving’ in the end.

Paper writing: effective conclusions

This is the second post in the Paper Writing series: the first on Introductions is here. This post deals with the opposite end of the paper: conclusions. 

Conclusions, for me, are the hardest part of paper writing. I really struggle to pull all the strands of the paper together in a coherent, punchy closing paragraph or two. Part of this struggle, I think, stems from how I was taught to write conclusions in my undergraduate study. I was taught that you need to start with the phrase ‘To conclude/in conclusion/to sum up’ or similar, and then proceed to summarise the ‘body’ of the essay by restating the main claim and then the main ideas of each paragraph. Although most essays asked us to make an argument, we were not taught to consider the relevance or significance of that argument for our audience. In fact, I was never explicitly told to consider an audience for my work (beyond my tutor or lecturer) until I was a Masters student.

This ‘summarise and restate’ version of conclusion stays with many students as they move into postgraduate study, largely because of the dearth of focused writing education and support at postgraduate level; once students are registered for an MA, or PhD especially, we assume they can write effectively in these forms and at these levels. This obviously needs to change if we are going to graduate more successful postgraduate students, and at PhD level graduate more able researchers, writers and future supervisors.

The papers and dissertations we write at postgraduate level – PhD and postdoctoral in particular – have to make a contribution to knowledge in our fields; they have to say something relatively new, interesting and relevant to our audience. But, we can’t just leave it to that audience to work out what that contribution is or why they should care about it. Our papers have to answer the ‘So What?’ question clearly, and effectively. (Actually, all papers have to do this from first year onwards, but this has different implications for a first year student writing for a tutor, and a researcher writing for a wider audience of their professional peers in the field). If you don’t have an answer, you don’t have an argument. The Introduction to the paper is where we posit the argument, and where it fits into this field of ours, but the Conclusion is where we really get into what the argument of the paper is and what contribution it makes to the field – in other words, why it matters and should be engaged with  by readers.

Rather than summarising the restating the thesis and summarising the main ideas of the paper, the conclusion needs to be focused on discussing the point of the argument the paper has been made, and its implications for the area of the field you have located your research within. It needs to pull all the strands of your paper together, which are connected like links in chain, and close the paper off with clarity. If you are, for example, writing about a new form of evaluation of teaching practice, or a new way of creating energy from biomass, your conclusion should explore what meaning or relevance this form of evaluation or method of energy creation potentially has for the field – your audience – and could perhaps make recommendations, or posit areas for further research and development, building on your work.

Useful questions to guide this writing could include:

  • what is the argument my paper has made? Write it down in as couple of clear sentences.
  • on what basis have I made this argument? Briefly pull together the main forms of evidence – from the literature and data – that you have discussed and used to support this argument.
  • why have I made this argument? Briefly summarise the reasons behind your research – the gap in the field you located and are seeking to fill.
  • who would benefit from engaging with this argument, why should they engage with it, how? Talk to your readers here – tell them what the significance of your argument is to the research and/or practice you imagine they are engaged in, and why this research you have done matters to your shared endeavours.
  • do I have any recommendations for further research that builds on this research and what are they? Briefly, indicate how this argument could be furthered through new, or cumulative research.

The main point here is that you are avoiding the ‘restate and summarise’ version of the conclusion, and you are aiming for a clear, concise, pointed answer to the ‘So what?’ question. You need to show your readers why your argument matters, and remind them, without doing a point by point summary, of how and why you made your argument and are engaged in this research. They should be longer than one short, limp paragraph – a decent conclusion is at least 10 of the total word budget for your paper. Read the conclusions of papers in the field in which you work, preferably those by authors who are regarded as successful and knowledgeable. See if you can find the moves they make in their writing to convince you of the relevance of their argument, and replicate these in your own writing, Share your writing with peers and ask them if they can see the same moves in your drafts.

Conclusions are hard work, but strong, clear conclusion will stay with your reader and make your paper both useful and memorable.

Strategic reading: filling gaps in your writing

Reading: it’s a tough subject for postgraduate students. I have written here, here, and here about reading – how much to read, what to read, how to find reading you need to do. In this post I want to think a bit about strategic reading: reading to fill certain gaps in your writing, or to add additional or necessary authority to claims you are making.

This kind of reading is, I think, a little bit controversial. This is mainly because it doesn’t always require you to read the whole of every paper you are planning to include on your paper or chapter. This kind of reading could be considered a cheat code of sorts. In gaming, cheat codes (as my sons have led me to understand) enable you to take certain shortcuts through the game, circumventing tough sections that may wipe you out otherwise. The kind of strategic reading I am talking about here is a writing cheat code. It enables you to add to your writing without necessarily spending hours doing additional reading.

cheat codes

*There is an important caveat here though: this kind of reading can only be used effectively under particular conditions. It cannot be used to replace deep, sustained and considered reading that gets you into your field, introduces you to theory, empirical research, the thinkers you will be ‘conversing’ and ‘debating’ with in your own research and writing.*

Now that I have added that caveat, let me explain how I think this tool works, and how and when it could help you. There are two common scenarios in which I use strategic reading:

1. I am writing a paper with two colleagues on the ways in which tutors use different forms of questions to structure conversations with student writers in a university writing centre. They have actually written the first draft, and I have come in to edit, add to and reshape it, before they have another go. Several of the cited sources are older, and if I was the paper’s reviewer I would certainly be suggesting that we bring the reading material up to date, as there is more recent research that we could cite, that would add to our paper. But, I don’t actually have time to re-read 10 papers right now, all of which I have actually read at some point over the past few years. I have a basic sense of where I could add particular points or authority in the form of sources cited. I am thus using this cheat code: selective strategic reading.

reading 1

Basically, I am finding papers in my archive that speak about some of the issues we are touching on in the paper. I am them skimming these until I see key words or phrases, and I am reading around these, to see if a) what the author is writing about is useful, and b) if I can add it to the paper as a useful reference that adds authority to our argument, and also extends it in productive ways. I am only reading parts of these papers, some of which I recall well, and others which are a little more vague. I am using my judgement here to see how much re-reading I need to do, and I have to be careful not to take what the author is saying out of context just to suit my purposes.

This is a potential catch of this cheat code: by not reading the whole paper, I may inadvertently claim that the author has written something that supports my argument, when they actually meant something else. But, because I am only selecting papers I have already read, and that do actually connect with the argument I am making, this risk is largely mitigated.

2. I used a different kind of strategic reading tool in writing a paper I published last year, for which I was on a very tight deadline (hence less time for long periods of deep and thoughtful reading for every part of the literature review): gap filling. Here, what I did was work put very carefully exactly what the gap in my contextual framework was, and what I needed by way of literature to fill it. I needed a few tight, clear paragraphs on academic staff development, in particular how new staff members are mentored in higher education. I then ran a focused Google Scholar search for people I know have written about this, and found 6 or 7 authoritative studies/papers. I read the whole of each of these papers, but with my eye on my argument so that I was really pulling out pieces of what they were writing about that would help me fill my gap effectively. I made limited and focused summaries in my reading journal, rather than my usual general summaries, with a focus on my paper at the end thereof.

reading 2

This gap filling strategy works best when you know what you need to write about and you have a basic structure worked out, because then you can see the gaps, and choose only what you have to read to fill them. If you have a good sense of what the gaps are, you can focus better on a few key readings, or writers/theorists, and not worry overly much about not having read everything on that topic. Usually within a few papers, with reading notes, you can start to see the gap filling up, and you can learn to judge when you have read enough or need to keep going. It does require a measure of confidence, and knowledge of your field, but usually when you get to writing papers you are on your way to this.

If you are using these kinds of strategic reading cheat codes in an MA or PhD, they would probably work best towards the end of the thesis, when you are going back, connecting chapters, creating overall coherence, and ensuring that the argument you have ended up making by the conclusion is well supported by the earlier contextual and conceptual literature you have cited. Using these tools early on in a research project is not advisable: cheat codes are usually only useful, in gaming and in writing, when you know where you are going, but just need a little extra help in getting there a bit more efficiently than otherwise.