by Cally Guerin
Working with a student who was in the final throes of completing his thesis, I was recently reminded about the importance of writing conclusions. This can be a very challenging part of thesis writing, particularly as it comes at the point when the PhD candidate is often exhausted by the whole process of the research degree, feeling under enormous pressure to meet deadlines, and even heartily sick of the topic.
The final concluding chapter of a PhD thesis is often surprisingly short – sometimes no more than 6-10 pages. Perhaps this reflects some of the exhaustion mentioned above, but it is important to remember that the conclusion plays a crucial role for the reader in reflecting back on the entire project. Of course, in the case of a thesis, the ‘readers’ are the examiners, so this is a high-stakes moment for the doctoral writer. Mullins and Kiley (2002) make it very clear that it is dangerous for an examiner to reach the end of the thesis and feel unsure what it was all about. The concluding chapter needs to make it impossible to miss the main findings about what this thesis is contributing to knowledge in the discipline, explicitly stating and drawing attention to the central message of the whole project.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, the conclusion needs to match the introduction of the thesis, like a pair of book-ends. It can be very helpful to go back to the original aims/objectives/hypotheses as outlined at the beginning of the thesis to show how each of the research questions set up at the beginning has now been answered. Repeating those initial questions in the conclusion can structure the discussion in ways that make it easy for the reader/examiner to see that the research has indeed achieved what it set out to do. Depending on the disciplinary conventions, presenting the aims or questions as numbered statements or dot points – as a kind of checklist – can highlight that each of these points has been addressed and completed.
In situations where the thesis is presented as a collection of articles, the conclusion is even more important in its power to bring together the findings of the project into a coherent, unified whole. Even though each article/chapter has its own conclusion (sometimes this might be just the last paragraph of the Discussion section, depending on the requirements of the intended journal), the conclusion of the thesis needs to do meta-level work on top of summarising the findings.
This is the moment in every thesis to address the implications of those findings – the ‘so what?’ part of the process. What does it all mean? Why does it matter? Finally, after all that work, it becomes clear where the whole argument is going to end up.
In the process of reflecting on the overarching meaning of the research, it may be necessary to return to the previous chapters and scrutinise what has been presented there. Sometimes it is necessary to adjust the content or interpretation of earlier work in light of what is known at the end. The emphasis may have shifted for the overall project along the way, rendering some passages of writing redundant or others requiring more prominence.
There is a lot of useful advice on conclusions available in academic writing textbooks. I particularly like the idea that the thesis needs to end on a strong note. One exercise I like to do in writing groups is to look at the final sentence in a number of theses – sometimes a very illuminating insight into the state of mind of the candidates at the end of their projects. The conventional advice for undergraduate writers often recommends that no new material should be introduced at this point. However, I’m not sure that the same applies in the same way to a thesis, as it is usual to include some speculation about possible future research directions.
Paltridge and Starfield (2007) have a very useful chapter on conclusions that I’d recommend for all doctoral writers (not just those writing in a second language, as the title suggests). They include some good pointers about identifying the limitations of the research and therefore being wary of how grand the claims can be now that the evidence has been presented throughout the thesis; the structure of field-oriented or thesis-oriented conclusions; as well as some valuable language tips.
Does your own experience match the ideas set out above? Do you have any other advice that is useful for doctoral writers in particular disciplines that is not covered here?
(PS: Yes, I think you do have to go a little bit mad in the final throes of writing a thesis! That obsessive behaviour of checking and checking and rechecking is all part of the experience… Not easy, but I haven’t seen anyone avoid it yet.)
Mullins, G., & Kiley, M. (2002) ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: how experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education 27(4): 369-386.
Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. Routledge.