By Cally Guerin

Conclusions continue to be a challenge for thesis writers, not least because they need to bring together a whole range of ideas and step back from the detail to look at the bigger picture of what all these words and findings mean. This is the moment when examiners are assessing whether the whole text has persuaded them that, yes, this thesis makes an original and significant contribution to knowledge in its field and is therefore worth a PhD. Yet, as Trafford, Lesham and Bitzer (2014) point out, a surprising number of theses fail to make a direct statement about the originality of the research and its contribution; in fact, some don’t even have a chapter labelled ‘Conclusion’. While it is still possible to succeed in exhibiting ‘doctorateness’ without fulfilling the standard requirements, my own approach is to make it as easy as possible for readers (here I mean examiners) to identify the elements they are looking for and thus be firmly confident that the thesis meets the established criteria.

Doctoral writers need to be reminded that ‘to conclude’ has several meanings, all of which need to be part of a thesis Conclusion. To conclude means to settle and resolve the issues raised; it means to bring the discussion to a close; and (perhaps most importantly of all), it means to tell us what can be deduced or inferred from the material presented.

As Wisker puts it in The Good Supervisor (2012: 431-2), the Conclusion ought to ‘clarify the effects and the importance of what has been found, what it means, why it matters and what might be done with it’. We have explored thesis conclusions in previous blog posts (here and here). This time I want to add a series of questions that might be used to think through the significance and implications of the research.

Conclusions can be particularly challenging for students working on a thesis by publication, or a thesis in which each chapter reports on a separate experiment, case study or (as in mixed methods research) approach to the central research question. I devised the following series of questions to guide doctoral writers in thinking through the big picture and reaching conclusions about their research.

  • What is the relationship between the various studies? What is the most important idea to come out of Study 1a and out of 1b? And then what is the overall message from all that information and analysis?
  • What did Study 2 then add to our understanding?
  • What did we learn from Study 3 to add to that?
  • Now that we know all of this, what does the world need to know about this topic overall?
  • What is new about this thesis? What do we now know that we didn’t know when you started?
  • Why is it important? And what policy recommendations do you want to make now that you know these new things?
  • What excites you about what you have learnt during this research? What was surprising? What do you care about, and what do you want others to understand now?

A structure for thinking through the issues can be helpful, especially when so many doctoral writers are exhausted when they get to the end of their projects (the requirement to write a confident final sentence to leave resonating in the examiner’s mind might seem like an impossible task!).

Conclusions matter; providing some structure to lift writers out of the detail and into more abstract thinking can make a big difference to the thesis.


Trafford, V., Leshem, S., & Bitzer, E. (2014). Conclusion chapters in doctoral theses: some international findings. Higher Education Review46(3), 52-81.

Wisker, G. (2012). The good supervisor: Supervising postgraduate and undergraduate research for doctoral theses and dissertations. 2nd Ed. Macmillan International Higher Education.