By Cally Guerin
It might seem obvious, but it’s always worth reminding doctoral writers to make sure the Introduction and Conclusion to their thesis match. Sometimes, a lot of effort is spent writing an ‘Introduction’ to the thesis in the early stages of candidature. But over time, the focus or emphasis of the thesis can shift – new ideas come to the forefront, and some of the original ideas have faded away into the background. As Mullins and Kiley (2002, p.377) made clear: examiners do look to see whether the conclusions follow from the introduction. In effect, did the thesis achieve what it said it would do? Did it succeed in answering the research questions posed at the outset?
Candidates do need a basic Introduction to help them shape the thesis and research questions in the early stages, but it is essential to emphasise that this is not likely to go into the final thesis in its original form. Rather, major revisions of that Introduction will be required at the end, once the findings and outcomes of the research are finally known. That way, the Introduction will set up the real outcomes of the project and its findings, instead of the imagined project that may or may not eventually come to pass. All sorts of changes are likely to impact on the final realities of the research: the data collected might be different from what was originally imagined; the constraints of working with that data realised; and the results might well bring quite new and different ideas to the forefront of the project.
When it comes to the final stages of preparing the thesis for submission, it can be very helpful to work on the Conclusion and the Introduction alongside each other, so that it’s easy for readers to see that each question posed in the Introduction is answered in the Conclusion. This can focus the doctoral writer on articulating exactly what the project aimed to establish, what it was that they wanted to find out. Lining up the problem and question with the answers helps the reader (that is, the examiner) to see what the research contributes to the field.
A straight forward way of demonstrating that the thesis answers its questions is to write the aims as questions – literally using question marks – in the Introduction. If it is appropriate to the discipline, I’d recommend setting out the overarching question followed by the sub-questions formatted with dot points or numbers in the Introduction. Then in the Conclusion, repeat those questions in the same order and provide direct answers to each question. In this way, it’s easy to see that every question set out for the project has been answered. If dot points and numbered lists are not de rigueur in the particular field, then it is necessary to echo the language of the Introduction in the Conclusion to indicate the close connections between them. Either way, make it easy for the reader to see that they match.
As we’ve said elsewhere, a thesis Conclusion does much more than simply summarise what has gone before. See earlier posts:
The Conclusion will value-add to the findings, explaining to readers the significance and implications of those findings, but it must first systematically remind readers of those findings and answers. Linking back to the Introduction gives the reader (the examiner) a sense of having come full circle.
Many writing experts recommend writing the Introduction last in the whole research endeavour. This makes sense to me: we need to know where the project ends up in order to know precisely what it is that is being introduced. Instead of trying to revise and mould very early versions of the Introduction to match the project outcomes, candidates might often be better advised to start a new, blank document to draft up the final version of the Introduction.
Introductions and Conclusions can be the hardest parts of a thesis to write because they are the most abstract, ‘philosophising’ parts of the project. It’s necessary to step back from the detail of the data and consider what it all means. For lots of doctoral writers it is very challenging to see the work in terms of a bigger picture when it is also interwoven with the emerging researcher identity that has evolved alongside the research. There’s a lot at stake when finalising these parts of the thesis, and candidates are often exhausted by the long years of study leading up to this stage of writing. Keeping the focus on questions and answers at the beginning and ending of the manuscript can tighten the writing, making it easier for the reader to understand what has been achieved.