Concluding well, part 1 – the big air problem



Big air? Well yes, I have been sporadically watching the Winter Olympics. And if you have too, you’ll know that big air is the term used to describe events where a highly skilled and very brave person takes a big run down a slope and then leaps as high and travels forward as far as they can. Landing without damaging themselves. Think ski jumping and snowboarding and you get the idea of big air.

Now, big air might be kinda glamorous when you’re an Olympian, but it’s downright dangerous when you’re concluding a thesis or a research report. You can’t just launch yourself into the void. Ending well means that you need to take a couple of big steps forward but you also need to stay grounded. And by that I mean that you can’t lose touch with what you’ve done leading up to your final thesis act. No big air. The conclusion needs to be firmly based in your research, anchored to what went before.

So lets think about the conclusion process. Once you have succinctly said how the research results answer the problem puzzle or query you posed at the start, you need to move onto the claims. Whether you’ve done field work or library work or lab work, your claims must be commensurate with the research that you have done, it must fit with your methods, data and analysis. And after the claims come the implications and further questions for policy, practice and/or further research. In other words, in concluding you set up a linked chain – results, claims, implications.

But the result-claim-implication can bring the temptation to take a big leap into the unknown. To launch into big air. To perhaps create propositions for policy change that really can’t be justified on the basis of your results. Or perhaps to set out an agenda for radical and far reaching changes in practice that don’t bear a lot of connection to the scale of your research results. Or perhaps you delineate a research agenda that could keep an entire faculty going for the next decade. You’re flying high, but there’s big crash coming. That’s because you’ve broken the result-claims-implications chain and are now jumping unfettered into, well, an unknown. And that’s dangerous.

The temptation to develop a big air agenda at the end of the thesis is often acute for doctoral researchers who have a strong professional history. Experienced professionals often do their doctorates on a topic which is intimately connected with the need for change, something they feel passionate about and may have spent a long career working on. They bring to their study grounded knowledges, but also strong views about what desperately needs to change in policy or practice. So it’s not altogether surprising that at the end of the doctoral study, with research results in hand, a committed professional can be dissatisfied with what seem to be rather too small and tentative claims and implications. Calling up their inner professional, they write a conclusion that is far too ambitious for their actual study.

I understand the big air temptation very well. My doctoral research was done after a substantial professional career which included providing advice for national and state policy-makers. And although my doctoral research was at reasonable scale, the implications I could draw out from it at the end were not the same as the policy advice I gave as a professional with loads of experience. Some of the claims I could make as a researcher were new and different, but some were just weaker on issues that I felt very passionate about.

Well, I could have taken a leap into big air, but my research would have been poorer for it and my examiners, I am sure, would have queried the basis for my entire concluding chapter.

When my partner read the book of the PhD, he commented on how provisional some of my conclusions were compared to how I had talked when I was still working in the field. But I had written only as much as the research warranted, as partially disappointing as that was. I was writing about and from research, not a polemic, not activist advocacy. I could speak back to policy but I couldn’t develop a wholistic new policy agenda. The good news was that I could say some things on the basis of my research to challenge policy, things that I couldn’t ever say before. The basis of my expertise was now different.

I often see my own big air problem repeated. Because I work with doctoral researchers who also have a professional career behind them, I recognise the temptation to be ambitious in their claims and implications. This temptation lurks all through their doctorates and then emerges right at the end. They cant give in to it, any more than I could. If they do, they are out on their own, without a leg to stand on.

It’s important not to give into big air temptation. The winter Olympics metaphor may be helpful here. Launching into big air without the right stuff and the right gear usually leads to a crash. And time spent recovering. You don’t want that for your research. You spent a long time getting it together and you don’t want to spend more time now than is necessary. Be aware of the seduction of big air, and the likelihood that giving into it will lead to a big bang.

Make your conclusions fit the research results that you have, not the ones you wish for. But do try to summon up and keep the energy of the downhill run!