“Discussion” – it’s about moving forward


Discussion. It’s a word that immediately comes to mind when we think about communicating research. First we report the results, and then we discuss them. Discussion might be a separate thesis chapter just before the conclusion, or the end of a series of chapters each featuring a different key result, or the discussion might morph into a conclusion (as often happens in a PhD by publication).

Discussion is not a very helpful word. Its vagueness may be why many PhDers find discussion a hard chapter to write.

The word discussion can mean many things – its dictionary definition is often something like “a detailed treatment of a topic in speech or writing”. That actually doesn’t take us any further – what is meant here by treatment? Synonyms for discussion include argument, analysis and consideration. Perhaps these are slightly more helpful.

If you google “How do you write a discussion”, you get a lot of “Don’t be repetitive, Avoid using jargon. Be concise. Follow a logical thought process”, followed by “Identify patterns in the data, discuss whether your results met your expectations or supported your hypothesis, contextualise your findings within previous research and theory, and explain unexpected results and evaluate their significance”. This seems pretty helpful but it may still not be enough.

I’ve been thinking about how to provide additional advice about discussions and – well it’s hard. But I’ve come to think that one step might be to understand the point of discussion. If you get the purpose of academic discussion first of all, then you can begin to think about what needs to be covered.

The discussion is not a summary. There might be some summary involved at the start of a discussion if you are bringing some results or key themes together. But that is only the beginning. The discussion is not déjà vu. It must not simply repeat what has gone before. (See what I did there.)

The discussion has to move your analysis forward. The discussion has to establish what your results add up to. The discussion works from your specific research results to a bigger picture.

So here’s a metaphor that might help a bit. Your research is analogous to building your own car with some existing material and some new pieces. You have to carefully put the old and your new pieces together so that they amount to something substantial and innovative. Your research results establish the new pieces. The research discussion assembles the car, starts the engine and moves forward.

An academic discussion is thus where you do very particular work:

  • You keep hold of your results, but take a big step away. You move from your very specific results to however general you think you can be. You take a more distanced view.
  • As you take the step away, you also pick up the question you posed at the start of the research.
  • Then, you connect your research to the question you posed, as well as what is already out there in the literatures. This might take the form of comparing, contrasting, building on.
  • And you have to put all this together to make an argument that will go somewhere – you (and everyone else) started in one place and now because of your research you have something that not only can move – but is already moving somewhere new.

The idea of moving forward is key to understanding academic discussion.

Moving forward extends what is known. It offers a creative remix in which the known and/or established is combined with the new (your results) to offer something novel – something that can be seen as a contribution to general scholarly understanding about your particular topic. You stretch what is already understood, perhaps countering some of what is taken for granted. You offer a different perspective, a different application, a provocation, a theoretical challenge or insight.

But moving forward is not something that is accomplished in a page or two. Careful construction is needed. And here is where we go back to those dictionary definitions – the discussion is always an argument for a particular construction – your interpretation of all of your results put together, in conversation with the literatures, anticipating objections, acknowledging blank and blind spots.

And discussion is of course not all that matters at the end of your thesis text. The conclusion is where you explain how your new car, well I’ll keep going with this somewhat clumsy metaphor, moves the whole field forward. Your research not only answers your question, but it is a significant contribution. You have moved not only your own thinking, but also that of at least some others in the field, you’ve reached a new destination.