Does a thesis conclusion have “recommendations”?


I’ve seen many a thesis which concludes with a set of recommendations that arise from the research. This practice troubles me. I’ve got two basic concerns about putting recommendations in a thesis conclusion. My position may be a bit contentious – I don’t know whether or how much, as I can’t recollect reading much discussion about conclusions and recommendations per se in the doctoral writing literatures.

So here goes. My first concern is about whether the claims on which any recommendations are based actually fit with the research that’s been done.

Some doctoral research is, either by virtue of its method, theory or size, able to make far-reaching claims. But much of the doctoral research that I see doesn’t have the kind of scale, duration, or comprehensiveness that would be the basis for recommendations.

OK – I need to provide an example. Pardon my disciplinary context – but you’ll get the drift. Interviews with sixteen school leaders aren’t a great footing for developing a sweeping set of recommendations about education policy or professional development programmes. That’s like building your house on shifting sands. However, sixteen interviews with school leaders may very well enhance and deepen existing understandings of identities, events, meaning-making, processes and/or practices. And sixteen interviews may well be the basis for theory-building, depending on the approach used.

Now let me just say the obvious. It’s not that small and detailed research is not worth doing, it is. I’m an ethnographer by heart and the last thing I would do is slag off the small and intense inquiry. But its being real about what this kind of research can do, and what it can’t. Small scale studies with depth or even of moderate scope are not for recommendations per se, but they are often the basis for developing a set of possibilities, or raising questions, or even developing a new research agenda.

So it is always important when writing the doctoral thesis to ask yourself whether your conclusions sit comfortably with the purposes of your research – was your research initially designed to influence policy or to build theory or enhance understandings? Has it fulfilled this goal? Or has the connection to change emerged – and if so what can your claims “say” in relation to the research actually undertaken and your results?

There’s a parallel here with the old Gilbert and Sullivan song about the punishment fitting the crime. The claims made in the conclusion of the thesis have to fit with its results.

My second concern is about the audience for the thesis and the need to write in the appropriate genre.

The thesis is written for an academic audience. In the first instance, the readers are the examiners, and then whoever happens across the text in digital thesis collections. So let’s think about what an examiner and a wider academic readership expects and can actually do. And can’t.

I’ll first of all talk from my experience. Mostly, the theses I see which have recommendations assume a different, non-academic audience from me. One that is able to take up and implement their recommended agenda. In this situation, as an examiner, I am left asking myself how am I to do anything with these recommendations? Change education policy? If only! I wish! Who does this person think is going to read their thesis and be able to act on it?

Of course sometimes a doctoral thesis recommends something that readers can do something about – perhaps it is the doctoral candidate themselves, they’ve written a thesis that is relevant to their professional practice and they can therefore recommend something that they might do, or take up within their institution, union or network. Of perhaps its to do with university teaching or supervision or academic cultures. There are exceptions where academic readers might be recommended to because they can take the recommendations up. But mostly academic readers aren’t the target of thesis recommendations.

Now, an important clarification. I am absolutely not suggesting that doctoral theses can’t develop an agenda for action and change from results. Of course, they can and they often do. But I am suggesting that thinking about your research and change isn’t the same as making recommendations.

In the thesis conclusion, proposals for change most often come in the form of implications for policy and practice and/or thinking about what a change agenda might be. The results of the research are x which suggests strongly that any future policy agenda which is going to address y needs to include/do the following z things.

But don’t despair if you want to do more than spell out some implications. It is important for those doctoral researchers who really want their research to influence or produce change, and have an urge to make recommendations, to act. Here’s two suggestions to avoid the ‘Who me?” examiner response.

1. You might find an imaginative way to formulate recommendations – introduce a section by saying that if you were making key recommendations to someone, then these are what they’d be. Or include a letter or pamphlet you might write to show how your results would ideally be taken up. A creative approach to the relationship between research results and their application will show the examiner that you understand that a specific audience needs to be informed about your research, listen and act. This connects to the next suggestion.

2. You can write something specifically for the audience who needs to hear about your work or who would be interested in it. You may well need to write this kind of text in a different or shorter form, using different language perhaps, and/or using different media. It’s good news that other audiences for research also often prefer other text types, maybe a short leaflet which references a longer document. Perhaps it’s material which appears on a website or a short punchy paper in a professional publication or a film…

In the UK the practice of research “translation”, or follow-on activity, is often referred to as public engagement. In fact, all publicly funded researchers are expected to develop public engagement plans to take their research results to relevant audiences. And the resulting public texts may well have action points or develop an agenda for change. You won’t be the only one working on further texts from your research. More good news, there are models to look at.

My view is that putting recommendations in the thesis is a kind of genre confusion. It’s not theses but research reports which usually have executive summary and recommendations. Commissioned research uses a report genre, as does research that is directed to particular policy or professional readers. These are texts written for the readers who can act on the recommendations.

But a thesis is not a research report per se, even if there is reporting within it. In the first instance and in its the first iteration, the thesis is an argument for your particular and distinctive contribution. Like other texts in its academic family (monographs, peer reviewed papers etc), the thesis is designed for scholarly action – enjoyment, use, assessment and peer review.