Writing the conclusion to the thesis is hard. It’s often done badly. And it’s something that doctoral researchers often get asked to do more work on. Not at all what they/you need.
Writing a conclusion is important. The conclusion is that last thing that the examiner reads before they write their report, and it can shape their attitude to the entire thesis.
If the researcher in the conclusion seems unsure, dodges saying what they’ve actually achieved, then the examiner writes their report thinking that the research is incomplete. They decide that the purpose of the viva is to find out if the researcher knows what they are talking about. Are they really doctoral material or still being prepared? Is the thesis a work in progress or a completed text?
AARHGH. You’d rather this not be the case. You’d rather the examiner approach their report and your viva thinking you are already a doctor, and the viva is about exploring the topic and the research. Yes, you really do need to make a good last impression.
But a moment to recap. A thesis conclusion generally:
- restates the question
- provides a succinct summary of the answer(s) and how this was produced ( I did this and my analysis showed 1, 2, 3 and I argue that this… ). The writer usually acknowledges the particularity of the research here too (sometimes called limitations.)
- shows how the research contributes to the literatures (the contribution of the research is a, b, c)
- discusses the implications (the results could lead to further research on, changes in policy/practice such as.. ). The implications arise logically from the particularity of the study and its results – they point to questions the study opens up, what the results says to current thinking about and acting on the topic.
Sounds simple. Straightforward. If so, why do people find writing the conclusion so hard?
Well, sometimes people have simply run out of words by the time they reach the end. They haven’t allowed enough space to say what needs to be said last. Writing the conclusion then means going back and creating space for more text – and they aren’t prepared to do that. They write something that fits the word count, not something that does the job. So, key action 1 – ALLOW FOR THE WORDS AT THE END.
And sometimes people have run out of time. They’ve spent every moment getting the results together and they thought that the conclusion would be easy and take no time at all. It doesn’t. Conclusions need time and much thinking. So key action two – ALLOW TIME.
That’s because writing the conclusion requires two more key actions:
3. STEP AWAY FROM THE RESEARCH.
Writing a conclusion requires you to have some distance on the thesis. Rather than seeing the details of each chapter, you have to get a grip on the whole. You take a critical evaluative look at what the work that you done adds up to. You assume the standpoint you had when you were imagining what the project would be, why it was important and how it would go. You return to the question of purpose and significance that you had at the start of the project and the thesis. To use a cliché, the conclusion is where you move from being in the middle of the trees – you move far enough away to see the forest.
And getting your head out of the minutiae is not necessarily an easy or quick thing to do. You’ve been stuck inside the particulars for a long time. You’ve been analysing and writing the results and it’s sometimes very hard to move on. You can tell if you’re drowning in details if, when someone asks you what you found in your research, your answer is very lengthy and detailed and not short, snappy and to the point. It’s that short-snappy-and-to-the-point-ness that you need to find in order to write the conclusion.
You might get your concluding head set if you organise a three-minute thesis exercise for yourself and your best research companions. It can help to make a set of powerpoint slides, one for each move in the conclusion. It can help to have someone ask you the viva question – give me the headlines about your research – and stop you each time you start to drill down too far into the specifics. It can help to practice answering an imaginary examiner who says So What Now What.
Stepping away from the research is necessary but not sufficient. You also need to:
4. TAKE THE POSITION.
Writing a conclusion means that you must assume the position of the expert. That’s not faking it, because at the end of the thesis you know more about your topic than anyone else. You know heaps, in depth, about your very particular research. And you can see that because of how easily you can talk at length about all of the research ins and outs. However, you need to put what’s behind that detailed understanding, that authority, into the writing. This means taking on the persona of someone who is already a doctor, who is seen by others as having the expertise to speak knowledgeably on their topic.
And the examiner can easily see where a doctoral researcher is reluctant to assume the position. The conclusion is truncated and vague. Where a contribution is specified it is either underplayed or over-generalised. There is too much hedging, too much handwringing about what the research didn’t do, too much throat clearing before getting to the crunch.
Doctoral researchers who struggle with taking the (expert) position often haven’t thought about all the ways in which their thesis might make a contribution. They take for granted their literatures work, the ways in which they adapted methods, the particular procedural and/or ethical difficulties they dealt with – they don’t look for potential issues of interest to other researchers. They hesitate to mention that their research raises questions about, or contradicts something, or locates something that no one else has. They don’t own the new-ness of their work.
The tentative doctoral researcher has to step up. And this is where a bit of role play might be in order. Ask your supervisor to show you some theses that have good conclusions. Look at the rhetorical moves that these writers make. Use some sentence skeletons to expose the ways in which these good conclusion writers stage their final, summary argument and their claims. Repeat the three-minute thesis, conversation and powerpoint exercises concentrating on your researcher ‘voice’. Record yourself giving the three minute answer – transcribe it and then edit it. Speed-write your claims in five minutes. Go through the text and see if you can booster it up.
So there you are. Four actions that can help with thesis concluding. Four for a good last and lasting impression.
Allow for the words. Allow for the time it takes. Step away from the research. Take the position.