Thesis knowhow – “the contribution” can create coherence


My Nordic colleagues often say that the thesis has to have a red thread, a line of argument that holds things together.

So what’s this red thread? Think of the red thread as a sturdy rope that guides the reader up the rocky mountain that is the thesis, making sure that they don’t fall down a crevasse or take a side track that leads nowhere.

The thesis red thread creates coherence in and through the text.

One way to approach the red thread is to think about it through the prism of the contribution. So, to the next question. What’s “the contribution”?

Well, think about the contribution as the answer to the awkward question, “What did your research find out?”

Most of us have had the experience of being asked to sum up a complex and lengthy research project in a couple of sentences – and it’s – well – awkward to give a pithy and precise answer.  I like to call it the supermarket queue question. It’s the moment when you have to reluctantly give a short and easily comprehensible answer about your research results and why they matter.

Your answer to the awkward question is “the contribution”. We have produced a something worth knowing from our research, and it speaks with, and to, what is already known about our particular topic. The contribution is our offering to the scholarly conversation.

While the contribution can wait for a Grand Reveal at the end of the thesis, it’s often better if it doesn’t.  Let me explain.

Keeping an eye on the contribution can be really helpful when thinking about the thesis red thread. It can really help, when you are writing, to think about each of the various sections in relation to the contribution. And then, don’t keep it to yourself, make that connection clear to the reader.

I’ll illustrate this by pointing to some of the moves that most theses have to make, and the ways in which they relate to contribution. This is not an exhaustive elaboration – but I hope it’s enough to indicate how a focus on the contribution adds up to a red thread.

  • The beginning of the thesis usually establishes what the research is going to be about and why it is needed. The potential significance of the contribution is explained. The explanation about why the contribution is needed creates the warrant for the research.
  • The knowledge basis on which the contribution is to be made is outlined for the reader. The writer discusses the literatures that the research uses – theories/concepts and a priori definitions and assumptions, arguing why this literatures selection is important for this particular research. This literatures work locates the contribution in its field(s) and indicates what existing research might be extended or challenged.
  • When the thesis addresses methodology and methods, the writer explains the production of ‘evidence’ through which the contribution is to be made, how the contribution relies on an accepted research tradition, why the research is thorough, ethical and trustworthy.
  • The research results are reported in order to show key chunks of ‘stuff’, that when put together, are the foundation, or ‘evidence’, for the contribution.
  • What is often called ‘discussion’ moves beyond description and analysis to provide an explanation of the results. Separate pieces of analysis are brought together and connected to the relevant literatures to show what the research offers that is additional, what is the same, what challenges what. The contribution is now at the point where it can be expressed as the first part of the answer to the supermarket queue question – What have you found? This is what my research says and means.
  • The conclusion to the thesis goes back to the original question and the reasons for doing the research. At the top of the guide rope, you look back down to see the origin of the climb. The contribution is now summarised as a kind of I-said-we-needed-to-know-this-and-now-we-do; this is often called the claims. The contribution is usually expressed as one or more points – these economically name the bodies of work which are extended/challenged by your inquiry. Depending on the discipline and research, the key contribution points may also be connected to policy and/or practice. Then the so-what and now-what of the contribution are laid out for the reader. The implications that arise from this contribution – policy, practice, further research – are spelled out. This is why the contribution matters.

So if you follow this line of argument through the thesis, the contribution becomes the organiser. It becomes the red thread.

And knowing the red thread stands you in good stead. The viva and written examination are all about the contribution. Every aspect of the viva is directed to assessing the significance of the contribution and how it was produced. And it doesn’t stop there. Very often, the contribution made in the doctorate forms the  basis for further research work. It becomes a red thread through your cv and ongoing research agenda.

It’s worth finding the answer to that awkward supermarket queue question then.