The conclusion is one of the most important sections of the thesis, yet it is often done quite badly. This is not good because the conclusion is a key part of the text and thesis writers really need to spend some time getting it right. This is because the conclusion is the place where you argue that you have made a contribution to knowledge, where you show what it is, and where you discuss its implications. While it doesn’t have to be as long as other chapters, the conclusion does have to do the job.
It really helps here to understand what NOT to do in a thesis conclusion.
There are four common mistakes that people make in finishing off their thesis. These are:
(1) the writer goes on a laborious plod through all of the findings that have come in the chapters before. Examiners really hate this. It is, as we say, déjà vu all over again. The conclusion does need to recap what has been found, but succinctly and elegantly. This summary is made only in order to go on to do the real work of finishing off.
(2) the writer introduces a whole lot of new material. This is really confusing for the examiners who wonder where this has all come from. If the new material was needed to make the concluding case for the contribution, it really ought to have been introduced before, either in the introduction and context setting, or in the literatures or methods discussion. See CARS – at the outset you establish the case for the research and in the conclusion you show that you’ve gone some way to addressing this deficit. If you want to argue that the thesis makes a contribution to a particular set of literatures, than this needs to be in the discussion of the literatures – you need to establish the gap and then you need to fill it. If the argument is that the research makes a contribution to a practice problem, then the need for a practice solution needs to be established and evidenced at the outset.
When new material is introduced at the end, it gives the examiners the impression that the writer has either run out of time or is too lazy to go back to do the kind of rewriting necessary to insert the material at the right place in the thesis. The introduction of new material is often indicative of someone who has written the introduction of the thesis a long time before they have actually worked out what they want to argue. People who do literature review chapters in their first year, for instance, and then leave them, are prime candidates for this kind of conclusion problem.
(3) There is no discussion of the limitations of the research. This does not need to be an extended discussion of deficiencies of the research – let the examiners do this – but it is very important to clearly state what the research does and doesn’t do. This establishes the basis for the claims that are made – see (4) below.
Some people make a quick nod at the notion of acknowledging the limitations of the research and then fail to include themselves in this account. It is as if doing the doctoral research actually taught them nothing and they are the same people at the end as they are at the start. While there is no need to go on an extended “if I knew then what I know now” narrative, it is important to realize that limitations to research are not simply a result of sample, location or method, but are also about us and our capacities and blank and blind spots. This may be a more contentious point and variable from discipline to discipline… but in my experience many examiners do expect to see some reflexivity at the end of a long period of time spent thinking, writing and doing research.
(4) the writer makes overclaims – or underclaims. Saying what the research shows is related to (3). Claims arise from what the research does and doesn’t do. They are its point, its implications.
It is critical in the conclusion to move from the summary of the findings to then go on and say what they mean. This is the so what and the now what. Why was it important to do this research? The conclusion MUST provide the answer to this question.
Examiners do see a few theses where people who have undertaken a relatively small study – because this is all that you can do in a doctoral timeframe – then suggest that their findings entirely demolish government policy, or offer the right way to do something. Grandiose universalising claims generally need to be avoided, unless the research really is ground-breaking. Most doctoral research doesn’t change the world but can raise serious questions about policy and suggest lines of possible activity.
It is however much more common to see people rush through the implications of their study. They offer a couple of suggestions about either policy or practice and a brief speculation on a future research agenda. They often don’t refer back to the literatures at all. This is very silly, because if nothing else, a piece of doctoral research ought to reduce our ignorance about something, so it MUST relate to the extant literatures. I can’t tell you the number of theses I see that do not address the literatures at the end. There might be a great discussion of policy or practice, but the actual contribution to scholarly knowledge is left hanging. Making sure that the conclusion connects back to the space in the literatures is a crucial component of the thesis conclusion.
Any of these mistakes leaves the researcher hanging on examiners’ benevolence – when there really is no need. No need at all. In the next post I’ll provide a conclusion checklist which I hope will help with this very important part of the thesis. Just leave enough time at the end to get to it and do it properly!