A long time ago I visited the albatross sanctuary on the Otago Peninsula in New Zealand. I was there at a time when the fledglings were exercising their wings, but had not yet reached the point where they were able to fly. I have always wanted to go back to see them take off, but of course the times are not predictable and the visitor has to be lucky to catch the moment.
Many doctoral researchers experience the process of the Ph.D. as being albatross-like – it has a long and sometimes difficult development – you could check out this video of a young Laysan albatross laboring down the beach in order to take their first, short flight. Maybe this wasn’t you, but you may well know people for whom the doctorate was this kind of hard work!
The notion of fledging and taking off might be a metaphor for writing the thesis. The thesis stage signifies that it’s now time to take wing – to be your own expert, to fly where no other researcher has flown before … And nowhere is this more so than in the ‘discussion’ section or sections. By ‘discussion’ I mean the part – or parts – of the thesis where the researcher offers their interpretations and theorisation of findings, texts or sources. This is the Phil of the D Phil. This Phil discussion is absolutely the time to soar.
Of course, everybody wants to be like this wandering albatross – it just seems to take to the air with remarkably little effort and then glide off over the landscape. But the video only shows the final minutes of preparation and it is important to recollect that lots of flapping about has happened off screen prior to take-off.
Well that’s enough of birds. Let me get serious.
The preparation for discussing the research is crucial. If there isn’t the right preparation, then the discussion falters, crashes to the ground .. oh dear, its hard to get away from the metaphor once you’ve started!
Thesis discussions always consider the findings/texts, sources in the light of existing research … there is interpretation, comparison, explanation, and evaluation of what the specific research has shown. There may also be theorisation, or a conversation about the implications of the research for a particular theorisation.
One way to prepare what has to go into the discussion is to
(1) write a list of all of the things that you now know as a researcher that you didn’t know when you began the research.
Once you have this list you can
(2) take each point and consider how it relates to the literature. Does it support what other people have said? Does it fill in some missing information? Does it provide an alternative explanation for something that is well recognized in the literature? Does it contradict some of the literature? Does it suggest that there is still more to be done in order to make sense of a particular puzzle, event, or phenomenon? Do you need to read more in order to connect your findings to something?
Then you might
(3) look at each point and then the overall list and – if this is the type of research you are doing – think about what it says to existing theorisations. Ask yourself whether it would interesting/innovative/helpful to present your discussion using one of these existing theories…ot perhaps answer back to it.
It is a good idea before beginning to write any discussion text to do something like this kind of preparatory exercise – do it in quite a formal way. It is easy to construct a table in which you list in one column the points you know now that you didn’t know before you started, and then in another column the ways in which each point connects with the literatures. You might also have a third column for theoretical connections.
The next step is to consider each point as a discrete section of discussion. At this moment then, you need to look at the order of your ‘findings’ and make sure that there is a logic to their sequence, a logic which supports an argument that you can make about what your research has ‘found’ and its significance. Each section will begin with a brief summary of the relevant finding, and then systematically consider it in relation to what is already known in the literatures.
When writing the actual text- when you stop preparing and practising and actually take the first flight – the re-ordered table can act as a guide to the writing.
That’s it, you’re now Phil-ling/flying.