five discussion chapter challenges

In everyday speech, a discussion is usually understood as an in depth treatment of a topic, a way to exchange ideas or a process of talking about something in order to reach a decision. An academic discussion in a thesis or paper has elements of each of these three possibilities – an academic discussion is you

  • working further on your empirical material (in depth) 
  • putting your ideas into conversation with the existing literatures (exchange) and
  • reaching a conclusion ( deciding on your “answers’ to your question or hypothesis).

However by the time PhDers come to the discussion chapter they are often tired. They’ve done a load of work generating and analysing stuff – and they have results. So why do more? Isn’t this enough already? Do you really have to start all over again?

It’s not really surprising that discussion chapters can have one or more of five predictable problems:

  • The results are rehashed and repeated. The results aren’t taken any further. The reader, usually the examiner, has a terrible sense of déjà vu and the feeling that they have been left to do the hard work of further interpretation and theorising and connecting with the literatures.
  • There is a load of new data introduced. The discussion loses focus. Is it a new set of results or a discussion of the results that have already been presented? The reader is confused about what they are reading.
  • The text doesn’t hang together. It wanders around. There is no clear argument or narrative arc. It seems to the reader that the writer has made some attempt to take the results further but has presented them as a list or a brain storm. The reader is left to decide where it is all going. 
  • The interpretation is really shallow. The results are interesting but the writer gives the most obvious and literal interpretation of them. The reader is left unenlightened and once again, must do the hard work of thinking.

Each of these problems has the same end point. The reader concludes that the writer hasn’t mounted much of a discussion at all and that the thesis conclusion and contribution can only be limited by this lack of further thinking. Which indeed it is.

But there’s a further possible problem.

  • The writer takes it too far. The blank spots in the study, and its scale are not considered. The writer reads too much into the results and makes sweeping generalisations. The reader predicts that when they get to claims and implications they will be equally over wrought. 

The discussion chapter is a crucial part of a thesis text. It is where the writer offers further explanation and elaboration. They take the results somewhere – they move the argument along. The text moves back from the immediate research and places it into a broader context – and a key context is the literatures that have already been canvassed earlier in the text. Think of the discussion chapter as moving away from a presentation monologue to being in dialogue with other researchers.

Many discussions are combined with a conclusion or with some aspects of a conclusion. However, there are distinctive aspects of the discussion which require writers to summon up a  last burst of creative energies. 

It’s important not to skimp on the discussion. Your claims for contribution, and your anticipations of where your research could go next depend on the solid foundation you build from your results in the discussion – the depth, exchange and decision written into your text.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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