On Twitter this week two people asked me for advice for starting the discussion chapter of their thesis / dissertation (I’m going to use the word thesis from now on because I am Australian). I didn’t feel up to answering in 140 characters or less, so I promised a post on it today.
If you are feeling anxious about the discussion section rest assured you are not alone. It’s an issue that comes up time and time again in my workshops. There’s no one answer that can help everyone because every project is original, so I thought I would offer a few thoughts on it by way of starting a conversation.
Evans, Gruba and Zobel, in their book “How to Write a Better Thesis”, describe the discussion chapter as the place where you:
“… critically examine your findings in the light of the previous state of the subject as outlined in the background, and make judgments as to what has been learnt in your work”
Essentially the discussion chapter tells your reader what your findings might mean, how valuable they are and why. I remember struggling with this section myself and, looking back, I believe there were two sources of anxiety.
The first is scholarly confidence. At the University of Melbourne we used to talk about how a good thesis has a ‘Ph Factor’. The Ph factor is somewhat elusive and hard to describe, but basically it means you have to make some knowledge claims. You need to have the confidence to say something is ‘true’ (at least, without getting too post modern about it, true within the confines of your thesis). This can feel risky because, if you have been approaching the thesis in the right spirit, you are likely to be experiencing Doubt.
The second source of anxiety is the need to think creatively. Most of the rest of the thesis asks us to think analytically; or, if you are in a practice based discipline, to make stuff; or perhaps, if you are an ethnographer, to observe the world in some way. Creative thinking involves your imagination, which means you have to switch gears mentally.
So the problem of the discussion chapter is a problem of creative thinking and confidence, but there are some stylistic conventions and knowledge issues that complicate the task. Every thesis needs to have discussion like elements, but they may do it in different ways.
In a conventional thesis, what we call the IMRAD type (introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusion) the discussion chapter appears a discrete chapter. Before you worry about the discussion chapter too much, consider whether you need to treat the discussion as a separate section at all. You need to keep in mind that the IMRAD structure is best used to write up empirical research work (the type where you collect data of some kind).
In the past I have referred to the IMRAD formula as the ‘dead hand of the thesis genre’; a phrase I picked up from my colleague Dr Robyn Barnacle. It’s a dead hand because of the role it plays in the imagination of the research community throughout the world. The IMRAD formula is the most widely understood format because it is the type most widely described in the ‘how to’ genre and has a close and abiding relationship to the scientific method. Many students try to make their research fit into the IMRAD format, when it is not appropriate to do so.
I can be easy to feel ‘blocked’ if you are a non scientist trying to separate out the discussion from the rest of what you are writing. Remember there are many ways to skin the discussion cat. For example, an artist may discuss each project and what it means separately. An ethnographer might devote a chapter to each theory they have built from observation. Likewise a historian may break the thesis up into time periods and do critique and evaluation throughout the whole.
So I have diagnosed some of the problems, are there any easy solutions? Well, the best way to start in my view is just to write, but perhaps start to write without the specific purpose of the discussion chapter in mind. Write to try and work out what you think and then re-write it later.
You can use a couple of basic techniques to help you with this process:
- Try the old ‘compare and contrast’ technique. Draw up a table describing where your work is similar to others and where it differs. Use each of these points as a prompt to write a short paragraph on why.
- Use the “The big machine” trick as suggested by Howard Becker in his book ‘tricks of the trade’ (now only $3.99 on Kindle? Bargain!). Pretend your results are produced by a machine then describe the machine. How would the machine work? What would it look like? What parts would it need? What might make the machine break?
- Another useful suggestion from Howard Becker is the null hypothesis technique; write down why the results mean nothing. Sometimes forcing yourself to argue the reverse position can highlight the relationships or ideas worth exploring.
- Sometimes having an audience can help. Explain the results to a friend and record yourself, or use voice recognition software to tell your computer some of your preliminary thoughts. Many people find talking an easier way to get ideas out. Alternatively write them in an email to someone.
- Explain the limitations of the work: what is left out or yet to do? Sometimes, like the null hypothesis, talking about the limitations can help you better define the contribution your study has made.
I hope some of these suggestions help to get you started. Do you have any more? Are there ‘tricks’ you have used to help you get your creative juices flowing?
The Dead Hand of the Thesis Genre?
Ambivalence: can it help with your PhD?
I noticed that the Discussion chapter is one of the hardest to write, especially when you are so close to the results and your head is wrapped up in all the data. Writing the Discussion chapter requires taking a few big steps back and seeing the big picture. For that reason, I often write it with my eyes closed, without looking at the results. Or I ask students to imagine they ran into a friend or colleague at a coffee shop. They don’t have the manuscript or slides on them. They just need to explain to the colleague, without using numbers, or tables, or figures – just narrative – the following:
- what they did (briefly)
- what they found – what were the significant, memorable findings?
- what do the findings mean? – what does it mean that X was rated as 4.61 and Y was rated as 3.93?
- do the best of your knowledge, why do you think that is? what accounts for these results?
- why are the findings significant/important/useful? how can they be used, and who can use them?
This is the part where you sell your research. But then, a word of caution:
- what went wrong?
- what should we keep in mind as we buy into your findings? how do the limitations of your study affect the results? (this is, indeed, the Limitations section)
Think of the Discussion chapter as an executive summary. If it is the only thing I read, I should get a good understanding of what you found and why it matters. You should explain it to me clearly, in a narrative, without restating your results.
And now that we are so close, I might as well address the Conclusion chapter. It should accomplish 2 things:
- Summary of the entire project – this can be an extended abstract. What you set out to do (purpose of research), what you did (methods) and what you found out (main results).
- Directions for future research. I learned something great about this in a thesis defense yesterday. Think beyond replicating your study and overcoming your limitations. Think beyond better ways of addressing the same research questions. Now that we know what your research results are, what are other interesting questions we should address? What other issues and questions arise?
I’ve said this so many times in the past few weeks that I felt writing a blog post I can refer students to might be helpful. Please feel free to add your advice or questions in the comments below.
Tags: advice for students, Discussion chapter, Research, writing