By Ian MacNeill |
Pubs and Pubs, in my humble opinion, is one of the best repositories of knowledge about the PhD experience on the Internet. Over the years, a host of writers have given advice on a wide range of topics including how to write a literature review, prepare conference abstracts, conducting fieldwork, planning academic conferences and the dreaded Viva.
When thinking about a topic for this post, and perusing our resplendent archive, I noticed that one area we have explored to a lesser extent is the discursive section of a PhD thesis. Indeed, while the structure of dissertations varies by discipline, and some might not have a designated ‘discussion’ chapter, each thesis will, in some fashion, have a section where we write about what we have found in the context of the research that has preceded our own study and how our findings contribute to the field. The timing of this post also fits quite nicely as a I am currently writing up my discussion chapter
Having spoken with other students, and based on my own experiences, the discussion aspect of the thesis is possibly the hardest part of the whole endeavour. It is perhaps no coincidence that Professor Inger Mewburn, otherwise known as the Thesis Whisper, refers to the discussion chapter of a PhD as the ‘problem child’ of the thesis. Moreover, having spoken with several academics with experience of examining PhDs, the discussion section is often where most candidates have to make their more substantive corrections.
So, what do we mean when we talk about the discussion?
Thomas Anneslety (2010) describes it as:
The purpose of the discussion is to interpret and describe the significance of your findings in light of what was already known about the research problem being investigated and to explain any new understanding or insights that emerged as a result of your study of the problem. The discussion will always connect to the introduction by way of the research questions or hypotheses you posed and the literature you reviewed, but the discussion does not simply repeat or rearrange the first parts of your paper; the discussion clearly explain how your study advanced the reader’s understanding of the research problem from where you left them at the end of your review of prior research.
Okay, so now we know the task that confronts us, but how do we go about doing this? I’ve jotted down a few tips and thoughts below. I wouldn’t make any claims towards my suggestions being a precise road-map for people to follow, more like a series of pointers to get you thinking about ideas and bring shape to your discussion.
- Summarise what you have learned and be critical with regard to your findings
Hopefully you have uncovered some hugely significant insights in your research (although, it’s okay if you haven’t) but you need to start thinking strategically about what you have learned. One way to bring this all together is to write a great big list of everything you have learned. Once you have done this, you should interrogate your findings, and think hard about which ones can be regarded as original knowledge claims. Another point to consider is: do you have sufficient data to qualify your points or are some more speculative than others? You won’t be able to write about every single thing you’ve found out in your research, so identify the important points you want to make that you can defend with confidence. Lastly, an overarching consideration throughout this process should be: do these findings answer my research questions?
- Finding connections
Okay, so you’ve got a list of defensible findings. The next question is what are the connections between these? Can you further distil what you have found into patterns, principles and key relationships? Rather than simply describing your results, think about what they mean. Consider what the relationships and patterns in your findings imply.
- Refer to previous research & relate your findings to similar studies
Your discussion should connect with your literature review. In your discussion you should explore how you can compare your results with the findings from other studies or use these studies to support a claim you want to make. This should probably include re-visiting key sources already cited in your literature review section. Alternatively, you could keep back some references you identified earlier that you feel would be better suited to compare with your results instead of being a part of the general literature review. This is an important choice because comparing and contrasting the findings of other studies with yours helps to support the overall importance of your results and it highlights how and in what ways your study differs from other research on the topic.
Hopefully this post has proven useful in helping people think about how to approach their discussion chapter. If you have any hints or tops then we’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. Happy writing.
Ian is currently in the final stages of writing up his PhD which explores the resettlement experiences of young prison leavers. He is the social media editor for Pubs and Pubs. You can follow him on Twitter.
Annesley, Thomas M. 2010. “The Discussion Section: Your Closing Argument.” Clinical Chemistry 56: 1671–74.