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?
If you have conducted things like interviews or observations, you are likely to have transcripts that encompass pages and pages of work.
Putting this all together cohesively within one chapter can be particularly challenging. This is true for two reasons. First, it is always difficult to determine what you are going to cut and/or include. Secondly, unlike quantitative data, it can often be difficult to represent qualitative data through figures and tables, so condensing the information into a visual representation is simply not possible. As a writer, it is important to address both these challenges.
When considering how to present your qualitative data, it may be helpful to begin with the initial outline you have created (and the one described above). Within each of your subsections, you are going to have themes or headings that represent impactful talking points that you want to focus on.
Once you have these headings, it might be helpful to go back to your data and highlight specific lines that can/might be used as examples in your writing. If you have used multiple different instruments to collect data (e.g. interviews and observations), you are going to want to ensure that you are using both examples within each section (if possible). This is so that you can demonstrate to more well-rounded perspective of the points you are trying to make. Once you have identified some key examples for each section, you might still have to do some further cutting/editing.
Once you have your examples firmly selected for each subsection, you want to ensure that you are including enough information. This way, the reader will understand the context and circumstances around what you are trying to ‘prove’. You must set up the examples you have chosen in a clear and coherent way.
Students often make the mistake of including quotations without any other information. It is important that you embed your quotes/examples within your own thoughts. Usually this means writing about the example both before and after. So you might say something like, “One of the main topics that my participants highlighted was the need for more teachers in elementary schools. This was a focal point for 7 of my 12 participants, and examples of their responses included: [insert example] by participant 3 and [insert example] by participant 9. The reoccurring focus by participants on the need for more teachers demonstrates [insert critical thought here]. By embedding your examples in the context, you are essentially highlighting to the reader what you want them to remember.
Aside from determining what to include, the presentation of such data is also essential. Participants, when speaking in an interview might not do so in a linear way. Instead they might jump from one thought to another and might go off topic here and there.
It is your job to present the reader with information on your theme/heading without including all the extra information. So the quotes need to be paired down to incorporate enough information for the reader to be able to understand, while removing the excess.
Finding this balance can be challenging. You have likely worked with the data for a long time and so it might make sense to you. Try to see your writing through the eyes of someone else, which should help you write more clearly.