How to write a Discussion chapter for your thesis or dissertation
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.