Tag Archive | writing

How to write a Discussion chapter for your thesis or dissertation

WhatDoesItAllMean-300x115I 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.

Happy discussing,

Dr. V

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“Too academic”

I’m not getting into this. But what I picked up was the use of being “too academic” as an explanation – as if being “too academic” were a bad thing. It’s not, not always [1].

Here’s my list [2] of the main characteristics of being “academic:”

Has this been said before?

Academics research thoroughly what has been written before on their topic and related concepts, in one or more disciplines. They don’t reinvent the wheel. Lack of familiarity with previous literature reduces one’s credibility and increases the risk of reinventing the wheel. Keyword: library (yes, library!)

I remember of a dear and very much appreciated analyst who was working on a report on communities and was crowd-sourcing the definition of “community.” There are full library shelves on the concept. Read ’em. Cite ’em. Think of the literature review as a different from of crowd-sourcing 🙂

Claim + Supporting evidence

Academics follow this formula very rigorously. For every single claim (every single sentence, sometimes word in a publication), you need evidence.

Claim: Tomatoes are red.

Evidence: ??? Can be empirical (inductive) – based on observations, surveys, etc. or can be a logical argument. In which case, avoid fallacies.

My dear mentor [3] would question every single statement in my papers and in the process taught me that you cannot make a claim without solid supporting evidence. And when you only have this much evidence, you make a smaller, more specific, claim.

So, if: “The public has been ignored in public relations” = claim, what is the evidence for that? What kind of evidence would you provide, and are you sure that the evidence is sufficient and valid?

Academic writing is specific & precise

… and that’s what makes it inaccessible. Oh, why do we need the word “stakeholder” when we have “public”? Well, because we define concepts and we need words to refer to the specific concepts. We need to avoid confusion with the general usage of the word. Inaccessibility is the downside.

The upside is that, good academic writing is not vague – it has (almost – see[1]) surgical precision. You need that surgical precision to stand up to scrutiny, to make sure you don’t over-generalize, and that there’s good fit between the evidence and the claim.

I strive to produce both academic AND accessible writing, and maybe so should you. Go ahead. Be academic.

Footnotes:

[1] Academic thinking will teach you to avoid overstatements and over-generalizations; to be specific if possible, inclusive or ambivalent otherwise.

[2] I can hear my dear mentor’s [3] voice: Why do you put only these things on the list? How do you know you’ve exhausted all possibilities? What are the criteria for inclusion/exclusion/sorting of the list? Beware the laundry list fallacy.

[3] Carl Botan

Post-script:

This is why I recommend graduate school. I don’t care if it will make you more money or get you a better job. It will sharpen your mind, enhance your critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and teach you humility – at least you know what you don’t know, and you learn to question everything, your work and yourself included (downside: bye-bye, self-esteem!).

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