How to Write the Discussion in your Dissertation Oct 21, 2012
If you're doing original investigative work, then you're likely using the IMRAD
, and discussion
) to write your thesis
. If that's the case, your discussion will be where you examine your results and explain their significance. It's the real meat of your paper: this is your chance to make an argument for why the work you've spent so much time on matters.
What to Include
The main point of the Discussion section is for you to interpret your results. You want to present the conclusions you've drawn from your work and show in detail how those conclusions logically follow from the data you've collected. There are a few key questions every discussion will need to answer.
What are your conclusions?
In the results section you laid out all your data; now you've got a chance to tell the reader what all that information means. Were you able to answer your research question? Was your hypothesis correct? Why or why not? Make sure that all of your conclusions are backed by your results. It can be tempting to exaggerate in order to make your work seem important, but that will only hurt your credibility, so stick with conclusions you can clearly support.
When it comes to conclusions, you can't just tell the reader what you think, though. You also need to explain how you've come to your conclusions. Discuss the mechanisms you think explain your data and clarify any inferences or assumptions you made along the way. Don't assume that because you interpret the results one way your audience will do the same - you have to show your thinking in detail.
How do your conclusions fit within the larger scope of your field?
In the literature review
you pointed out holes in the current research and discussed why your work was necessary, so now it's time to show just how you've filled in that missing data. What impact will your work have on your field? Does your work answer a question important to your discipline? Have you supported or contradicted a prevailing theory? Does your work suggest a new way to look at older research? Show how you've added to your field in a significant way: even the most careful and thorough research won't impress if you can't convince your readers that your work matters.
What problems and limitations did you face?
Students often shy away from listing in detail the ways their research went wrong, but if you're having trouble with this part, just keep in mind that nobody's research is perfect. Everyone encounters difficulties along the way, and your dissertation needs to address the problems and limitations in your work so that readers can properly evaluate your conclusions. Were there issues your original research plan failed to account for? Did parts of your work fail or produce incomplete results? Explain how these problems affected your work and also suggest ways these issues could be fixed in the future.
When writing this section, try to find the line between touting your results and questioning their value. If you discuss your limits in too much detail, it will seem like your work is too flawed to be consequential. If you don't address your limits at all, your readers will likely question how thorough your work has been.
What further avenues of research are suggested by your work?
Now that your work is all done, what's the next logical step? This goes along with showing how your work fits within your field. Has your work opened up new areas of research? What new questions have you raised? It's also a good idea to show how your research can be used by other scholars and how it can be applied to other topics in your field. Good research is likely to raise as many questions as it answers, so point out to the reader all the exciting new avenues of research you're opening up.
How to Organize the Discussion
As with the other sections in a dissertation, the organization will depend on the type of research you're doing. In general, you'll want to start by making a clear statement about your conclusions. From there, you can move into a discussion of the significance of your results as well as their limitations. Most dissertations will conclude by looking to the future to discuss further avenues of research, but you want to be careful about ending with the focus on possible new work. Instead of leaving the reader with ideas about what's going to come next, conclude with a strong paragraph that sums up your work so your reader goes away with a clear sense of what you've accomplished.
The Discussion section is usually the longest part of a dissertation, so you want to make it easy for your readers to follow. You can provide subheadings that follow the general outline given here, or, if your research addresses several topics, you can break up your discussion into subheadings that focus on the individual concepts or theories you address. However you decide to organize it, make sure that you follow a logical progression from section to section.
Tips for Getting Started
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- Use the "machine" model: think of your research as a big machine. In your discussion, you want to explain how the machine works, all the parts that it needs, how it might break down, and so on. It's a great way to help you examine your research in a new way.
- Another good exercise is to write out the opposite of the argument you plan to make in your discussion. You're likely going to try to prove in your dissertation that your results are important, so try writing instead about why they're not significant. Looking at your research from all sides will help you see the holes in your own logic and will make your paper stronger.
- It's easy to feel overwhelmed when writing your discussion, but when you're getting frustrated, try to remember what it was about this research that got you interested in the first place. Your discussion should reflect your enthusiasm for your field and your excitement about the work you've produced.