Writing The Discussion Chapter Of A Dissertation

Discussion for Dissertations

Some students would say that the hardest part of writing a dissertation is the discussion chapter. This is especially true when the results are close at hand and the writer’s head is full of all sorts of data. To write a discussion chapter properly, you need to step backwards and look at the bigger picture. It is for this reason a lot of students close their eyes before they start to write, putting the results out of sight. Or you could imagine that you run into a fellow student or friend and you don’t have your manuscript with you. Then try and describe your research findings to that person. What aspects were significant or memorable, and what conclusions did you draw from your findings? What do they really mean and how can you account for the results? Are your findings useful, important or in any way significant? If so, why? Who will they be useful to?

This is about you selling the work you have put into your research project. However, you do need to tread carefully. Is there anything wrong? Is there anything you should bear in mind regarding your research findings? Were there any limitations to your project and did these limitations have any impact on the results? In fact, a whole section of a dissertation is sometimes devoted to limitations.

The discussion section of a dissertation can be likened to the executive summary of a business report. If this section is the only part your readers bother or have time to read, they should be able to understand what it was you found and the significance of your findings. Therefore, it is important you explain this clearly in narrative form without repeating the results from another chapter.

In talking about the discussion chapter, it is also worth mentioning the concluding chapter. This section should aim to accomplish two important things:

  1. A concise summary of the whole research project – as an extended or more comprehensive abstract if you like. It should reiterate what you wanted to achieve at the outset e.g. the purpose of your project, what research you did, how you did it (your methods), and what you discovered e.g. your results.
  2. Recommendations or guidance for further research in the future: When developing this part, do not restrict your thinking to repeating the work you did and look beyond the limitations. Think of better or more innovative ways of addressing the identical research problem or question. Now that the results of your research are known, are there any other interesting aspects that could or should be addressed? Are there any other questions or issues that come to mind?

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Qualitative data largely encompass longer and more detailed responses.

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.

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