Picture this: your examiner has just spent a week reading your thesis (yes – it takes that long!). They’ve understood your aims and objectives, like your methodology, think you applied your theory well and found your results fascinating.
Then they get to the conclusion and see that it is badly written. It seems unclear and hasn’t answered the research questions. The contribution is left hanging. It’s making grandiose claims that aren’t backed up in the empirics. The report that they subsequently write for your viva questions whether the research is actually complete.
Awful, right? Well, it happens a lot. The conclusion is the last thing the examiner reads and has a lasting impact on how they see the whole thesis.
That means: last impressions count.
In this guide, I explain to you in clear and simple terms how to write a superstar PhD thesis conclusion. One that really impresses your examiner and gives your thesis the send-off it deserves.
There are lots of guides out there that explain how to write a PhD thesis conclusion, but few that explain how to write outstanding conclusions.
The purpose of a conclusion
You can see from your PhD Writing Template that a PhD conclusion should achieve six objectives:
Answer the research questions
Show how you have addressed your aims and objectives
Explain the significance and implications of your findings
Explain the contribution the study makes
Explain the limitations of the study
Lay out questions for further research
These are the basics and you probably know them already.
The problem is that most guides I’ve found online to writing PhD thesis conclusions seem to stop at these six points.
That’s fine, but if you want to write a superstar conclusion – and you do, because last impression counts remember – you need to consider a whole bunch of other things.
Keep reading, I’ll show you how.
How to write a superstar conclusion
Think of reading a PhD thesis being like a journey.
At the beginning, you – the author – are talking in speculative terms, particularly during your literature and theory work. You are saying ‘what if’ and postulating about what might be out there once you enter the field.
You talk in terms of hypotheses and potentials. The tone is one of: ‘perhaps things might be behaving in a certain way, so let’s get out in the field and see whether they do or not’.
As you go through the empirical chapters you begin to introduce a bit more certainty into your discussion. You start to change from ‘what if’ to ‘here is what’s happening’.
But – and this is the important bit – by the time you have reached the conclusion you have eliminated all uncertainty.
As a result, you are now the expert in your field. You have scoped out the potential, jumped into the field and achieved your objectives.
There are two things to consider if you want to write a superstar conclusion.
1. Own your research
So, in the conclusion, start talking like an expert. Showcase your expertise and show your examiner that you are worthy of being called Doctor. If you don’t execute your conclusion properly and leave things unfinished, the examiner is questioning your suitability and is going to recommend that you work on your thesis for another few months.
But wait, what do I mean by ‘unfinished’?
Well, answering the six questions above is imperative. But, most importantly, you need to really drive home the contribution that the thesis has made. Regardless of whether you can see it or not, your thesis contributes something to the field. It might be a new methodology, a new application of theory onto an existing body of data or sample, or a contradiction of established ways of thinking. Whatever it is, you need to shout about it. Loudly. Like an expert.
If you hesitate and remain vague, the examiner will see this. Sure, you might think that the research could have been better. Sure, you messed up that one experiment. Sure, you aimed to find one thing but ended up finding another. But focus on those shortcomings later, after you have told the reader about all the fantastic contributions you have made (however small – and in fact, they will be small. Don’t try to over-generalise your contribution) and after you have shown how, you would have fulfilled the research aims and objectives.
While you’re doing it, own the literature. Relate your findings back to particular studies and don’t be afraid to say what studies your new findings seems to contradict or which it seems to invalidate. That’s what exerting your (new) authority is all about.
A conclusion that fails to relate the findings to the literature is an incomplete conclusion. You spent pages and pages neatly carving out a gap in the literature; the least you can do is show how your research fills that gap.
2. See the thesis, not the detail
A superstar conclusion is one that doesn’t get weighed down in detail. It talks to the thesis, not the detail. The time for detail is over. Now you take a step back and look at the entire project.
Each chapter is a piece of the puzzle and only when they are all slotted together do you have an entire thesis. That means that a great conclusion is one that shows that the thesis is bigger than the sum of its individual chapters.
The conclusion is not the time to get lost in words and talk in lengthy detail about particular theoretical, empirical or methodological issues; you’ve had the previous 200 pages or so to do that. Instead, it’s the time to clearly and concisely – but still critically – explain your thesis and its significance.
So, rather than get bogged down in detail, your job is to reflect back on your original aims and intentions and discuss them in terms of your findings and new expertise.
It also means summarising your thesis in a way that is free of unnecessary detail and is easy to understand.
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Three things not to do in a conclusion
1. Don’t repeat yourself
Somewhere in your conclusion, you need to have an executive summary of your entire thesis. Our PhD writing template can help with this, as it forces you to write a synopsis of each chapter which you can add together for a summary of the thesis.
Note, though, that there’s a difference between summarising your thesis and repeating huge tracts of it. If you have done your job properly in the empirical and discussion chapters, the reader will be familiar with your findings. There’s no need to repeat them in the conclusion. It’ll bore the pants off your examiner if they have to read them again.
A quick summary or recap of the findings is sufficient, not a lengthy restatement. The same is true with your theory framework or literature review. Recap, don’t repeat.
2. Don’t introduce new text or material
The job of the conclusion then is to summarise and recap, not to introduce new material. If you feel the need to include new empirical material or new literature here, don’t. It needs to go elsewhere.
The conclusion will certainly talk back to your literature review or empirical data, in the sense that it will seek to fulfil certain objectives and address a gap in the literature. The point is that you need to state your objectives and discuss the gap in the literature earlier in the thesis. You use the conclusion to relate the empirical findings to those objectives and to that gap. The literature review and theory framework lay out the objectives and aims of the research, whereas the conclusion discusses how you have met those objectives and aims. It will neither lay out new objectives or aims (using new literature), nor will it do the job of fulfilling those aims (by presenting new empirical data). It will merely explain in clear terms how you have done those things elsewhere in the text.
3. Don’t pretend that your thesis does more than it actually does
Remember earlier when we discussed not owning your research and speaking as an authority? One way to fail at this is to over-generalise or to pretend that your thesis does more than it actually does.
There is no shame in focusing in on a very specific contribution. It’s unlikely that your PhD thesis is going to completely revolutionise your field, so don’t claim that it has. Instead, refer back to your literature review and relate it to other discussions and the gaps that you identified. This isn’t to suggest that your study can’t impact the broader field; if you think your study (which, lets face it, is going to be limited, given the constraints of doctoral research) has the potential to revolutionise the field you should lay these out as questions for future research. Or, perhaps your thesis has policy implications – don’t be afraid to list them, but don’t be overconfident in your appraisal.
Don’t forget to discuss the implications or your thesis and the directions for future research. No PhD thesis is perfect and you should acknowledge what your thesis didn’t do as much as what it could have. This doesn’t stop with a discussion on the epistemological, ontological or methodological limitations of the study, but extends to your own personal limitations. Did you run out of time? Did you struggle to recruit participants because of language barriers? Or maybe you didn’t have the budget to conduct the study you wanted to? These kinds of personal reflections are important, as they show humility and that you are aware of avenues for growth.
A conclusion that fails to explain the contribution, that fails to recap and that fails to focus on the entire thesis rather than the detail will leave the reader unsatisfied.
The conclusion needs to wrap up the research. It needs to clearly state the answers to the research questions and lay out in clear, undisputed terms the contribution that you are making. Fail to do this and you’ll be left trying to convince your examiner that the study is complete when it comes to your viva.
Do it well, and the examiner will already think you’re worthy of the title Doctor before your viva has even begun.
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