How do I start my discussion chapter?

On Twitter this week two people asked me for advice for starting the discussion chapter of their thesis / dissertation (I’m going to use the word thesis from now on because I am Australian). I didn’t feel up to answering in 140 characters or less, so I promised a post on it today.

If you are feeling anxious about the discussion section rest assured you are not alone. It’s an issue that comes up time and time again in my workshops. There’s no one answer that can help everyone because every project is original, so I thought I would offer a few thoughts on it by way of starting a conversation.

Evans, Gruba and Zobel, in their book “How to Write a Better Thesis”, describe the discussion chapter as the place where you:

“… critically examine your findings in the light of the previous state of the subject as outlined in the background, and make judgments as to what has been learnt in your work”

Essentially the discussion chapter tells your reader what your findings might mean, how valuable they are and why. I remember struggling with this section myself and, looking back, I believe there were two sources of anxiety.

The first is scholarly confidence. At the University of Melbourne we used to talk about how a good thesis has a ‘Ph Factor’. The Ph factor is somewhat elusive and hard to describe, but basically it means you have to make some knowledge claims. You need to have the confidence to say something is ‘true’ (at least, without getting too post modern about it, true within the confines of your thesis). This can feel risky because, if you have been approaching the thesis in the right spirit, you are likely to be experiencing Doubt.

The second source of anxiety is the need to think creatively. Most of the rest of the thesis asks us to think analytically; or, if you are in a practice based discipline, to make stuff; or perhaps, if you are an ethnographer, to observe the world in some way. Creative thinking involves your imagination, which means you have to switch gears mentally.

So the problem of the discussion chapter is a problem of creative thinking and confidence, but there are some stylistic conventions and knowledge issues that complicate the task. Every thesis needs to have discussion like elements, but they may do it in different ways.

In a conventional thesis, what we call the IMRAD type (introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusion) the discussion chapter appears a discrete chapter. Before you worry about the discussion chapter too much, consider whether you need to treat the discussion as a separate section at all. You need to keep in mind that the IMRAD structure is best used to write up empirical research work (the type where you collect data of some kind).

In the past I have referred to the IMRAD formula as the ‘dead hand of the thesis genre’; a phrase I picked up from my colleague Dr Robyn Barnacle. It’s a dead hand because of the role it plays in the imagination of the research community throughout the world. The IMRAD formula is the most widely understood format because it is the type most widely described in the ‘how to’ genre and has a close and abiding relationship to the scientific method. Many students try to make their research fit into the IMRAD format, when it is not appropriate to do so.

I can be easy to feel ‘blocked’ if you are a non scientist trying to separate out the discussion from the rest of what you are writing. Remember there are many ways to skin the discussion cat. For example, an artist may discuss each project and what it means separately. An ethnographer might devote a chapter to each theory they have built from observation. Likewise a historian may break the thesis up into time periods and do critique and evaluation throughout the whole.

So I have diagnosed some of the problems, are there any easy solutions? Well, the best way to start in my view is just to write, but perhaps start to write without the specific purpose of the discussion chapter in mind. Write to try and work out what you think and then re-write it later.

You can use a couple of basic techniques to help you with this process:

  •  Try the old ‘compare and contrast’ technique. Draw up a table describing where your work is similar to others and where it differs. Use each of these points as a prompt to write a short paragraph on why.
  • Use the “The big machine” trick as suggested by Howard Becker in his book ‘tricks of the trade’ (now only $3.99 on Kindle? Bargain!). Pretend your results are produced by a machine then describe the machine. How would the machine work? What would it look like? What parts would it need? What might make the machine break?
  • Another useful suggestion from Howard Becker is the null hypothesis technique; write down why the results mean nothing. Sometimes forcing yourself to argue the reverse position can highlight the relationships or ideas worth exploring.
  • Sometimes having an audience can help. Explain the results to a friend and record yourself, or use voice recognition software to tell your computer some of your preliminary thoughts. Many people find talking an easier way to get ideas out. Alternatively write them in an email to someone.
  • Explain the limitations of the work: what is left out or yet to do? Sometimes, like the null hypothesis, talking about the limitations can help you better define the contribution your study has made.

I hope some of these suggestions help to get you started. Do you have any more? Are there ‘tricks’ you have used to help you get your creative juices flowing?

Related Posts

The Dead Hand of the Thesis Genre?

Ambivalence: can it help with your PhD?

34 thoughts on “How do I start my discussion chapter?

  1. Interesting and excellent read! Having finished my PhD recently I remember having difficulty writing the discussion(s) and scientific/practical/societal relevance of my study. Reading a lot of papers of previous research by others made me get the illusion my thesis wouldn’t add anything new or worthy. A long and thorough discussion with my Professor made me realize I did present some new elements, but it took a while before I really believed him.

    In stead of writing one discussion chapter, each chapter in which I present my results or approach contains a discussion. This had the advantage that when writing the chapter, you are better able to consider the differences with other findings and you have the best knowledge of your own findings. The conclusions then summarized the most important elements of these discussions.

    The null hypotheses was also mentioned by my professor, in an other form. He asked me if I could falsify my own conclusions with the same data, but with other approaches or models, and how I would actually do so. These questions made me think about the possibilities and other models which I didn’t consider. It really helped me in writing the discussion.

  2. I thought I’d chime in from the literature perspective. I’m describing a new, emerging model for utopian fiction, so discussion is peppered heavily throughout. Each aspect of my methodology has implications for utopianism and utopian scholarship, so I discuss that in each chapter. In the conclusion, I will do a lot of what you called “what is left out or yet to do,” since there is no way I can fully explore my new methodology or the novels it’s based on within my page/time limit.

    I’ve produced the ideas for discussion throughout my writing process because, from the very beginning, I’ve had to justify to my committee and myself that my project is valid and supportable by the textual evidence, and prove not only that my work is different from existing scholarship but also justify the need for a “new” model and methodology. (The last was a hard sell.)

    Every time I sit down to write, the question foremost in my mind is, “So what?” Why is this important? How does it add to existing scholarship? If I were to write a sequel to this thesis, what might come next?

    Thanks for a great post!

  3. Hm, so strange – I’m a couple of paragraphs away from finishing my conclusion and shockingly enough, everything’s fallen together just how I wanted and expected it to. I’ve taken into account any contradictory arguments I could think of, and accepted them or suggested alternatives, in addition to piecing together all the arguments I put out in the last chapters to explain how they led me to this conclusion. I might be overconfident right now because I haven’t shown my supervisors yet but I expect they’ll find something to point out that brings me down :(

    • Radhika: I know exactly what you mean. I’ve written material that I thought was insightful, only to have it “shot down” by one or more members of my committee. The most traumatic example was a poorly-theorized section of my prospectus. I ended up spending the whole summer researching, taking notes, and thinking about the new material my prof required me to read, then the entire fall semester figuring out what it meant for my thesis. But now that I look back at my original material, I absolutely cringe. The new research may have added months to my work, but it also improved it dramatically. I still cringe at the fear of a negative reception from my committee, but at least I know they criticize in order to help.

      There’s another side to that, though. It’s a joke around my house that my committee chair probably thinks I have oppositional-defiant disorder because every time I’ve pitched a paper to him, he’s told me it was a bad idea, and then I went ahead with it anyway. The thing is, he has always ended up liking the result. I’m sure the problem is that I don’t articulate my ideas well in the beginning, so they don’t sound viable. I’ve learned to recognize a certain sense of confidence that, yes, this is a good idea and I can pull it off, given enough time to think, research, and write.

      I guess it’s a balancing act between understanding your own capabilities and the level of tolerance you can expect from your prof/committee.

      I wish I was as close to being done as you are! Totally jealous over here. ;)

      • I still have trouble pitching ideas to my colleagues until they have made it into writing. I guess we learn to think through writing. now I write abstracts to clarify my thoughts first – there’s a coupke of tips for writing abstracts in my prezi ‘write that journal article in 7 days’

      • Being so close to finishing makes it worse! I had my soups shoot down entire chapters in the past but then I had enough time (or so it felt) to fix things and not take things too personally or, you know, panic! My last meeting had them telling me to switch around my entire chapter structure. However NOW the bother is that all the chapters refer back to each other so even a little change e.g. one in structure will be a mighty task!

        Also, don’t be jealous, please! This is just a Master’s degree, I only have 2 years to do it! PhDs never end, I hear :)

  4. This is all really useful as I write my findings chapters as it reminds me of what needs to be in the discussion chapter. enjoying reading about procrastination too. Hmmm must get back to writing :-)

  5. Thank you so much. I was very stuck on what to do with my discussion since my paper is qualitative with no research at all and I need to make the discussion and limitations discrete sections.

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  10. Thank you very much for this. My results are mostly the dreaded ‘n.s.’, so the first and third bullet points were very useful for me. Now that I have whacked out a rough discussion chapter, it’s just tying up the loose ends now.

    *not looking forward for it to be shot down though*

  11. thanks a lot :) surely helped a lot! currently writing the discussion for my undergrad thesis… it’s been tough even if it’s just undergrad thesis :| how I wish my thesis professor was just like you in trying to alleviate the stress of going through thesis writing

  12. Thank Inger, this is brilliant. I’ve just sat down to write my discussion chapter. I have several stand-alone chapters with analysis and discussion in each, and was wondering if I needed an overall thesis discussion chapter. Your first few lines convinced me that I do, and after jotting down the ‘state of the subject’ and what I’ve added, I’m excited about writing the chapter and feeling positive about my work.

    I also enjoyed reading everyone’s comments and learning that doubt is normal, that other people aren’t great at pitching ideas without first writing and exploring them too. Thanks everyone!

  13. I´m working on my discussion and I found it VERY difficult!
    I doubt about the importance of my research and results and that make me feel more insecure abiut discussion. It is good to read that this chapter is complicated for someonle else than me! Tanks

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  15. i have seen really different interesting ideas and comments on these replies on different topics of writing thesis but still i am not getting fully confidence how to write out my discussion chapter. In real i am writing about ethological discussion on wild buffalo from Nepal KTWR. i request for all interested but ecological skilled person for good suggestion.

  16. Its like you read myy thoughts! You seem to grasp a lot
    about this, suuch as you wrote the e-book in it or something.
    I believe that you can do with a few percent to
    pressure the mewsage home a little bit, but othber than that, this is wonderful blog.
    A great read. I’ll certainly be back.

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