One of the most difficult things to do in drafting any piece of writing (but especially a thesis or dissertation) is the introduction and conclusion. Students often try to tackle the introduction first; I usually advise them to write both the introduction and conclusion last, because they both have a summative function. I also advise students to write them together, because they function as ‘mirror images’ of one another. Here are a few tips I share with my students – I hope you find them useful.
The main purpose of an introduction is to ease your reader into your topic, giving enough of a sense of what is to come later in the dissertation without getting too deeply into the issues. This can be a difficult needle to thread and there are no ‘right’ ways to do it – it is a process of drafting and redrafting, and moving things around, until you feel it works.
Generally, your introduction should:
- Clarify the focus of your study. What exactly did you research, and what did you want to find out? Introduce your research questions and briefly explain why you are asking these questions and not others (you will cover this in more detail in your literature review).
- Put your research in context. Why was it worth doing? What gap(s) in our knowledge about your topic did it address, and why are they important? (again though, you will cover this in more detail in your literature review). Did it have broader social or policy relevance as well as its academic contribution?
- Give other contextualising information. What time period and geographical area(s) did your research cover? What population(s)?
- Briefly summarise your methodology. What was your methodological framework? What data did you collect and how did you collect it? How was it analysed? (you will cover this in full in your methodology).
- Briefly provide any background information your readers might need, and clarify any key terms that might need to be understood before your readers move on to your literature review and/or theory (assume an educated non-specialist).
- Give an overview of the structure of your dissertation – what will each of the chapters cover and how do they link together?
These sections can be presented in the sequence you prefer – see how it flows for you – it will be different for different topics and projects.
The main purpose of a conclusion is to connect the beginning of your project with the end. Conclusions are often written perfunctorily and in a hurry, which is a big mistake – this is your opportunity to make the most of your findings and to state very clearly why your research is important. In terms of marking, an interesting and clear conclusion can make up for a multitude of sins (poor structure, vague argument for example) in the write-up of your data. It is the last thing your marker will leave, so try to leave them feeling positive about your work.
Generally, your conclusion should:
- Briefly restate your main findings and the arguments you have derived from your data. Remember here that you do not need to have all the answers – in fact, it’s useful to leave a few loose ends and open questions for the reader to ruminate on afterwards.
- Go back to your research questions – this is something that students often fail to do! And it’s especially important if you have had trouble structuring your data analysis. Remember what you wanted to find out in the first place – have you answered your questions? Also, remember that if your data did not answer your questions that is not a problem – it’s likely that it answered questions that were much more interesting instead. The conclusion is an opportunity to reflect on why that might have been the case. If your data did not answer your initial research questions then now is the time to move on from them and talk about all the other things you found out that were much more important.
- Say how your research has contributed to knowledge about your topic. Has it filled a gap in the academic literature and how? How might scholars be able to use it in future? Does it have broader social or policy implications and what are they? If it does have policy implications you may want to make some recommendations, but this is more relevant to some dissertations than others and it is not necessary if not appropriate. The same with recommendations for future research – if your project has raised some burning additional questions that should be investigated you can spend some time reflecting on this, but don’t recommend further research for the sake of it.
- Explore any limitations of your project and how you might do things differently next time. Would you use a different theory? Would you conduct your research any differently and why? Remember that being aware of your project’s limitations is a strength and not a weakness this doesn’t mean you have to trash your own work but I would certainly encourage you to be reflexive and humble about it.
Again, these sections can be presented in the order you prefer – experiment and see what works – although if your final section covers your project’s limitations I would add an additional short paragraph rounding everything off and saying a few final words about your topic and your project, to leave your reader with something positive. The last few lines of your dissertation are likely to be the ones they remember most!