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Writers’ Lab: How to write your Conclusions, Part II: Doctoral Dissertation

Last week, we discussed how to write the “Summary and Conclusions” section for a paper. We looked at what we don’t want to see in this section in any paper – regardless of your excuse – and then we discussed how I go about writing this very section of a paper.

Today, we are looking at writing the final chapter of your dissertation, or at least, my 2 cents on that topic. We are assuming that you did some decent planning, so that you don’t need to write your final chapter the night before your draft dissertation is due. I can’t repeat it often enough: keep some buffer in your planning so that, whatever happens, you leave yourself the luxury of time to edit your work.

Before looking at the HOW of writing the final chapter of the dissertation, let’s zoom into the GOALS for this chapter. Regardless of your field, you will have specific messages that you want your readers to remember. For my dissertation (engineering), my specific goals were the following – and elements of this can apply over the boundaries of disciplines:

  • Give an overview of the main original contributions: I wanted to serve these up on a shiny tray for the committee and readers to show that where precisely my contributions are situated, within my research field. No need for unnecessary modesty, simply listing your contributions can be quite helpful to start a summary.
  • Summarize what was said in the different chapters: My goal for the final chapter was to have an executive summary of the entire dissertation. I was shooting for about 10 pages, and ended up with 13 pages for my final chapter (book size, that is – not A4/letter). For every reader pressed for time or not so interested in my work, I wanted to have this chapter ready so that they can get a nice eagle view of the dissertation.
  • Release the structure of the chapters: You might not agree with me on this point, but I wanted the summary to be rather thematic than by chapter. Therefore, I selected a number of main topic and summarized around these ideas. The overall sequence of these topics did follow the sequence of the chapters in my dissertation.
  • Reaching out to practice: This goal might be typical for a more practice-oriented topic as mine, but I still think including a paragraph in which you reflect upon the practical implications of your results into the your field is very valuable. This paragraph can be detailed and ready-to-implement, such as the list of recommendations that I included for engineers assessing reinforced concrete slab bridges in shear, but it can also be as general as pointing towards a few ideas that can be further worked out by practitioners. Having a link to practice, by all accounts, seems to be valuable to me.
  • Future work. As much as you might have done during your PhD and studies, you’ll never have it all finished. As in, there will always be a number of open ends, questions that remain lingering in the sideline. That does not mean that your work isn’t ready for a doctorate, that simply means another researcher might like to pick up from here, or you might like to assign these topics later on to a masters’ student.

Given that we now have defined the elements that we want to include in the Conclusions section, it is now time to look at how we will be doing this. The key element here is reflection, reflection and then some more reflection.

  • If someone were to read nothing but your conclusions chapter, what would you want them to remember from your work?
  • What is your take-home message for your audience?

These are the questions to ask yourself, and to keep asking yourself while writing your final chapter.

As I explained last week, I write the “Summary and Conclusions” section of a paper by taking notes while proofreading the first draft. For the final chapter of my dissertation, I used a scaled-up version of this approach:

  • I had used the “proofread, note, summarize” approach for the final section (“Conclusions”) of every single chapter.
  • I then went out to copy-paste all these summaries together into the final chapter.
  • From that raw material, I started cooking up the main ideas for the overall summary.
  • Then, I added the sections with the practical implications and the future research.
  • Finally, I reread it, asking myself if this is really the very core of my work or not.

Using this approach, I could not only write my final chapter very quickly (about 2 to 3 days of work for the first version), but I also kept reminding myself frequently of staying on course, staying close to the core of my work and trying to make the final chapter the executive summary of the entire dissertation.

How did you write your final dissertation chapter, or how are you planning to do this? Is your approach similar, or completely different? Share your experience in the comments section!

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This Post Has 15 Comments
  1. I am beginning on my conclusion… and was feeling overwhelmed. Your tips on doing it chapter by chapter, then combining them has been invaluable. Thank you.

  2. Excellent! Just getting ready to review my conclusion chapter for my M.S. thesis. Kind of prepared that I'm going to have major rewrites as I absolutely hated writing this final chapter.

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