Finishing off the dissertation

All over the world, doctoral students are working to complete their doctoral research before presenting their thesis or dissertation (depending on what part of the world you reside in) to examiners. In the final throes of developing one’s writing, sometimes it is easy to lose sight of things. One issue that I have noted in working with doctoral students is that writing the final chapter of a traditional five-chapter dissertation can be challenging. (Of course, there are many alternative formats to completing a dissertation that are not addressed here.) Sometimes, new scholars find themselves so exhausted that they are not sure what to include. Here are some ideas to keep going to finish up that final chapter.

Review of research questions and findings

The final chapter is a space in which a researcher sums up the key findings that respond to the study’s research questions and explains what is important about these for readers. This is a place to answer the questions: Why are the findings of this study important? For whom? What next?

Thus, one place to start is to review the research questions posed, and then provide of the key findings that have been outlined in the findings chapter/s. Through fieldwork, you may have developed some new questions that you did not initially anticipate (“emergent questions”), but explored as part of the study. Be sure to add those.

In his chapter on “Tightening up” in his book about writing up qualitative studies, educational anthropologist Harry Wolcott (2009) suggests that you don’t need to really “conclude” a study (p. 113). Rather, one can offer a summary on what the study was about, along with recommendations and implications (pp. 116-119). Irrespective of what advice you read — it is always good practice to check with your adviser and members of your advisory committee.

Implications and recommendations

The final chapter of a thesis or dissertation typically includes “implications” and “recommendations.” What might be included in these sections? Implications in Wolcott’s (2009) view are somewhat more tentative than recommendations. Consider here: What tensions, issues and challenges were illuminated in this study? Wolcott suggests identifying “inherent tensions and paradoxes” (p. 117) (bolding in original). Recommendations typically provide ideas for theory, practice and further research. For each of findings generated, begin by writing a statement about ideas that you have that could possibly assist the potential audiences for the study. These typically take in recommendations for

  • theory (for example scholars identified at the outset of the study);
  • practice (people working in applied fields who would benefit from the findings of the study); and
  • research (questions and issues that arose during the study that were not examined that other researchers could examine).

Statement of limitations

Authors might also make mention of any limitations of a study (although these are sometimes found in the methods chapter ). All studies have some limitations – this does not mean that there is something wrong with the study – rather a statement of limitations provides readers with an idea of how the author situates the study’s findings within a broader field of inquiry. For example, you might discuss some of the following issues:

Selection criteria: Researchers must limit the scope of any particular study for practical reasons. Yet, because we select some sites and participants and not others, what is omitted from the study’s frame? For example:

  • How was the study site selected?
  • What was missed by selecting particular participants for the study, and not others?

Research methods: Researchers also generate and collect some sorts of data, but not others. Again, through the use of particular sorts of data, certain issues become visible, while others are excluded.

  • What did the methods used make visible? What was missed by the use of these methods?
  • If interviews were used, were these one-off interviews, or serial interviews?

The researcher: Researchers select topics, research sites and participants, conduct research, and make sense of data in particular ways.

  • What does the researcher bring to this study?
  • In what was does this limit the researcher’s ability to tell the story of this study? In what ways does this help?
  • Were there relational issues that arose during the course of the study that were anticipated? How did these impact the course of the study, and how the researcher interpreted findings?

For all those doctoral students working to complete their doctoral research over the next six months, be encouraged. Many have gone before you and finished. You can too. Be sure to add a visible note somewhere in your work area that outlines the research questions you posed when you initiated your study. It is easy to get a little lost through the reading, writing and analysis process. Remember, your thesis or dissertation gets written one word and one sentence at a time.

I wish you the very best with that.

Kathy Roulston


Wolcott, H. F. (2009). Writing up qualitative research (3rd Ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.


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