Supporting the final (dissertation) chapter

Winning runner with cloud background

There would appear to be very little written about the last chapter of a dissertation, and even less about how a research supervisor can support the student in this final important effort. There are multiple metaphors of sustaining oneself through various races. The writing of the final chapter is akin to that last stretch of the race where you can see the finish line in sight but your body is aching and you are unsure whether you will make it to the end. Many a sports coach has advised their athlete on strategies for the final surge. There is nothing worse than collapsing with exhaustion before the end has been reached!

When we think of pedagogy for supporting the final chapter it is worthwhile to take a lead from Socrates and Socratic questioning – asking the research student about their overall study is a good way to help them focus on what needs to be said in this final chapter. This pedagogy brings with it an attitude toward the student that is often talked about, but not always made explicit. After undertaking a long term study, the research student has become the expert in their own topic. They are knowledgeable about this particular study and there is a risk that with all their knowledge they may forget to scaffold their achievements in ways that those who have not journeyed the journey can comprehend. It is akin to choosing a selection of travel photos to share your trip with an interested audience, rather than requiring friends who express interest in your trip to view every photo in order to understand what you enjoyed about your travel.

The whole dissertation is an argument. The final chapter serves a purpose to make explicit the contributions being made by this particular study to the body of knowledge. This idea that research makes a contribution to knowledge is quite a traditional one and one which has been reinvigorated by the Bologna Agreement to ensure that doctoral or research work is clearly focussed on contributions to knowledge.

Some of the questions I have used with students setting out their final chapter include:

  • What are the conclusions you have reached through your investigation? Where do these conclusions fit in the frame you established to contextualise your study at the start of the investigation?
  • How do you think these conclusions will make a difference to whatever you have been studying?

Both these questions make explicit links to earlier chapters, particularly those chapters that helped to frame the issue or question your research was investigating. When these links are made explicit, a reader can remember what they have read earlier in their reading of the dissertation and can then make the connections you want them to as they read the final chapter.

An additional pertinent question about the contributions made by a particular dissertation comes from a discussion I had recently with a colleague about the relevance of theoretical findings to practice. The line of the argument was that as taxpayers have in some way contributed to a research study, they have an entitlement to see that the engagement in research has made a difference in their lives or in the lives of those people whom they know. I likened this to the experience many members of a graduation audience have when they listen to the summaries of the graduating PhD students and struggle to understand what it is they have been studying, and more importantly how their research actually makes a difference. My colleague alluded to a challenge made about a number of Australian research council grants that resulted in one of the academics explaining the relevance of her innocuous topic on talk back radio. This helped to make the connection for the person in the street, or as in this case, the listener on talkback radio.

The second agenda I hope I bring to the writing of the final chapter is one of scaffolding. As claims are made about the conclusions arising from the analysis of the data, it is hoped that the line of argument is also evident. That a reader can remember what they have read about the positioning of the study in the initial chapters, and remember the conclusions reached from the analysed data and make the appropriate connections to the claims being made in this final chapter to the contributions to knowledge. Because of the size of the dissertation, sometimes these claims need quite explicit referencing so that a reader can flick back a few pages and see how the line of argument is being made.

A third agenda relates to other contributions the study has made alongside the obvious contribution to the knowledge base of the topic being studied. One of my students improved a framework used to analyse the data of her study. In her final chapter she wrote about this being a contribution to methodology. Another student, early in the practice-related inquiry phase, had advanced the notion of what it meant to undertake practice-related inquiry, and this at a time when the approach was still emerging within research practice. This also constituted a contribution to the knowledge associated with practice-related inquiry. These additional contributions also need to be teased out in a final chapter so that an examiner is fully aware of all of the ways in which a student has advanced their thinking.

A final strategy that I have found useful in reading the student’s dissertation and particularly in advising about what is needed in the final chapter, is based on a notion that earlier chapters contain promises of what is to come. These may be explicit or may be implied in the writing, and as I read the earlier chapters I try to note the promises being made so that in the final chapters I can audit whether these promises have been delivered. The best example is linking the abstract to the actual dissertation and checking whether promises made in the abstract actually came to pass. That is not saying that all promises made have to be fulfilled. Sometimes the promises produce unforseen problems and explaining how that problem was addressed and resolved is also an important contribution to knowledge as it provides evidence of the problem solving abilities achieved through undertaking an investigation. In the final chapter these threads are drawn together and if still hanging loose, their looseness is identified so that a reader knows that the researcher knows that these issues are not fulfilled. These issues may turn into a section of future directions for this particular study.

A conversation with a research student on day I posted this blog has prompted me to look at a further issues related to the writing of the final chapter. While I see the final chapter as making explicit the contributions of knowledge, I realise that many people also see this chapter as laying the groundwork for studies that may follow in the wake of the study articulated in the dissertation. In this regard there is space in the final chapter for also making explicit the new questions that have emerged as a result of undertaking the study. The student to whom I spoke also added an important coda to this idea. His final chapter not only laid the groundwork for future studies but revealed the emergent passion for future studies that has come out of his initial investigation. In a sense his final chapter celebrated his finding his researcher’s voice. Too often students finish a study and complete their dissertation with the Peggy Lee line ’is that all there is?’ and when the final chapter can thus embrace and celebrate the emergent researcher, this in my opinion is a bonus both for the writer and the many readers who will benefit from their work.

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About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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