Once you have completed the main body of your dissertation or thesis, you then need to worry about drawing your conclusions, and the additional pages, such as whether to include a table of contents.
Your university may have guidelines but, otherwise, you will have to use your own judgement.
This page gives some advice about what is often included and why.
Writing your Conclusion
You may have been permitted, and have chosen, to include your conclusions in the discussion section, see our page on Results and Discussion for some ideas about why you might choose to do this.
However, it is normal practice to include a short section at the end of your dissertation that draws out your conclusions.
This section will need to have several elements, including:
- A brief summary, just a few paragraphs, of your key findings, related back to what you expected to see (essential);
- The conclusions which you have drawn from your research (essential);
- Why your research is important for researchers and practitioners (essential);
- Recommendations for future research (strongly recommended, verging on essential);
- Recommendations for practitioners (strongly recommended in management and business courses and some other areas, so check with your supervisor whether this will be expected); and
- A final paragraph rounding off your dissertation or thesis.
Your conclusion does not need to be very long; no more than five pages is usually sufficient, although detailed recommendations for practice may require more space.
Other Elements for Inclusion
Your university will almost certainly have formal guidelines on the format for the title page, which may need to be submitted separately for blind marking purposes.
As a general rule, the title page should contain the title of the thesis or dissertation, your name, your course, your supervisor and the date of submission or completion.
This is a one page summary of your dissertation or thesis, effectively an executive summary.
Not every university requires a formal abstract, especially for undergraduate or master's theses, so check carefully. If one is required, it may be either structured or unstructured.
A structured abstract has subheadings, which should follow the same format as your dissertation itself (usually Literature, Methods, Results and Discussion). There will probably also be a word limit for the abstract.
If an abstract is required, it may be published separately from your thesis, as a way of indexing it. It will therefore be assessed both as a part of your thesis, and as a stand-alone document that will tell other researchers whether your dissertation will be useful in their studies. It is generally best to write the abstract last, when you are sure of the thread of your argument, and the most important areas to highlight.
Table of Contents
You should include a table of contents, which should include all headings and subheadings.
It is probably best to use the standard software tools to create and update this automatically, as it leads to fewer problems later on. If you’re not sure how to do this, use the Help function in the software, or Google it.
The time spent learning how to do it accurately will be more than saved later on when you don’t have to update it manually.
Table of Figures
You only really need to include this if you have a lot of figures. As with your table of contents, it’s best to use the tools available in the software to create this, so that it will update automatically even if you move a table or figure later.
This section is used to ensure that you do not inadvertently fall foul of any ‘taking help’ guidance.
Use it to thank:
- Anyone who provided you with information, or who gave you their time as part of your research, for example, interviewees, or those who returned questionnaires;
- Any person or body who has provided you with funding or financial support that has enabled you to carry out your research;
- Anyone who has helped you with the writing, including anyone who has read and commented on a draft such as your supervisor, a proof-reader or a language editor, whether paid or unpaid;
- Anyone to whom you are particularly grateful, like your spouse or family for tolerating your absence from family occasions for years during your studies.
You should not use appendices as a general ‘dumping ground’ for stuff you found interesting, but couldn’t manage to shoehorn in anywhere else, or which you wanted to include but couldn’t within the word count.
Appendices should be used for relevant information only, such as copies of your questionnaires or interview outlines, letters asking people to participate or additional proofs.
You can be reasonably confident that nobody will read them in any detail, so don’t bother to use an appendix to explain why your argument is correct. Anything that you want to be read should be included in the main body of your text.
Check, Check and Check Again
Every university’s requirements are slightly different in terms of format, what sections need to be included and so on.
Make sure that you check what you have done against your university’s guidelines and that it conforms exactly.
If in doubt, check with the administrative staff dealing with submissions or with your supervisor. You really do not want to be penalised for an error of formatting.
Make sure that you put your dissertation together in a single document, and read it over as a whole before submitting it.
It is also a good idea to get somebody else to proofread your work to check for any mistakes that you may have missed.
Collating your dissertation may introduce errors of formatting or style, or you may notice duplication between chapters that you had previously missed.
Allow sufficient time for collating and final checks, and also for any formal binding required by the university, to avoid any last minute panics.
By Claire Aitchison
I love a good conclusion. There’s nothing more satisfying than reading a good paper that finishes strongly, but what a letdown when there is a poor – or non-existent – conclusion!
We know that most of us read the abstract, scan the introduction and then move quickly to the discussion and conclusions sections when we read research papers (Feak & Swales, 2011 p. 40). Whether it is a thesis or journal article the conclusion is really important, so why is it that it is so often badly done? And how can we make sure it’s as great as it can be?
Firstly, I think there are some useful processes that can help ensure a successful conclusion. Especially because a PhD thesis is such a long time in the making, it is useful to begin building the conclusion over months and years – at least from the time data is being collected and analysed. I suggest these steps to students I work with.
Build a ‘Conclusions Bank’
- From mid-stage in your PhD make a new file called ‘The Conclusions Bank’ and throw into it inspirations and ‘big ideas’ as you construct your thesis. For example, this is the place you can dump insights that come to you during data analysis or when reading the literature, and it’s a good place to store chapter leftovers.
Don’t worry about organising this information until you have finished all your data chapters and you are ready to begin your conclusion. It is easy to lose sight of such thinking in the latter stages of the thesis writing when you are mentally and physically exhausted. It can be an absolute delight to find this treasure trove of ideas just as you think you’ve run out of energy and inspiration.
Within the Conclusions Bank make a separate section into which you copy and paste each of the conclusion sections from each of your chapters as you write them. Having these together means you can eyeball all the parts in one place, enabling you to better synthesise these parts and see the big picture required to make the ‘big claims for significance’. Remember that a key task of a conclusion is to identify what it is that makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. It’s a big job for a totally blank page and an exhausted mind!
- At some point when you are toward the end of your writing, remove yourself from your work and freewrite to these questions:
- So, what have I found – and why does it matter?
- What do I know now, that I didn’t know before? (e.g., before I read the literature or before I collected and analysed the data)
- Who cares? / Who should care? (e.g., are these things of value for practitioners, for policy or theory, for improving how we collect or analyse data?)
- What do I know that no one else knows? (e.g., things that arise from my unique context or data sets)
The disappointing conclusion
As an editor or examiner, one of the most common failings I come across is a conclusion that looks and reads as if the author has run out of steam. That kind of conclusion is generally way too brief, sloppily written – and incredibly disappointing. Some examples include:
- A failure to overview the whole project, perhaps just focusing on one aspect (e.g., something the author has just explored in the section above, or their favourite aspect/part of the project).
- A collection of motherhood statements disconnected from the literature, ‘soap box’ announcements or imperatives for action that don’t necessarily flow from the evidence presented. For example, I recently reviewed a research paper where the author seemed to consider the final section as his/her chance for chest beating on issues not at all substantiated by the research presented: ‘Thus teachers should blah blah blah…’
- A lazy reiteration (even duplication) of statements from the abstract or the introduction or abstract.
- A bland re-summarising of the research and/or listing of findings.
- A failure to highlight the ‘take-home message’ – be that the key argument, key finding(s) or implications. This ‘high pass’ claim or observation is what makes a conclusion great.
So what should a conclusion do?
Remember that a conclusion may be read as a stand-alone item. As such it needs to inform the reader of what was done, how and why, what was found, and why it matters. It can be a challenge to reiterate all of this succinctly and without boring repetition, nevertheless, that’s the task of the conclusion.
Conclusions should do some or all of the following:
- remind the reader of the research problem and purpose and how they were addressed
- briefly summarise what has been covered in the paper
- make some kind of holistic assessment/judgement/ claim that pertains to the whole project (i.e., more than a descriptive summary)
- assess the value/relevance/ implications of the key findings in light of existing studies and literature
- ‘speak’ to the Introduction
- outline implications of the study (for theory, practice, further research)
- comment on the findings that failed to support or only partially support the hypothesis or research questions directing the study
- refer to the limitations of the studies that may affect the validity or the generalisability of results
- make recommendations for further research
- make claims for new knowledge/ contribution to knowledge.
(adapted from Belcher, 2009; Paltridge & Starfield, 2007; Swales & Feak, 1994)
How is a conclusion organised?
A conclusion is sometimes described as a mirror image of the introduction, in that it moves from the particular to the general. There is another sense in which the discussion and conclusion section is the reverse of the introduction: an introduction contains extended discussions on the previous existing research and literature on the topic, and relatively little on the current research. In the conclusion section the new research, positioned against existing knowledge, is the primary focus. In the concluding section, existing literature and previous research is used for confirmation, comparison or contradistinction (Swales, 2004 cited in Paltridge & Starfield, 2007, p. 147).
Every thesis is different and writers need to decide what suits their particular needs, writing style and methodological approach; however, being aware of common patterns and genres can help writers make judicious decisions to suit their own particular thesis. We know, for example, the structure of a Conclusion section in a thesis commonly follows these stages or moves:
- An introductory restatement of research problem, aims and/or research question
- A summary of findings and limitations
- Practical applications/implications
- Recommendations for further research
Given what we know about reader behaviour wherein the abstract, introduction and conclusion are often the only parts many readers bother with, it is essential that the conclusion concludes the paper in a succinct and punchy fashion. This is the last (but not only) chance to ensure the reader has clarity about what’s been done and the merits of these endeavours. Is it important that the conclusion answers the question: ‘So what?’ This is the hardest challenge for a conclusion-writer, so using strategies such as The Conclusions Bank and freewriting big ideas can be critical for building a conclusion that is great.
And finally, perhaps it is useful to remind ourselves of relevant aspects of the definition of a ‘conclusion’ – the conclusion is the end or final part; it is the result or outcome of an act or process, a judgment or decision reached after deliberation. No wonder it’s so hard!
Belcher, W. (2009). Writing your journal article in 12 weeks: a guide to academic publishing success. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.
Feak, C. B., & Swales, J. M. (2011). Creating contexts: writing introductions across genres (Vol. Volume 3 of the revised and expanded edition of English in Today’s Research World). United States of America: University of Michigan Press.
Thomson, P., & Kamler, B. (2013). Writing for peer reviewed journals: strategies for getting published. London: Routledge.
Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. Oxon: Routledge.
Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (1994). Academic writing for graduate students. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.