It might seem strange to be talking about how to end your thesis right at the beginning of this series of posts, but right from the start, when you are writing up, you need to have a view of how your thesis will close. It may even be the chapter that you write first, albeit with the expectation that it will change (possibly substantially) once you have written everything else. From the point of view of being examined on your work, you need to make it perfectly clear that you have accomplished what you set out to do, that you’ve made a contribution and that you know exactly what the next person should do.
As an aside, I would always talk in terms of Concluding Remarks rather than conclusions, for several reasons. The most important of these is that there are very few circumstances in which the final thing that you have to say is the final word on the subject. The second most important is that you will have mentioned several ‘conclusions’, in the classical sense (i.e. the completion of a line of argument) elsewhere in the thesis and the third is that there are likely to be other comments which aren’t really conclusions per se that will be included here.
Concluding Remarks form something of a bookend with the Introduction (see Monday 11th April). Different people will view this in different ways, but my default starting position for this final chapter is to break it down into three main sections: Summary, Key Findings, Further Work. The Summary is a précis of the context and ethos* of the thesis – a (very) brief reminder about what the work was about and how you went about doing it. To some extent you will be able to pick this up and use it as a starting point for writing the Abstract, although in the Abstract you will need to think about including something about the results and their meaning, whereas here that is the purpose of the Key Findings section. Depending on the exact nature of your project, this may be shorter or longer, but typically you need to be thinking about 3-5 significant points, which really define your work. Point back to where you showed this in the body of thesis.
*No. He wasn’t one of the Musketeers.
Finally, you need to talk about Further Work. If you did some form of science at school then you probably had to write lab reports and at this point you probably said something like: “I would repeat the experiment to improve the accuracy”. If you were the class swot, you might have added: “I would repeat the experiment, changing X, because I think Y will happen.” This approach will not cut it here.
At the point of writing your thesis, you will be the world expert on your thesis. (Enjoy the moment). Think about everything that you have learned and about the context that your projects sits in. Can it be commercialised? What needs to be done for this to happen? Have you developed something which will support standardisation? A question I like to ask students is: “Which is more important – the Special Theory of Relativity or the General Theory?”.
To some extent there is no right or wrong answer, but to my mind it is the General Theory, because it is more widely applicable, where as the Special Theory only works for a particular set of circumstances. Is your work widely applicable, or is it very focussed? What impact will it have on society?
I like to suggest a ‘budget’ for a chapter – particularly when a student is prone to waffling. This is a way of helping to focus the mind and to encourage brevity. (In extreme cases, penalties are applied for going over budget, usually in some meaningful currency like beer). You can always expand on a point as necessary, but it can be (very) difficult to cut things down if they get too wordy. My budget for Concluding remarks is: 2/3 to 1 page for the Summary; 2/3-2 pages for Key Findings; and 1-2 pages for Further Work. Chances are, you will go over budget. Try not to. Focus on what is important and say it in the necessary minimum number of words.