It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I did say I’d be gone for a while, though I wasn’t quite certain how long. I can’t say things have changed much, but I did want to get this post out before the end of the year, no matter what.
I’m feeling quite nostalgic today. It’s December 19th. 15 years ago today the Fellowship of the Ring was released in theatres. That really was a turning point in my life, and it’s been a constant thread that’s woven in and out of it ever since. It may seem odd to have been so influenced by a movie, based on a fiction, but there it is. I’m sure someone can say the same of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
But today, of all days, I’m thinking of endings. Or, in terms of a PhD, conclusions. They’re hard things to write, conclusions. You’ve written all these words, managed to explain your complicated methodology, expounded at length about all the other authors you read who influenced you, created analysis chapters that your examiners will enjoy reading…and now you’ve come to it at last.
[Anyone want to count the Tolkien quotes in this post? I’ll give you a cookie if you spot them all.]
Conclusions are pesky things. You feel like you’ve said all the important stuff, and now you still have to write a few more thousand words. It kind of feels a bit like an insult. After all your months and months of hard work…you have to write everything you’ve already written, but in different words, and more condensed. Why? Didn’t your examiners get it the first time around? Why do you have to repeat yourself?
Conclusions are tiring things. They seem the hardest to write, after everything else. You aren’t introducing anything new. You aren’t explaining your intentions. You aren’t showing someone else’s work. So what are you doing?
You’re showing yours. That’s it. This is your chance to show your examiners and anyone else who reads your thesis one day, what you’ve done. Someone should be able to read only your conclusion chapter and get the point of your thesis.
And conclusions are especially frustrating things because, as Tolkien once said ‘all’s well that ends better’. And your conclusion must be that better ending. It must be uplifting and inspiring. It’s the last thing people will read and it’s your last chance for them to put your thesis down and say ‘that was good’. Even if the rest of your thesis has issues, or stumbles, you can make up for a lot in your conclusion (though not, I point out, everything).
You conclusion is a chance for you to summarise. There is a lot in your other chapters, and some of it can be lost in the reading. The conclusion is where you drive your point home. Where you say what you did, why it’s important, and where you can go from here. The conclusion is not an opportunity to waffle. It’s not where you should use more words than you need. The conclusion is where you need active voice. Be direct. Be clear. Be concise. Don’t let your reader get to your last page and wonder ‘I still can’t figure out why this is significant’.
But your conclusion is also where you need to admit that your amazing project…has issues. Every single project has issues. If you don’t admit them, it sounds like you didn’t acknowledge the limitations, or just chose to ignore them completely. Either looks bad. This isn’t where you expound on how bad your PhD is. It’s just where you acknowledge that there were limitations, you couldn’t do everything, if you had changed a variable you might have gotten other results, etc. Don’t go on for too long, but do explain this. Because if you don’t catch the limitations, your examiners will.
But, most importantly, your conclusion is where you say, in clear and no uncertain terms, what your contribution is. Why is this huge body of work important? Why have you spent 3/4/5 years of your life on it? Why should anyone be reading it?
A conclusion really doesn’t have to be long. A few thousand words is typical. You should have said everything that needed saying already, this is just where you summarise it and state the really important stuff again so that it stands out.
And then…then you have to figure out the conclusion to the conclusion. You can’t just…end. That last page, page and a half, is where you want to leave your readers wondering if you are some unknown genius that has discovered something that will change the future of the world. You probably haven’t, but you want to inspire your reader with the possibilities of your thesis. Of where it could go next and what the future of your field could hold for it.
So, have you thought of an ending?