Reporting and discussion thesis chapters

The reporting and discussion thesis chapters deal with the central part of the thesis. This is where you present the data that forms the basis of your investigation, shaped by the way you have interpreted it and developed your argument or theories about it. In other words, you tell your readers the research story that has emerged from your findings. These chapters will form the bulk of your complete thesis. Before you even begin writing up the reporting and discussion chapters, you’ll need to undertake some thinking and planning.

Find the story in your data

For many kinds of research, the main work of interpretation cannot be done until most of the data has been collected and analysed. For others, the data already exists (in the form of archival documents or literary texts, for example) and the work of interpreting it begins much earlier in the research process.

Whatever kind of research you are doing, there comes a moment when your head is full of ideas that have emerged from your analysis. Ideally, you will have written them down as they came to you. Now you have to convert that mass of material and ideas into a written text that will make sense to a reader, and do justice to your findings.

How will you decide which aspects of your findings are the most interesting and important? It is useful to remind yourself what the task of writing up research is all about:

…the major task of writing [about our research] involves working out how to make contextually grounded theoretical points that are viewed as a contribution by the relevant professional community of readers.

(Golden-Biddle & Locke, 1997, p. 20)

That is, in your thesis you need to make points that are:

  • contextually grounded (based on your data)
  • theoretical (related to relevant theory)
  • viewed as a contribution by the relevant professional community of readers (they add something to the current body of research or theory).

These points must fit into a framework that makes a coherent story of your findings.

Present your findings

Every thesis writer has to present and discuss the results of their inquiry. In a traditional doctoral thesis, this will consist of a number of chapters where you present the data that forms the basis of your investigation, along with your analysis and interpretation of the data.

For some fields of study, the presentation and discussion of findings follows established conventions; for others, the researcher’s argument determines the structure. Therefore it is important for you to investigate the conventions of your own discipline, by looking at journal articles and theses.

There is a great deal of disciplinary variation in the presentation of findings. For example, a thesis in oral history and one in marketing may both use interview data that has been collected and analysed in similar ways, but the way the results of this analysis are presented will be very different because the questions they are trying to answer are different. The presentation of results from experimental studies will be different again. In all cases, though, the presentation should have a logical organisation that reflects:

  • the aims or research question(s) of the project, including any hypotheses that have been tested
  • the research methods and theoretical framework that have been outlined earlier in the thesis.

You are not simply describing the data. You need to make connections, and make apparent your reasons for saying that data should be interpreted in one way rather than another.

Discuss your findings

In the discussion of your findings you have an opportunity to develop the story you found in the data, drawing connections between the results of your analysis and existing theory and research. While the amount of discussion required in a thesis may vary according to discipline, all disciplines require some interpretation of the findings that draw these connections. There are three key elements to incorporate into this discussion: links to your research question; relation to other research; and implications of your research.

Using cautious language

Discussing results and drawing conclusions involves making claims about interpretation, significance and applicability. This is done within a research tradition where existing knowledge is always being modified in the light of new results. As a researcher, you are expected to distinguish carefully between:

  • knowledge you are sure of because you have reliable evidence for it
  • other knowledge you are less sure of
  • other knowledge you think is only within the realms of possibility.

Therefore, very strong claims, like the one below, are rare in academic writing.

Reducing fat intake lowers the risk of heart disease.

A claim like this, which implies that the statement is true in every case, cannot be supported with evidence. Claims should therefore be specific and precise, and the level of certainty must match the level of evidence. There are many methods used in academic writing to qualify a claim: