How I’m tackling my PhD discussion chapter

11 Jul

Seriously…..I can’t actually believe that I’m now writing my discussion chapter! I mean, how on earth did that happen?! It’s funny, over the past 5 years (I’m doing this part-time remember), my hubby often asked me (which by the way, got really annoying after year 2 let alone year 5!) “Do you see any kind of light at the end of the tunnel Em?” “Nope” I ALWAYS replied, “Not even a teeny weeny speckle of the stuff.” Honestly, I thought I’d be doing this PhD forever.

….and yet, here I am, writing my bloody discussion chapter!

I was inspired to write this blog post after a tweet today from @maggiedavies . The sense of trepidation was evident and I totally got it.   It’s THE chapter isn’t it? It’s the chapter that pulls everything together. It’s the chapter that tells the reader what it all means. It’s the chapter that demonstrates your thesis contributes to knowledge.

So basically, you have to…


…and if you don’t do that, then quite simply, I guess you don’t have a PhD thesis.  That’s just not funny

However, after another very productive and hugely supportive supervision session, I feel much more relaxed. My principle supervisor has this amazing ability to just make complete sense without putting the fear of god into me.  He is pretty remarkable. The advice he gave me in previous supervision sessions and my recent one is exactly the advice I have been/I am following. I will share this with you as it may help you too:

When editing literature review chapter and writing finding chapter(s), open a word document (name it your discussion chapter) and start putting words in it. At this stage, thoughts/concepts/questions will naturally come to you that you know will need to be explained/interpreted/talked about/verified in your discussion chapter. Write them down any way you wish – bullet points, single words, short sentences or paragraphs. Don’t worry about writing academically or if it makes any sense – they will serve as vital ‘cues’ when the time comes. I followed this advice while editing my literature review and writing/editing my findings chapters and I have just counted almost 11,000 words written on that word document (well I didn’t actually count them, my PC did). It’s very messy and in no particular order – some are bullet points, some are sentences, some are reminders with links to literature and some are “notes to self”. I can however, without a doubt, say that if I was facing a blank document now, ready to write my discussion chapter, I think I would have run for the hills.

So here’s what I plan to do now: I’m going to print it out, cut it up and arrange it on a flip chart paper. How am I going to arrange it? I’ve more superb advice from my supervisor.  I’m going to write working subheadings (which won’t necessarily feature in my thesis), but they will help me structure it and ensure that I include what I need to include. Here are those working headings:

  • What I did
  • How and why I did it
  • What I found (answered the research questions)
  • What was congruent with the literature?
  • What was surprising?
  • What are the implications for practice?
  • What are the implications for research?
  • What are the limitations to the study?
  • A final personal reflection (and a request for long term therapy sessions)

So I’m going to write the headings on a flip chart, cut up my rough notes etc. and arrange them under the headings. Then I plan to make further written notes on the flip chart paper about what I still need to write about. Once I have done that, I will write my chapter in the hope that when done, I will live in hope that …..



So basically, that is how I’m going to tackle my discussion chapter. There are also a number of excellent blog posts that I have come across that have been really helpful. Here they are:

How do I start my discussion chapter? by @thesiswhisperer

The discussion chapter – it’s about taking flight by @ThomsonPat

Explaining and justifying the use of theory via a sentence skeleton by @ThomsonPat

The zombie thesis by @thesiswhisperer

Are you currently writing your discussion chapter? How’s it going?

Have you been there and done it? Please do share your thoughts and experiences

If you’re not there yet, have you given your discussion chapter much thought? How are you feeling about it?

Thanks for dropping by, I shall let you know how it goes 🙂

31 Responses to “How I’m tackling my PhD discussion chapter”

  1. Bahia July 12, 2014 at 3:13 am #

    Thank you Emma !! Very useful and inspiring tips!!! I have been thinking lately about the discussion phase and how it will look like.

    • Emma Burnett July 16, 2014 at 8:03 am #

      Great to hear from you Bhaia and I am glad you found this post useful. Can’t wait to see you soon!

  2. Ketoki July 14, 2014 at 11:02 am #

    Thanks Emma for this post! It comes at a time when I am thinking up ways to start writing “the’ chapter and trying to make sense of the thesis. As always, I do count on your blog posts to help myself out of the blue PhD phases! Keep up the good work.

    • Emma Burnett July 16, 2014 at 8:04 am #

      You are very welcome Ketoki and I am delighted that my posts help you out of the PhD blue phases! Best of luck 🙂

  3. naila July 15, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

    this great from last couple of months i am going to check my discussion chapter. and supervisor regected . iws nearly to cry what to do,even my supervisor ws unable to guide me r i myself was unable. nw working on yur tips , lets hope for the best.thanks Emma

    • Emma Burnett July 16, 2014 at 8:05 am #

      Good luck with your chapter Naila. I agree, it’s a really tough one. You can do it! Let me know how it goes

  4. Jo Bentham July 30, 2014 at 7:43 pm #

    Good to find someone else writing up the Discussion chapter. Just starting. Love your headings as they are similar to the ones that my supervisor and I looked at. Very scared that I won’t find 10000 words! Need to have so much written by the end of the week. On a very tight timescale to completion. All the best!

    • Emma Burnett July 31, 2014 at 8:17 am #

      Hi Jo. These headings have helped me hugely in getting the chapter to its first draft. I also had similar worries about wordage – all I can say is don’t be! You’ll get to that number & way beyond in no time at all! Good luck for this week. Often those tight timescales is when we’re most productive. Let me know how it goes 🙂

  5. task list October 1, 2014 at 11:15 pm #

    Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Thank you, However I am having difficulties with your RSS.
    I don’t understand why I cannot join it. Is there anyone else having the same
    RSS problems? Anyone who knows the solution will you kindly respond?

  6. the (research) supervisor's friend April 9, 2015 at 9:54 pm #

    Refreshingly accurate! Thanks for this Emma. it is so important for the student’s side of dissertation writing to get out there and in the public domain as so much of the literature is written from a supervisor’s perspective. What I love about this is that it encourages the inquirer to jsut write. Nice scaffolding with the questions but just write. Sometimes at this late stage you might feel that you ahve no more energy to write but it is amazing how seeing what you ahve achieved in writing is another adrelin boost.
    Good luck with the final moments.

    • Emma Burnett April 10, 2015 at 8:33 am #

      Thank you for taking to the time to read this blog post and leaving feedback Geof. I couldn’t agree more with rapidly depleting energy levels during the final stages, but it’s important to keep focused and get on with writing. Whenever I felt like I couldn’t give any more, I reflected on the tougher times I faced during my PhD and gave myself a good talking to in that I got through those so I could get through this last push (well that and wine). Thank you for your best wishes. I’ve just checked out your blog and found some really interesting posts. Wish I’d found it sooner.

      • Alet December 12, 2015 at 3:18 am #

        Your post rejuvenated and re-energized me – your experiences of the discussion chapter sounds VERY familiar – I started working on this chapter a few days ago…felt a bit stuck….until I read your blog post…THANKS a 1000 000, Emma!

      • Emma Burnett December 12, 2015 at 6:08 pm #

        Hi Alet. I’m so pleased to hear my post helped you. Good luck with writing your discussion chapter – I suspect it won’t be as daunting as you think. Best wishes

  7. Liva February 2, 2016 at 2:22 am #

    Thanks Emma, your blog is really helpful especially as I’m on anxiety mode about my discussion chapter. What’s worse, I also want to transcribe some more interviews besides writing. It gives me hope that I’m not alone.

    • Emma Burnett February 2, 2016 at 9:05 am #

      Hello Liva. Thank you for your comments. You are definitely not alone. I wonder though, if you are still transcribing interview, perhaps writing your discussion chapter may be a little soon yet? Good luck with your work

  8. Elizabeth March 11, 2016 at 12:46 pm #

    Thanks for this! I’m awaiting feedback on my results draft chapters before starting the big D, but actually I could make a start using those headings. Love the memes!

    • Emma Burnett March 11, 2016 at 1:06 pm #

      Hi Elizabeth. Good luck with your discussion chapter. Although challenging, it’s actually quite an enjoyable chapter to write as it brings everything you’ve been working on over the past few years together 🙂

  9. Sadia May 18, 2016 at 11:02 am #

    I had to start my discussion chapter two days ago and somehow I was finding excuse not to start it. Now thanks to you I know why! took your working headings ans starting it now. Thanks a lot

  10. Kieran July 13, 2016 at 1:52 pm #

    I’ve been finding excuses not to start my discussion chapter for several weeks… This has given me a great place to start though! Just the motivation I needed to get over that blank page (which at least now has your bullet points on it!), thank you!

  11. Eliane May 2, 2017 at 9:47 am #

    Thank you Emma I feel less alone in starting this scary and exciting final task!

    • Emma Burnett May 2, 2017 at 10:36 am #

      You are welcome Eliane. Good luck!

      • katec May 5, 2017 at 12:07 pm #

        I infrequently reply to blog posts but what you just explained is the best piece of solid advice I’ve gotten throughout my PhD. Thank you

      • Emma Burnett May 7, 2017 at 6:46 pm #

        Thank you Kate. Wishing you all the best with the rest of your PhD

  12. Talgat October 13, 2017 at 11:00 pm #

    That’s indeed the most challenging part of my writing. I really don’t know what to start with! 😦

    • Emma Burnett October 16, 2017 at 8:27 am #

      I found working through the questions I posted really helped me. Good luck

  13. zoecross0461 February 23, 2019 at 6:46 pm #

    Yh aks for this Emma. I’m in the 3rd year of my part time PhD and I’m aiming to submit my thesis October 2020. I’ve just about finished transcribing my interviews so next month I plan on using NVIVO to analyse the data. I’m wondering how long it might take to (a) do this analysis? (B) write up Results chapter etc.

    • Emma Burnett February 25, 2019 at 1:09 pm #

      Hi there. This really depends on many variables so I am unable to answer that – amount of data you have, time you are devoting to this, how complex your research questions are etc. My advice would be to speak with your supervisors and develop an appropriate timeline


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