At every stage of higher education and particularly if the student in question intends to continue their studies, s/he will have to write a dissertation.
If a student doesn’t plan to take on the next level of learning, s/he may not have to write a thesis. Depending on your university’s degree plan requirements, you may undertake a capstone project or not have to submit any extra work at all.
It’s more the norm that students will be tasked with this exercise in academic writing that generally pertains to their field of study.
For instance, if you plan on earning your PhD in organic chemistry, it would be perfectly reasonable to write your dissertation on biological organisms as long as you can show the relationship between those two subjects.
But, if your major is Fashion and Design, it makes less sense to write about organic matter and its chemical properties.
In that example, we can see how exacting and complex writing a dissertation can be.
You might think that we’re stating the obvious but you would be surprised at how many students reach beyond their fields of study to seize on a gap in the literature of a subject unrelated to their major.
Dissertations have many components that all address one overarching theme – the problem statement that leaves students scrambling for the proper way to conduct research and report their findings.
Superprof has outlined how to write a dissertation in a series of articles; this one addresses how you should present your findings once your research is complete.
What Is the Findings Section?
For many doctoral candidates, writing about what their research revealed seems like the easiest part of their ordeal, at least until they start writing it. Undergraduates and graduate students who write theses often feel the same.
Like every other section of your dissertation, the findings section has specific rules for everything from formatting to what information should be included.
The purpose of this section is to present important and relevant findings in a progression that will lead readers to your conclusions, which are revealed in another chapter.
In the findings section, you should only disclose your observations, not debate them, propose any arguments either for or against; nor should you interpret your findings. These too have their place in later chapters of your work.
Keep in mind that no opinions or conclusions should be drawn at this point. However, you should include a short write-up and statistical analysis detailing whether emerging results – as a result of analysis, are significant.
Like the research methodology section of your dissertation – and for the same reason, you should write your findings in the past tense.
Reporting Your Findings
Once you have amassed and analysed your data, you may draft your findings chapter, if your particular topic calls for one.
If your dissertation is strictly descriptive - focusing on case study analysis and/or interpretation of texts, you may not have to write a findings section. If in doubt, check with your adviser or supervisor and read your university guidelines to see which components are required in your thesis.
Your findings section provides the opportunity to report notable findings and tie them directly to the problem statement or research proposal and hypothesis, effectively linking your dissertation’s introduction section to the work you’ve done.
Reporting Your Quantitative and/or Qualitative Findings
Analysing your findings will prove how what you discovered relates to the questions raised at the outset of your research and whether they support your hypothesis.
Keep in mind that while you must point out trends, relationships and variances – in your data and in how they relate to your problem statement, you will not interpret these data until later in your writing.
The most effective way to introduce quantitative findings is to construct them around your research question and, if quantitative research is the basis of your thesis, you must incorporate graphs and charts, as well as tables and other visuals to show the relationships and trends in your findings.
By contrast, if your findings are qualitative, your writing will be more narrative in structure, unpunctuated with visual information.
Some of your qualitative results may not be relevant to your hypothesis or research question(s) but the analysis you’ve done to determine relevance deserves mention. In the appendix section of your dissertation, you may include any non-relevant qualitative findings.
Because one of the biggest issues facing qualitative findings is that not all data that your research project uncovers will be relevant, you may build your case around the most significant themes and/or areas discovered when analysing your data.
Your voice matters: what advice would you give to students choosing their dissertation topic?
What Doesn’t Belong in the Findings Section
We’ve already touched on two major no-nos of writing your findings section: interpreting your findings and giving long explanations for what you found.
Now, let’s go more in-depth into those and reveal a few more aspects of your dissertation that do not belong in this section.
Not only should you not interpret your findings but you should also avoid using language that gives even the appearance of interpretation. Words such as ‘validates’, ‘confirms’, ‘suggests’, ‘reveals’ and others imply a ‘translation’ of the results you found.
The tone needed for this part of your treatise is akin to the idiom “Just the facts, ma’am”. Only include relevant findings; avoid even the language that might suggest you are giving an opinion or offering a conclusion.
Likewise, keep any necessary explanations short and to the point.
Such details might include how a particular finding relates to your hypothesis or a key theme of your research question. Individual accounting or listing of irrelevant findings should be avoided at all costs.
Never include results from others’ research, studies or findings, even if you cite them. This is your dissertation; only your findings should be included.
And, in the same vein, at no point in this section should you touch on the literature review you conducted to research your topic.
How to Structure Your Findings Section
Like any well-written book, your findings section should present a logical, narrative flow that will take readers from the disparate elements at the beginning, through a progression of results and the evidence they provide, to the conclusion implicitly promised later in the work.
You might think of the findings section as a prequel to the meat of your thesis: the discussion section.
To lay out a cohesive narrative, consider opening with a short synopsis that includes your research questions and hypotheses, and then lay out your key findings.
Or, if you prefer a ‘backtrack from the end’ narrative, you may first present your first result and explain it, sequencing subsequent results and explanations until all are disclosed, and then write your synopsis.
Which format to choose?
If you’re writing a long paper with many, equally significant results to disclose, you should opt for the second format but if your research capped off with only a few results to reveal, the former would work better.
Whichever way you write your findings, be sure to close with a short conclusion that ties all of your results together.
This short paragraph should help your readers seamlessly transition from your findings to your discussion of them in the next segment.
Final Tips for Your Findings Chapter
Your dissertation’s findings section is meant to provide needed context to help your readers understand the results of your findings so, to underscore their relevance, you should repeat your research question and the goals you set out to attain early in your chapter.
After that initial paragraph, you should
- identify the results you will present
- do not report results that are not relevant to your problem question or research hypothesis
- arrange your data chronologically and sequentially
- be impartial: avoid speculation, evaluation, interpretation and implication
- relate only facts
- be as exact as possible; include any confidence intervals, limits and/or p values
- mind your word count!
Your institution’s guidelines for dissertation no doubt include how long your treatise can be; if a word count is indicated, most likely it will be for the entire thesis, not a per-section cap.
While the findings section is critical to understanding your results, it should not take up a significant portion of your word limit.
Winnowing your data and findings down to the most relevant aspects and being as concise as possible in expressing it will help keep you in line with your school’s requirements for document length.
The flipside of that coin is to not stint on information; you don’t want to leave out any salient points or critical discoveries.
And, again at the risk of stating the obvious: before any preliminary steps you take to write your dissertation, you should know how to go about writing it.