The middle chapters of the thesis include the Methods, Results, and Discussion sections. These are, to a certain extent, the hardest chapters of the thesis to write. Unlike, for example, the introduction, it’s not simply a questions of laying out your ideas, looking up what other people have done that is relevant, and discussing their work. The Methods section, I grant you, is very straightforward as long as you have documented what you have done along the way – you, after all, should know what experiments you did. The Results section is slightly trickier, in that you need to figure out how to logically and best present your findings in a way that conclusively demonstrates your point without overwhelming the examiners with extraneous data or confusing them. The Discussion section is by far the most difficult as you must evaluate your data and explain how it fits in with the overall aims of the project.
So far, in my posts on thesis writing, I’ve discussed the general format of the thesis (August 27) and my current efforts with the results section (November 17). Particularly, in the August 27th post, I stressed that the PhD is not simply a long paper. That said, there are countries in the world, e.g. Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, and Australia (to name a few) that will accept several papers written by the student (and published in peer-reviewed journals) stapled together in lieu of an actual thesis. If thesis writing were like just writing a long paper, there would be the following sections: Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, Discussion, and Conclusions. However, many people would argue that while a thesis needs an Introduction section as well as a Conclusions and Future Work section, the middle chapters should not be so strictly organized. Rather, the belief of having several middle chapters based on various themes or questions pertaining to the overall project which each contain subsections of Materials, Results, and Discussion, is becoming increasingly prevalent within the scientific academic community. In fact, a friend of mine who recently defended in Oxford had organized his thesis as if a long paper and was told that for his final version the only alterations desired were that he cut and paste his sections in the latter method to tell a better story.
Part of the reason why this approach of having self-contained chapters that each contains several parts, is that it lends a better flow to the thesis. Because theses tend to be so long, it becomes difficult for an examiner (one dare not hope that anyone other than the examiner will actually attempt to read the full document) to read each section in its entirety and keep it fresh in their mind as they go on to the next section. Indeed, if organized thusly, the method, results, and discussion of a particular method could be spaced out with 20 or more pages in between them – hardly allowing for the formation of a sense of direction. However, by splitting the middle section of the thesis into topical chapters, this allows for the examiner to focus on a smaller topic at each time, with a sense of how each experiment was performed, what the results are, and how to interpret these results in relation to other experiments which also answered the same question. Then, with an idea of how each topic was addressed, the parts can be brought together in the final Conclusion section to show the larger picture.
The simplest way, perhaps, of explaining this concept is to think of the difference between a nursery, and a garden. If the Methods, Results, and Discussion sections were three types of flowers, then the more traditional method would be akin to a nursery; each section would be taken care of, but separately and in neat little rows. However, the newer method would see that although a garden contains these three types of flowers, in contains them in several beds which contain clusters of each type, so that the flowers can be seen in relation to each other, followed by the design and layout of the beds.