One of the most popular posts on this blog is about how to write a thesis introduction. Several years later, this post serves as its companion, and explores how to write a thesis conclusion. The thoughts here cover the genre of PhD thesis and book conclusions, but the general points apply to undergraduate and MA dissertations too (as indeed do the points in my original post). Conclusions have a habit of looking suspiciously easy, particularly if you follow the structural rubric that says you tell your reader what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. Up to a point, Lord Copper. The problem with this approach in any kind of writing is that it very easily generates a laundry list summarising your chapters but not really offering anything new. I think the warning sign for a conclusion is that it feels like you’re reading the final paragraph of each of your chapters in a single document. There’s a place for that sort of writing, in a thesis synopsis or an abstract, but it’s not really a conclusion.
So what does a conclusion do? Once more taking the philological turn, it should conclude. It should tie up the loose ends, bring everything together neatly – and, yes, articulate the argument one final time, just to make sure that your reader has got the point. It should leave the reader in no doubt about why what they have read is of deep intellectual significance, the contribution it has made, how it has changed how they think about your subject.
I’ve found that the most sensible way to consider what you might want to say in a conclusion is to look at your argument thematically. What ideas have emerged again and again, perhaps in different shapes? What are the big points of contact between your various chapters that then build to mean something really significant? What concepts run through your work that you didn’t highlight in your introduction because the reader wasn’t ready for them until they had read the whole thing? Thinking thematically can help you provide a synthesis rather than a summary of the thesis. I know that sounds jargony, but it’s actually a helpful distinction – you’re pulling together the threads of your argument and revealing the jumper that you have been knitting from them, rather than just pointing to various balls of wool and expecting the reader to produce the jumper themselves.
The shape and the form that the conclusion will take will differ radically from work to work. When I was writing my PhD and using a rolling synopsis, I didn’t actually include a section for the conclusion – I assumed it would sort of write itself. It did, in the end, and came to just over five pages of general observation and tying up. I made sure that I restated the big take-away point I wanted the PhD to make; pulled together some elements of the individual chapters that otherwise did not get put side-by-side but needed to be; attempted some synthesis; and mentioned some directions for future work. That worked for the PhD.
However, it didn’t work when I came to revise the PhD for the Book. In the end, I actually retitled the Conclusion – it’s now an Epilogue, just over four pages long, but working in tandem to the main text rather than doing a wrap-up. You can get away with this sort of thing in a book, and this book needed to – there’s a big question about how the case I’ve made about Stoicism and the family fits into the bigger picture of Stoic doctrine as a whole, and which I don’t think can be answered until after the final chapter. Which is why the Epilogue answers it – so sometimes conclusions are places to deal with the big methodological or argumentative concerns which for whatever reason have had to be delayed until all the relevant material has been presented to the reader. Most of the Epilogue as it stands currently handles that big question, but it’s an answer that wouldn’t make any sort of sense without the book which will come before it.
But ultimately, the biggest thing that the conclusion should do is make it absolutely clear why the idea you’ve been exploring in your research needed and warranted as many words as it did, and why your reader will never think about the subject in the same way again. They’ve read your chapters, and have the evidence. It’s the conclusion’s job to make sure that there’s no mistake about the impact that evidence has on their understanding of the world, and to leave your point ringing in their ears as they finish the final page. The form that will work best does, I think, depend a lot more on the personality of the writer in conclusions than it does in introductions – so think of it also like ending a really long, really enjoyable phone call. Finish the conversation off, but in such a way that your (silent) interlocutor has plenty to think about. After all, scholarship is a conversation – hopefully somebody will pick up where you have left off and continue the dialogue.