Day 5: Are your beginning and ending close enough? Examination and the PhD

The Introduction and Conclusion that bracket your thesis need to match closely. These sections play a key role in unifying the project (this becomes even more important if you are writing a thesis by compilation – these are the crucial moments in which to demonstrate that your PhD is one big project, not a series of little bits and pieces).

You’ll probably already have an Introduction to the project that you wrote fairly early on in the process. At the end of the project, this is likely to need considerable reworking to make sure that it still matches where your research led over the years. Most of you will already have noticed that your project has changed over time as you learn more about the topic – some ideas that seemed important at the outset recede into the background, and other new ideas will have come to the foreground. Now that you know where the thesis ends up, you can write an Introduction that sets the reader up to get there.


How do you make sure that your Introduction and Conclusion match?

I recommend that you write the Introduction and Conclusion alongside each other, at least in the last stages of preparing the thesis document. The Introduction needs a clear statement identifying your research question or, if this is not how it is expressed in your discipline, a statement of what it is that you are trying to find out. I think it is very helpful if you are able to write this as an actual question, as this not only refines the focus, but also allows you to provide the answer to that question.

List your main question and your sub-questions in your Introduction. In many disciplines it is possible to number the questions, or to present them as a dot-point list. Then you can answer those questions in the same order using the same wording and numbering in your Conclusion.

That way you can check:

  • In the Introduction I wrote that I wanted to find out XXXX.
  • In the Conclusion, I wrote that I did in fact end up finding that XXXX.

Examiners can use these explicit sentences to see that you have actually done what you set out to do. Some examiners read the Introduction alongside the Conclusion as a way of checking what you promised at the outset and that you have managed to deliver on that promise. You can make sure that they see the close match between the promise and the delivery.

ACTIVITY: What is your over-arching research question, and what are your sub-questions? Please write them in the Comments box. Now, if you are at the end of your project, have you found answers to those questions? If not, do you need to rework the questions to match what you did end up discovering?

Introductions and Conclusions are not easy sections to write, partly because these are the most abstract parts of the thesis, the theorising, ‘philosophising’ part of the PhD.

A big challenge in writing Conclusions is the necessity of stepping back from the mass of detail you have been immersed in over the past few years to instead look at the big picture. Returning to your research questions will guide part of this section, but there are also some other elements to include here that require some extra thinking.

For some more ideas about how to approach Introductions and Conclusions, have a look at these blogs on the DoctoralWriting website:

How long is a thesis Introduction?

Crafting conclusions – much more than a summary of research

How to make a great Conclusion

My questions now

Introductions and conclusion: How same, how different?

Oral exam – tips on preparation once you’ve submitted the written document

This late-stage work of matching the Introduction and the Conclusion will lead neatly into preparation for an oral exam. Finalising the document is a good time to be asking the big questions that examiners are also likely to ask you. Nathan Ryder of ‘Viva Survivors’ suggests a week of questions to pose (one each day), prepare answers to, and then review and reflect on later that day.

Monday What is your research about?
Tuesday Why are you interested in your topic?
Wednesday What have you learnt?
Thursday What are your most important results?
Friday What’s been most difficult in your research?
Saturday What do you NOT want to be asked?
Sunday What would you like to ask your examiners?

Do you feel ready to talk about these ideas? Does it help to write answers or dot points to organize your thoughts? ANU is currently piloting a trial with a view to potentially introducing an oral exam as a standard part of our examination procedure. Questions like these are a useful starting point for gearing up into oral exam mode.

What leads to successful completion?

As a final word, having looked at some ways to show examiners that your thesis is now good enough, it’s worth thinking about how you get yourself to the point of submission. Lindsay (2015) reminds us that there are two main elements that lead to PhD candidates reaching the end-point in a timely manner:

  1. taking a project management approach to their work; and
  2. continuous writing throughout candidature.

If it’s early days for you, this is useful advice to shape your work habits; if you are well down the track, then maybe you have worked this out for yourself already. Either way, stick with it as you keep your reader in mind while you prepare the final version of your thesis.

Good luck with preparing your thesis for submission! I hope that this series of Pomodoro Breaks has given you some confidence in working out when your thesis is good enough for examination.

I look forward to seeing you in the Zoom meeting at 4pm this afternoon: click here.

Meeting ID: 460 696 2330    Password: 861638

We’ll have time to discuss any further questions you have and a chance to debrief on your thinking during the week.


  1. Hi Cally, Some excellent posts here, though the link to the final one ‘Introductions and conclusion: How same, how different?’ doesn’t work.
    Thanks, Chris

  2. Hey Cally.

    The link above to the DotoralWriting Blog for “Introductions and conclusion: How same, how different?” leads to a not found page. Can you please re-link it?

    Thanks! 🙂

    1. Erin and Chris – I see I misread your messages! Trying to sort out what strange thing is happening with the DoctoralWriting post, but I can circulate the text to the group is we can’t get it back up.

  3. My main question is, Is the deep past white?
    Subquestions are;
    what is whiteness?
    what is the deep past?
    What is cultural evolutionary theory?
    what is psychopathy?
    what are virtues?
    What is Aboriginal law?
    How were Aboriginal oral histories passed down intact, through over 400 000 generations of storytellers? How did Aboriginal governance operate in the deep past?
    What is a neurohistory?
    What is free will?
    What is agency?
    What are the ideologies that prevent us from seeing reality clearly?
    What is an ideology?

    I have about 3 or 4 questions for each chapter.

    1. These are complex topics! I’m interested to see how they all come together in the conclusions where you tie the whole set of concepts together for your overall argument. The bit that I imagine being particularly important for the contribution is when you get to the how & why parts of these ‘what’ questions.

  4. Okay I fell of the wagon a bit this week (will go back and answer others soon) but this is far easier to answer than yesterday so I’m jumping back in here.

    My thesis sub-questions have evolved pretty considerably with the data I collected. Even though I had crafted my survey and focus group instruments with the questions in mind, responses really surprised me in some areas. This actually helped in focusing the sub questions, rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    Crucially, I came out the other end with sub questions that are far more quantifiable than the were originally, which is helping form more direct hypotheses for my quant data analysis, and leaving nice space for my qual analysis. I think they’re pretty settled, now….

    Broad research question: 

    * What are the factors that influence young people’s participation in the School Strike for Climate movement? 

    And sub questions, including: 
    * What motivated students to attend Climate Strike, or not?
    * How do teens engage (or not) with science activism?
    * What is the most influential factor in participation, and of this:

    > Is it internally or externally driven (Individual vs social variables)?

    > Is it politically or environmentally driven (efficacy focus areas)?

    > Are there significant demographic differences within this factor (gender, age, location, etc.)?

    > Is this factor a predictor of future engagement with science activism?

    1. One of the best aspects of research is the way projects evolve in unexpected directions. 🙂 It’s great that you were surprised by the responses.

  5. Hi there, thanks so much for the new learnings this week. Look forward to the wrap-up session.
    My research questions are:
    How can the operationalision of people-centred MHEWS be improved in Vanuatu?
    a). What are the needs and requirements for people-centred MHEWS in Vanuatu?
    b). What are the opportunities for and challenges of, operationalising people-centred MHEWS in Vanuatu?
    c). Can the knowledge systems and knowledge to action approaches of sustainability science help us to understand and improve the operationalising of people-centred MHEWS?

  6. Hello! Big comment from me for the final session! I’ve got a list of questions below that I need to simplify, but I’ve also added the biggest thing that came out of this workshop for me – which isn’t a set of questions, but a simple layout for how my thesis is remaining contained, and making sure my introduction and conclusion speak to each other. Here’s that summary, too:

    I’m arguing that my own experience as a writer and researcher, combined with literature and creative practice available, has prompted me to ask questions about the tools that a settler-colonial writer might take up to try to frame and build anti-racist work. Moreover, I also consider the tools I have used and been encouraged to deploy, to uphold and protect whiteness and settler-colonial supremacy in cultural and working contexts.

    First, I recognise the need for these tools: I consider the literature/cultural conversation needed to contextualise what I propose these tools might be (initially) and how and why these tools might be used and considered useful (Theory chapter).

    Then I propose how I will use these tools, and also how I will reflect on and reconsider the tools as I use them to assess their efficacy, through describing and reflecting on a learning journey (Methodology chapter).

    Then I use the body of the thesis to map this learning journey – each chapter is marked by a particular creative work I wrote to deploy and test these tools, and is finished with a reflection that assesses the learning journey and the tools that came from this, by returning to the body critical theory that I outline in the theory chapter.

    Finally I reflect on the tools I actually ended up with at the end of the learning journey. I also comparatively analyse the tools I hypothesised were possibly useful, against those I identify at the close of the thesis, and extrapolate how and why race and de/anti/colonial theory might provide complementary understandings of how and why tools were proposed, and how and why they shifted over the course of the research process.

    My key questions are:

    1. Who does this thesis serve, and how?

    2. In what direction do I speak to and where do I speak from?

    3. What is the nature and materiality of whiteness in the antiracist/decolonial-aspiring white writer, in her research, inquiries, topics, language, descriptions, encounters with editors and institutions, assumed audience, and what is required for her to self-reflexively understand and investigate this subject position?

    4. Through practice-led critique, are there clear possibilities, limitations and non-performativities for the white writer in producing race-challenging and anti-colonial nonfiction in Australia, and what are they?

    5. Therefore, what constitutes ‘being a writer’, when one wishes to practice anti-racism, and is a white settler-colonial? What are the tools that are discovered on this learning journey, that might be useful for future literature to challenge, critique, or experiment with?

    1. You’ve created a very neat structure that highlights the overall argument here, so the ideas flow smoothly through the document. I especially like to see how you’ve used this to hone in on the questions. For a very complex area, you seem to have refined the key ideas beautifully. Can’t wait to receive an email to say you’ve submitted the thesis. Good luck in the final stages!

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