"Many students reach this stage of their careers having been focused for several years on the 'trees, '" says Yale University cognitive psychology professor Brian Scholl, PhD. "This section of the dissertation provides an opportunity to revisit the 'forest.'"
Fellow students, your adviser and your dissertation committee members can help provide that outside perspective, adds Yale clinical psychology professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, who teaches a course on writing in psychology.
And while the discussion should put your research into context and tell a story, say experts, it should not overstate your conclusions. How do you find the balance? Follow these do's and don'ts.
DO: Provide context and explain why people should care. DON'T: Simply rehash your results.
Your discussion should begin with a cogent, one-paragraph summary of the study's key findings, but then go beyond that to put the findings into context, says Stephen Hinshaw, PhD, chair of the psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley.
"The point of a discussion, in my view, is to transcend 'just the facts, ' and engage in productive speculation, " he says.
That means going back to the literature and grappling with what your findings mean, including how they fit in with previous work. If your results differ from others' findings, you should try to explain why, says Nolen-Hoeksema. Then, launch into "bigger picture" issues. For example, a clinical study might discuss how psychologists might apply the findings in a clinical setting or a social psychology project might talk about political implications.
By exploring those kinds of implications, students address what Scholl considers the most important-and often overlooked-purpose of the discussion: to directly explain why others should care about your findings.
"You can't and shouldn't rely on others to intuitively appreciate the beauty and importance of your work, " he says.
Sounds simple, right? In fact, choosing what to include can be overwhelming, warns sixth-year Yale University social psychology graduate student Aaron Sackett.
"It is easy to get caught up in the desire to be extremely comprehensive and to bring up every potential issue, flaw, future direction and tangentially related concept, " says Sackett. "However, this will make your dissertation seem like it has raised more questions than it answers."
Limit your discussion to a handful of the most important points, as Sackett did on the advice of his adviser.
"No reader wants to wade through ten pages of suppositional reasoning, " says Roddy Roediger, PhD, chair of psychology at Washington University.
DO: Emphasize the positive. DON'T: Exaggerate.
One of the biggest errors students make in their discussion is exaggeration, say experts. Speculation is fine as long as you acknowledge that you're speculating and you don't stray too far from your data, say experts. That includes avoiding language that implies causality when your study can only make relational conclusions.