Sunday, May 29, 2016

Conclusion vs Assumption in Research Writing- Flipping the Thread of Argument in your PhD Thesis

Research especially PhD research is often not a predictable process. Starting with some assumptions we start moving in a particular direction, however, the direction may change a number of times during our journey. Initially, we may have started in a particular direction thinking about a certain goal, however, the goal may change not once, but often several times during our research. We continue modifying the goals till such time that we identify a possible conclusion which would be significant enough to merit the award of the PhD degree. This journey is shown in the figure with yellow lines moving in different directions.

This may not be true for all PhDs, but it was definitely true for mine. Looking back to my PhD process from end of 1989 to end of 1994 at UT Austin, I cherish the luxury afforded by my supervisor in allowing me to explore several directions, till I stumbled upon the route that took me to the conclusion.

My initial phase of PhD research involved a huge amount of literature survey. Several attempts to write down what I was trying to say did not make much sense to the outside reader. A document that I prepared with great effort documented meticulously the reasons and issues why I moved from P to A  and from A to B and from B to C and from C to D and so on till I went from I to Q. I tried rewriting this process several times, but the more I rewrote I found that people could not make sense of what I was trying to say. Eventually, I threw everything away and tried writing simply what would have been the process had I started from P and wanted to move to Q in a straight line (dotted yellow) which was my conclusion. This document was much better, but the proposal from P to Q was still not convincing enough to merit the award of degree. While I was stuck there, I could feel the pressure mounting, and found myself in an extremely stressful  state, which may have led my sore throat to exacerbate into a severe throat infection forcing me to take off from my work for several months. Thereafter, my supervisor suggested that I try explaining what I am trying do to with a fellow faculty member  John S Werth, who was also my co-supervisor and also a member of my supervisor's research group.

When I explained what I was doing, John Werth carefully tried to understand the path from P to Q. Eventually, he remarked that actually what I am trying to say is that if we start from Q, the path from Q to P becomes straightforward and can be demonstrated as efficient through PhD level work. His flipping of what I was doing by turning my assumption  into conclusion and conclusion into my assumption, converted the line of reasoning from Q to P (red, solid line) logical, convincing and easily explainable. It also became feasible to demonstrate through action research.

This was a hugely important lesson. I have since realized that writing of research is an extremely challenging job because you have to explain your difficult reasoning into a thread of arguments that make sense and appear convincing. We are able in our research to switch the assumption into a conclusion and conclusion into an assumption. Flipping the arguments on their head can some time make the task of writing much more easy and understandable.

Later, I connected this with Intermediate Physics that I studied for my board examinations from 1977-78. It described Rutherford's observations of the experiment of bombarding gold foil with alpha particles which had revealed several inconsistencies about the prevalent theories. Rutherford's  experiment pointed out three problems which classical physics could not explain. One of them was how come most alpha particles passed through the foil without deflection through a solid sheet of gold foil, and another was:
"The problem faced by existing theory to explain why the electrons that are thought to be revolving around a nucleus that contains most of the mass, do not fall into the nucleus  because a charged particle like an electron must lose energy with changes in velocity (acceleration due to change in direction). The contribution of Neil Bohr was to propound a theory that made those problems into postulates or assumptions. He said that let's assume that an electron does not lose energy if it is revolving in certain stable orbits; it would only lose/emit energy when it will jump from one stable orbit to another." 
I could never reconcile at that time and for several decades later as to how the observed problems can be explained away by making them assumptions?

Having passed through this process, I now realize that role of the theory is to explain the observations. It does not matter what are the assumptions or what are the conclusions as long as the conclusions follow logically from the assumptions and are supported by observations.

And, this was exactly what I was learning in my PhD through a tedious process that I explained above.

See Also:

What is PhD?
Why PhD is Difficult: 
Starting with your PhD
Reading Research and Writing your Research
Qualitative Learning from a PhD


  1. These are truly amongst the wonderful informative for essay to be written

  2. Is this possible that our real research might end up from point P to point H or from point P to point I, rather than point P to point Q which seems per-determined thought?

    My other question is that does the significance of study depend upon majority's acceptance of what you want to convey?

    The research might be significant for even a small minority to change his or their life

    1. Where we end up in our PhD research is quite unpredictable. That is the nature of research. What is important is that whereever we end up, our work should have originality and significance and contribution.

      Regarding your other Q: It is not the case about what the majority say, the important points regarding this is in the last part of the post which I repeat here:

      I could never reconcile at that time and for several decades later as to how the observed problems can be explained away by making them assumptions?

      Having passed through this process, I now realize that role of the theory is to explain the observations. It does not matter what are the assumptions or what are the conclusions as long as the conclusions follow logically from the assumptions and are supported by observations.

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  7. This is very interesting blog, most of time we are not ready to accept this reality that our starting point will not necessarily ends at the point of designed conclusion. As for my personal experience, I am focusing to research in the public health, connected with the subject of human resource management. To narrowing down the topic, I am in process to find “the sustainability drivers for the community health worker without project support”. Most of the projects designed for community health workers are highly backed up with financial and technical support of the project and after the closure of the project, these community workers failed to continue their work in similar capacity. Simply, I am trying to find the drivers of sustainability which support the community health worker to continue his/her work after the closing the project support. So this will be the starting point of the research question, but where it ends, I don’t know?
    It is also witnessed that the problem statement, thesis statement and research questions which were presented during proposal defense will not persist during final defense of the dissertation. It also support from the blog that start of the process with assumptions not necessarily ends with the same conclusion.