There comes a time in drawing together the conclusions of any piece of research, whether it is a long PhD study or a shorter project, when there is a realisation that there is SO much more to do. This is not necessarily a bad thing, although a novice researcher might consider it a sign of weakness. Every single study has its own set of limitations on the level of accuracy, comprehensiveness, and study conditions. In the normal course of events, the research team need to consider carefully these possible limitations, then attempt to minimise or eradicate them, or perhaps just simply acknowledge the limitations and explain their concerns. It is much, much better to be able to recognise the limitations and try to reduce them, than to blissfully (and mistakenly) soldier onwards as if there are no limitations whatsoever.
Normally, towards the end of the concluding chapter of a dissertation, it is wise to include a short section which identifies “opportunities for further research”. This only needs to be three pages long, because longer might suggests that there are too many things unknown about the study (and one short paragraph might suggest that there is nothing more to find out – which will be interpreted as either arrogance or ignorance, and either way is bad). A common term which is used in this context is that our own research has been “built on the shoulders of giants” which implies that we are able to see further or in more detail, not simply because we are more intelligent, or have better vision, but because we have benefitted from the work of the people who have explored these issues before us.
This section analysing further research opportunities brings into sharp focus three important aspects of the PhD award. Firstly, it helps to make clear the new contribution of the researcher towards a better understanding of this research topic and the discipline as a whole. Remember, making “an original contribution to the subject knowledge” is one of the two key requirements of a PhD (the other being to demonstrate that it is the student’s own work). Secondly, this section of the dissertation identifies other possible research projects which can build upon the present study. It might be to recommend an extension of the study – more participants, a wider geographical area, more samples analysed etc. – or it might refer to various offshoot projects on tangential ideas which were revealed during the present study but the researcher did not have the time (or the money, opportunity, equipment etc.) to undertake at the time. This is useful because it help to demonstrate that the researcher is aware of these possible research directions (and potential limitations to the current study) rather than blindingly missing obvious avenues to explore in the future which might provide a greater depth of knowledge on this topic. Thirdly, in identifying potentially fruitful areas for further research, the researcher is helping to place the current dissertation in the context of the bigger picture of ongoing work on this topic. It is effectively offering this PhD dissertation as another “shoulder” on which future researchers can build upon to gain a better understanding of this subject area. It is effectively adding another level onto the foundations of earlier research.
So, for a brief flash of time, the student is a world-leader in this particular research topic, a state-of-the-art expert in the why, wherefore, and significance of this very specific research question – only to be eclipsed by the next upcoming researcher who will take this a stage further. A good reason to celebrate and enjoy the celebrity while it lasts!