So what? Why does your thesis matter?

It’s a typical piece of advice to give authors of articles and theses, that you need to explain the ‘so what?’ of your contribution.

I’ve resisted using that language in my blog posts, usually preferring terms like ‘significance‘ or ‘explain how your work will be useful to others’.

‘So what?’ is a common shorthand term, like ‘unpack‘ or ‘horsey!’, that are meaningful to the people who are insiders and who know what it stands for… and really impenetrable for outsiders and new scholars. Inger, Shaun and I wrote a whole book explaining how to address this kind of confusing feedback shorthand (How to Fix your Academic Writing Trouble)! We didn’t cover ‘so what?’ in the book, but a conversation with a student today made me think that it would be really useful to discuss.

The main issue I have with ‘so what?’ is that written down it doesn’t have any tone-of-voice markers, and in English you can use this phrase in two very distinct ways depending on how you say it.

The first ‘so what?’ is the way the term is usually meant. It’s the sentence stem that begins questions like ‘So what comes next?’ ‘So what can I do with that information?’ ‘ So what does that mean for my research?’ ‘So what is your plan for your future research?’ These are all great questions, and it’s really important to answer them in your writing!

However, we can also ask ‘so what?’ in a sarcastic, or dismissive tone of voice to imply that ‘yeah, nobody cares’. This ‘so what?’ suggests that your research is not important, not useful, not interesting, it doesn’t lead anywhere. Your writing is pointless, ‘so what?’ said with a shrug implies, ‘nobody cares, I certainly don’t’.

And to some extent, that is actually true! We all have scholars in our field who don’t care about our research. It’s not relevant to them, it uses a research methodology or theory they don’t understand, it takes an approach they don’t like or disagrees with their findings.

So you’ll also need to decide, carefully, how you want to answer that dismissive ‘so what?’

You might decide to define your audience in such a way that you can exclude people who don’t take your approach: ‘This thesis addresses an audience of people who research A through B methods’. You might decide to demonstrate that your audience is missing out by not caring: ‘While A is not commonly studied in C field, in D field it is a growing and timely topic of research which has urgent implications for C scholars’.

Brainstorm similar framing sentences that are right for your project by talking with your supervisors and researchers in your field, or look through published articles and see what other people say. The challenge of justifying your research topic is far from unique to you and your project, so there is no need to reinvent the wheel!

And so when you are explaining the ‘so what?’, answer it twice, with both intonations in mind. First explain what your research means and how it contributes to knowledge, and then defend your research from people who might claim it is meaningless (because they are wrong, but they might not know it yet).

I hope this post helps you to frame this essential but difficult part of any piece of academic writing. Let me know your strategies, join the conversation on Twitter @ResearchInsiders.

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash


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