How to discuss the limitations of your study

Sample lesson


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This is a sample lesson from the course:
How to finish your thesis.

No scientific study is perfect, and in this lesson we’ll show you how to discuss the limitations of your Bachelor’s or Master’s study.

Introduction

Did you know that most scientific literature that you read took years to finish? On average, it takes a researcher about 3-5 years to transform an idea into a published scientific paper. Surely all research that has been published must therefore be flawless! Alas, even when great effort has been put into delivering the best research possible, the truth is that no study is perfect: there are always things to improve! Researchers often discuss these limitations and improvements in a separate limitations (sub) section in their article.

When writing your Bachelor or Master thesis, you should always discuss the limitations of your study. In this post, I will discuss:

Writing the limitations section of your thesis
Tip 1: Keep it short, but not too short
Tip 2: Don’t discuss obvious limitations
Tip 3: Try to help future research
Where in your thesis should you discuss the limitations?

Writing the limitations section of your thesis

Let’s start with some examples. When researchers discuss the limitations of their study:

  • They may state that they were limited in the scope of their research due to ethical constraints.
  • They may write that they preferred to collect more surveys, or interview a larger group of individuals.
  • Perhaps they wanted to include more data or (control) variables, but did not have the time to do so.
  • Or they may discuss an obvious flaw in a statistical method that was used, which they were not able to properly address in the current study.

There are some basic guidelines for writing about the limitations of your study, which are best described by the following three tips:

  1. Keep it short, but not too short
  2. Don’t discuss obvious limitations
  3. Try to help future research

The research method you choose (i.e quantitative or qualitative research) will in large part determine which limitations you will be able to discuss. Moreover, it will depend on your discipline (i.e. limitations in Psychology tend to be different from those in Economics). Therefore, next to reading the three tips that are discussed on this page, a good place to find inspiration on how to write-up a limitations section is to look at published papers: preferably those you have used for your own thesis.

Tip 1: Keep it short, but not too short

A typical discussion on a study’s limitations is about 2 paragraphs long. If you make it longer, it will make it seem that there are many flaws in your study. That’s something you definitely want to avoid: don’t downplay the significance of your own research! No research is perfect, but that’s not to say that you should sell your thesis as something that is imperfect! On the other hand, if your discussion is too short you may come across as being a bit arrogant: there’s always something to improve in a study.

Tip 2: Don’t discuss obvious limitations

Many students view the limitations discussion as an ‘unimportant but obligatory part’ of their research. Students with this kind of mindset tend to discuss very obvious limitations, just to get this section out of the way. Some typical examples:

“In the interest of time, the literature on Theory X was not reviewed in this thesis. That is a potential limitation, as this theory has become very popular over the last five years.”

Or the following example:

“Unfortunately, I did not manage to collect more survey data which potentially explains why I did not find a result in my thesis. That’s a clear limitation of this study. Using more data, it is very likely that my research question can be fully answered.”

Writing statements like these is usually not a very good idea. A person that reads these will very quickly think: “Well, if these limitations were so obvious to you, why didn’t you try to implement a couple in your study?!”. For example, why didn’t you read those extra papers, or why didn’t you collect more data? Obviously, this negatively impacts the quality of your thesis. Therefore: don’t discuss limitations you could have easily implemented yourself, but only discuss those that were genuinely out of your control. For example:

“A potential limitation of this study is the fact that the literature on Theory X was not used. However, although Theory X has gained popularity in recent years, it still lacks the broad academic support necessary to base recommendations on.”

And the second example:

“Unfortunately, the survey data that was used only had data available up until 2015. It would be interesting to see whether the next wave of data, expected in 2020, will yield the same results as found in this thesis.”

Tip 3: Try to help future research

Limitations of a study can often be rewritten as recommendations for future research. 1 The idea is that your limitations can serve as the research gaps that others may address in their own research. More importantly, discussing your limitations in this way ‘transforms’ them from being true limitations to being ‘potential ideas to advance our understanding of a topic’, which is a much nicer way of describing a limitation.2 Let’s continue with the previous examples:

“A potential limitation of this study is the fact that the literature on Theory X was not used. However, although Theory X has gained popularity in recent years, it still lacks the broad academic support necessary to base recommendations on. Nonetheless, future researchers are encouraged to apply Theory X in the same way as Theory Y (used in this thesis), as preliminary results show great benefits over this older theory (Author, 2019).

And the second example:

“Unfortunately, the survey data that was used only had data available up until 2015. It would be interesting to see whether the next wave of data, expected in 2020, will yield the same results as found in this thesis. Potentially, future researchers could exploit the extra data to look at the growth of -the topic that I studied-, which to date has not been investigated yet.

Where in your thesis should you discuss the limitations?

A final word of advice on limitations: where in your dissertation should you discuss them? There’s no general rule as to where a study’s limitations should be placed in the text, but usually limitations are:

  • written as part of the Conclusion section, or
  • written as part of the Discussion section, or
  • written as an unnumbered subsection of the Conclusion, or
  • written as a subsection of the Discussion, or
  • written as a separate Section just before the Conclusion.

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