When PhD candidates embark on their thesis journey, the first thing they will likely learn is that their research must be a “significant original contribution to knowledge.” On the face of it, the idea seems simple enough: create something new, establish a niche for oneself, further science and add some important piece to the sum of human understanding. And yet, there is little to no consensus as to what exactly this phrase means. This lack of consensus is particularly challenging for students, as it opens them up to risk in matters of external review and their graduate school progression.
Aside from the risk it poses to student’s success (for example, attrition), an ill-defined standard for the contribution to knowledge creates risks for the student during the external examination of the thesis. This can happen in two ways.
First, an external examiner may have biases towards pet theories or concepts and may dismiss the work if he or she does not agree with the opinions presented. Arguably more disastrous, supervisors themselves may recommend that a thesis be put forward for defence which the external examiner feels is not significant. This misplaced confidence can result in the entire work being disregarded, or the shattering award of a conciliatory master of philosophy.
Fortunately, there are ways to both clarify the concept of a significant original contribution to knowledge and to prepare to defend it. After all, “to escape with a PhD, you must meaningfully extend the boundary of human knowledge. More exactly, you must convince a panel of experts guarding the boundary that you have done so,” says Matt Might, an assistant professor at the University of Utah and author of The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.
The first step for PhD students is to recognize that a thesis will be built on other people’s work in a rigorous, precise way and is not expected to lead to an immediate and fundamental paradigm shift in the field. On this point, the best PhD theses investigate a circumscribed area, rather than overselling the originality or expertise. The significant original contribution emerges from small gaps within saturated research areas as novel interpretations or applications of old ideas. The researcher can accomplish this in many ways, for example, by creating a synthesis, by providing a single original technique, or by testing existing knowledge in an original manner. Although the thesis has to be innovative, this doesn’t necessarily mean revolutionizing the existing discourse; there is also value in adding new perspectives.
Similarly, and partly because of the time required to complete a doctoral degree, students must resist becoming wrapped up in what they’re looking at in the moment and thus forgetting the big picture. This is especially true for people writing manuscript-style theses in the natural sciences, which represent many small parts of an overarching idea and contribution.
To mitigate this tendency to digress, and to supress any panic around a “crisis of meaning,” doctoral students should at all times be able to summarize their significant original contribution in two sentences. From an examiner’s perspective, it is critical to include this in the dissertation itself – nailing it in the second sentence of the abstract allows the examiner to focus on the justification and verification of this statement. Having a well-bounded and clear idea of one’s contribution contextualizes the work and can protect the student from undue criticism.
Ultimately, it is up to the individual candidates to justify their significant original contribution. Being aware of the indistinctness of these criteria, they must make a concentrated effort to keep track of this contribution, be able to defend it and keep it at the forefront of their minds when their confidence begins to flag. This is always an iterative process, starting with a literature review and later comparing results against the significance of other works.
To protect themselves against overconfidence and insularity, students must look beyond their supervisor and department throughout their PhD program by trying to publish, presenting papers at conferences and discussing the work in as many spheres as possible to get feedback. These activities will not only serve to bolster the inward and outward argument for the research but will also help manage the risk of receiving a nasty surprise when it comes time to defend.
Making a small, significant contribution to knowledge remains the standard against which a PhD dissertation is measured; for their own sake and the sake of their research, students must learn to embrace it.
Heather Cray is a doctoral student in the department of environment and resource studies at the University of Waterloo.