Day 4: Is your thesis original enough? Examination and the PhD

A key criterion for awarding the PhD is that the work is ‘original’. But what exactly does this mean? Presumably your TRP (or other process confirming that your project is suitable for the degree) included an assessment of whether your project was likely to meet the examination criteria. For many HDRs, though, this is never really spelt out explicitly. Your literature review, too, will have revealed that no one else appears to have published on your exact project previously.

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We’ve all heard horror stories of people nearing the end of their PhD who find that someone else has just published a paper reporting on exactly the idea that they have spent the last few years working on. It doesn’t happen very often, and it is not a total disaster. There is usually a way to rescue the project by shifting the focus or gathering some extra data to ensure that the work is sufficiently different from what others have published.

However, I think this is a good reason to:

  1. publish your findings as you go via a thesis by compilation – it means you can claim the territory;
  2. keep reading throughout candidature so that you know what other researchers in your field are working on;
  3. attend conferences in your field in person or online so that you are up to date with current projects and work in progress (that is, before formal articles are published); and
  4. get that thesis submitted on time, before someone else catches up with you!

What is ‘originality’?

Understanding what constitutes originality can help you make this clear to your readers (by that I mean examiners). For many this is demonstrated by revealing a gap in knowledge related to a specific topic and then filling that gap. For others, a blunt but useful instrument to measure originality is that a piece of research is ‘publishable’ or ‘worthy of dissemination’. The implication is that other scholars in the field would be interested in the work and learn something from reading it.

A study by Clarke & Lunt (2014) shows how ‘originality’ is variously defined in doctoral education as creativity, as generating new knowledge, as offering fresh insights, and as providing solutions to existing problems. They categorise different kinds of originality (p808):

  • discovery of new knowledge or new facts (which might even go so far as to change views of previous research outcomes). This might be generated by experiments or creation of artworks in the case of creative practice projects.
  • development of a new theory
  • application of existing knowledge in new situations
  • application of a different approach or methodology to an existing situation or body of knowledge (e.g., reinterpretation of a literary text through a specific theoretical lens).

This can look different in different disciplines. In STEM areas, PhD candidates often work as a team member undertaking part of a larger research project; they need to explain what their specific contribution is to the overall project and their precise role in any published work. Humanities and Arts candidates (and sometimes those in Maths) might be ‘studying previously unpublished or newly discovered material, or undertaking a fresh analysis of existing knowledge’; or their work might involve ‘the presentation, exploration and evidence-based defence of new, novel (innovative) concept(s)/argument(s) which extend/challenge the current knowledge base’ (Clarke & Lunt 2014).

It’s important to work out what is original about your own work, and then tell the reader how your thesis meets this examination criterion.

Types of contribution

Petre & Rugg (2010), in their encouragingly titled book, The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research, list the following types of contribution that PhD research might make:

  • Re-contextualizing an existing technique, theory or model
  • Confirming and expanding an existing model
  • Contradicting an existing model or a specific aspect of a model
  • Combining two or more ideas and showing that the arrangement reveals something new and useful
  • Demonstrating a concept
  • Implementing a theoretical principle
  • Providing a new solution to a known problem and demonstrating the solution’s efficacy

Can you identify the type of contribution from this list that your research makes to your discipline? If not, is there another way of describing your contribution? My main aim in this is to offer some language about how to demonstrate originality and contribution in your thesis.

ACTIVITY: Go back to the Library website where you can find ANU theses. Do the thesis examples you’ve looked at this week include an explicit statement of their contribution to the field? Can you easily see what new, original knowledge the research offers the discipline? What vocabulary or phrases do they use to signpost this for the reader so that the statement is unmissable?

Not everyone includes their contribution as a direct statement, as Trafford, Leshem & Bitzer (2014) reveal. Importantly, it appears that this is not a deal breaker, since the theses they read were in fact awarded the degree. Nevertheless, I believe that the easier you make it for the examiner to see what you’ve done, the smoother your examination process will be. I strongly encourage you to be explicit about what you are contributing to knowledge in your field.

Your contribution
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ACTIVITY: In one sentence, tell us what you contribute to your field – what do we know now that we didn’t know before your project was conducted? If it’s early days, you might think about this as your hypothesis – what you hope to be able to demonstrate, or what you think is the most likely outcome from your research.

You can use this sentence in your abstract, your Introduction and your Conclusion. Signpost it to make it easy for an examiner to understand exactly what you have learnt during your project that is new: ‘The main contribution of this thesis is….’ or ‘This thesis presents a novel interpretation of…’

Tomorrow is our final day to think about how you ensure that your thesis is good enough to send out for examination. We’ll focus on Introductions and Conclusions that bracket all that good research you are presenting.

References

Gillian Clarke & Ingrid Lunt (2014) The concept of ‘originality’ in the Ph.D.: how is it interpreted by examiners?, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39:7, 803-820, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2013.870970

Marian Petre & Gordon Rugg (2010) The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research: Open UP Study Skills. Berkshire: OUP.

Trafford, V., Leshem, S., & Bitzer, E. (2014). Conclusion chapters in doctoral theses: some international findings. Higher Education Review46(3).

16 Comments

  1. Activity 1
    One thesis I looked at had the following ‘declaration of contribution’ as the unmissable first sentence of the abstract:

    “This thesis links three interconnected stories relevant to humanity’s future:
    1. Exposition of a different form of agriculture;
    2. An exploration of the nature of transformational change; and
    3. Revelation of a new way of regenerating Mother Earth via the melding of new and old knowledge.”

    This contribution falls into the categories of combining two or more areas of knowledge, as well as providing insight into a new solution to a known problem, the specifics of which are elaborated throughout the rest of the abstract. The thesis also has a “key results” section in the concluding chapter which lists the 10 main findings and their implications for practice.

    Another thesis I looked at had the following in the abstract, which articulates the gap as the context of studying a particular phenomenon and the aim of the thesis to fill that gap: “…These phenomena have largely been studied in high income countries, however, businesses enabling shared-access to goods or services have been emerging around the world. …This thesis examines the use of collaborative consumption businesses in emerging economies in Southeast Asia, focusing on the cities of Hanoi, Bangkok and Manila. The aim is to understand the prospects and challenges for these businesses to offer more environmentally sustainable modes of consuming.”

    That thesis also has a section in the conclusion which is titled “Contributions to knowledge”, which has the following direct statement of contribution: “This thesis addresses a significant research gap where there has been little investigation of product-service systems and collaborative consumption business models in emerging economies. It provides several unique contributions to the academic literature, using an interdisciplinary approach, drawing on the social sciences and industrial ecology.” It then lists what each of these contributions are.

    Activity 2
    This is a bit tricky as I’m still collecting data and making sense of it, but here goes in general terms…
    The main contribution of my thesis is an understanding of how Community Supported Agriculture is being practiced in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, with a focus on who is participating, what changes they experience as a result, and the extent to which any such changes relate to the values held by participants.

    1. Great to have a shot at identifying your contribution early on 🙂
      And thank you for sharing the example from another thesis – you can see how clear this is for a reader to see what the research has taught us.

  2. Here’s my contribution ( in two sentences rather than one):
    In this thesis I develop and present a new model of Oral History with six domains – Visual, Spatial, Oral-Aural, Textual, Numerical, and Digital – in three phases of oral history – primary (recording and collection), secondary (curating and processing), and tertiary (analysis and interpretation). This model brings definition and coherence to the many aspects of oral history theory and practice.

  3. Using a transdicsiplinary approach this thesis examines the neurohistory of the normalisation of psychopathy within the culture of whiteness to provide a new understanding of the cause of mass destructions of life on earth. White psychopathy is framed by Aboriginal epistemologies and ontologies on morals, justice and free will to provide a cultural counterpoint to whiteness. Those of us of whiteness who do not allow critiques of whiteness can thereby be seen as upholders of psychopathy as normal and the causes of the problem of the coming end of life on earth.

  4. Like yesterday, it was really interesting to see the variety in how people approached this. In some the contribution was a specific section in the introductory chapters, in others integrated through the abstract and introduction. Also, the contribution to research (in terms of new knowledge) and the practical contribution were distinguished.
    My contribution is the development or a parent intervention to address child mental health issues in contexts of complex humanitarian emergency. With reference to today’s blog this fits within re-contextualizing an existing technique, theory or model.

    1. Good to be able to identify the type of contribution – I’m hoping that list helps us articulate the ideas really clearly.

  5. Activity 1
    I looked up two theses from the library. Both theses put the contribution in the conclusion chapter under the section “Research Implication” and they stated clearly by saying “this thesis contributes to…”

    Activity 2
    Basically, I am adopting the way of previous theses state their contribution to the knowledge.
    First, I mentioned about my main argument and then how this argument fills the gap in the topic. Then, I wrote “My study, then, contributes to this gap by focusing more on the role of family context and family dynamic in creating the condition for early radicalisation, resisting radicalisation or creating vulnerable individual to radicalisation.”

  6. Activity 1
    I found an explicit statement in the Abstract of Anthony Bartlett’s thesis as below:
    “This research has made two key contributions to understanding how to improve research for
    development projects. The first is a low-cost method for evaluating relative success between projects.
    The second is the identification of 15 widely applicable success factors that are subject to decisions
    made by research program managers and project teams. These insights will help inform research for
    development funders and managers about factors influencing, and strategies for enhancing project
    success.”

    Activity 2
    “A number of studies (Giessen et al., 2016; Maryudi et al., 2017; Nurrochmat et al., 2016; Savilaakso et al., 2017; Wibowo and Giessen, 2018) have investigated the architecture and implementation of mandatory sustainable forest certification (PHPL) and timber legality verification (SVLK) in Indonesia. However, their implementation along the wood value chain has received only limited attention, leaving a knowledge gap in terms of the level of regulatory compliance in wood production systems. This study responds to this gap and complements earlier work by investigating PHPL and SVLK compliance by actors in three case studies of wood value chains in Indonesia, and exploring policy and practice implications for regulatory
    compliance in Indonesia’s wood value chains.”

    1. These are really useful examples – you can see how the research gap/question is identified, and also the new information that fills that gap. I especially like the statement in your first section that tells us exactly what we now have: “a low-cost method for evaluating” and “identification of 15 widely applicable success factors”. It sounds like a very successful project!

  7. Okay I dropped the ball a little on these replies, but am back on the wagon. This activity was… way harder than I thought it would be. I think because I need to do some reconciling between what I *set out to contribute*, what I *hope I could contribute* and given all the turns of a project, what I *actually will contribute*… And all of these seem to be slightly different. But as my supervisor says, “the best thesis is a finished thesis”, so I guess I’ll stick with the last option.

    “This research re-contextualises what we know from youth and political studies, and looks at environmental activism through a science communication lens. The project applies and expands on existing models of protest engagement, exploring how teenagers engage with the intersection of climate change and politics as alternative science communicators in their own right.”

    1. Wise advice from your supervisor. And yes, the thesis is actually about the work you ended up doing, not what you hoped for at the beginning – I interpret this as meaning you have learnt a lot along the way!

  8. Hey there! Back from surgery and wrapping up the course!

    Activity 1:

    In Anna Garetson’s thesis, she makes clear immediately in her Abstract, that the uniqueness of her contribution lies in trying to understand what the relatively uninvestigated ambivalence in a lot of settler-colonial writer’s works, means, or might actually do.

    Similarly Lan Thu Nguyen-hoan in her 2019 thesis makes clear from the get-go that her use of metalsmithing and creative writing is the unique contribution to a larger conversation about language and material (cool, right?!).

    Finally, in Kirk Ndabaningi Zwangobani’s 2016 thesis, he suggests the uniqueness of his contribution twice in his abstract. Firstly, by discussing that his study of the dynamics of race and becoming African Australian has required the development of a new term to describe how race folds back into all social experiences. He also signposts at the end of his abstract, the ‘novelty’ of his overall argument, which is to offer new ways of conceptualising the complex relationship between belonging and becoming within the context of the problem of race.

    Overall, abstracts seems like a very helpful place where, toward the end of the abstract, a clear sentence is given to highlight the uniqueness of the research.

    For my own thesis:
    It is challenging to find examples of white writers actively engaging in, while theorising, race-critical creative methods. The novel contribution of my thesis is to take up this task of creative and critical conversation as a moving learning journey that inevitably folds creative work into critical reflection repetitiously. I use creative, authoethnographic, and critical work to explore the role of a white settler-colonial writer who wishes to critically and ethically engage with race and whiteness in my creative and generative practice, by doing the practice and then reflecting on this practice with Black and Indigenous-led research and theory.

    1. Welcome back, Rosanna – sound like the surgery went smoothly 🙂
      The examples you provide give us a good sense of how to present the contribution to knowledge, and it’s great to see how you’ve used this to craft your own statement – well done!

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