This is, perhaps, one of the biggest questions for many PhD candidates. Candidates know they need to make an ‘original contribution to knowledge’, but many of them are hazy about what that means, how to explain what they’ve done, and how significant their contribution is.
Before I go any further, I’m going to refer everyone to Mullins and Kiley’s absolute barnstormer of an article, ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize‘. Their research on what experienced examiners are looking for in a PhD is excellent. Since this post is a metacognition post about how to think, I’m going to go through my whole thought process too.
What I’m going to say came up in a coaching session with a late stage candidate in my current day job at La Trobe, but it coalesced some things I’ve been telling people for years.
In the session, I drew this on the white board:
Lots of things got added as we talked and as I more fully explained what I was trying to say, and by the end, the board was a bit of a mess. So I made a quick version of it in PowerPoint (which is great for building flow charts).
It’s a heuristic, not a complete system–that is, this is a quick way to start thinking about a massive and messy problem, not something that is designed to address every single possible aspect of it. This means that your own research may not quite fit this model–but I strongly believe that it’s easy to modify a model than to start from scratch! (And if some of the terms sound like they have come out of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, it’s because they did! It’s also unpacking what the the IMRAD structure is attempting to do for STEM theses in a way that is deeper and more widely useful.)
With all of this out of the way, let’s get on with the answer.
These are the different things that are knowable in PhD research, and what you are expected to do with them, and how they might be an original contribution to knowledge.
The bottom line is: ‘knowledge’ is everything academics know in your field.
You can make an ‘original contribution to knowledge’ by helping nurses understand something that sociologists have known for 20 years (or vice versa). Or you can bring something that practitioners have known for years into the academy. Perhaps you are bringing information only available to people who speak German or Vietnamese into English.
Interpretation, Analysis, Evaluation:
For almost everyone, their interpretation of what they have found (your argument) will be unlike anyone else’s argument. Even if you are one of hundreds of people looking at penicillin or Romeo and Juliet, your reading will be subtly different from other people’s, you’ll put it all together in a slightly different way.
In some cases, it is this section which is the most original: perhaps you are the first person to use a particular theoretical lens or research methodology on this information. You may also be the first researcher to take a data set or archived document, and analyse it for a thesis or publication. (When we talk about ‘discoveries’ in archives, this is usually what we mean.)
Information is putting data into order. In your thesis, you are turning a mass of data into meaningful knowledge.
Cataloguing, coding, reviewing or arranging facts is going to be a sizeable chunk of your research time and your thesis. It can also be a significant contribution to knowledge, if the information hasn’t been arranged before. Rearranging facts to tell a new story or enable new interpretations can also be a significant contribution.
Facts, Data, Experience, Imagination, Wisdom, Opinion:
These are all things that are knowable–they can be discovered, recorded, found. There is value in all of them, though some of them have more value in some disciplines than others. (Imagination is integral to producing creative practice-led research; opinion is essential in marketing analysis; data is relevant to quantitative research).
You may be the first researcher to count the number of Aedeomyia venustipes mosquitoes in this swamp in southern New South Wales, or part of a team that uncovers the archeological remains of a Victorian factory outside Bendigo. You might be the first researcher to ask this social group about their reasons for getting involved in marshal arts; or you may have written a novel as part of your doctorate.
Any of these ‘knowables’ can be your significant contribution to knowledge.
And all of these kinds of knowable will need to be in your research.
- You will need to go and find your evidence, your facts or data or case studies or creative works.
- You will need to set out your primary evidence, through quotes, tables, graphs or transcripts, or where you assemble the secondary evidence on your topic into a comprehensible order.
- You will need to interpret, analyse and evaluate the evidence you have gathered and arranged. What does it mean? How reliable is it? Is it better than other evidence? What can we do with it?
- And you will need to situate your work within what is already known in your field, and explain how much of it is new.
In some theses, these steps are clearly separated, your Methods, Results and Discussion are different chapters. In others, you will be moving from presenting the basic evidence, through to analysis and evaluation within a single sentence.
In most theses, for sections like the Introduction, Literature Review and Conclusion, you are doing all of these things at once. In a Lit Review, for example, you have arranged the things you have read into a comprehensible order, explained and evaluated how it fits with your particular research project, and used it to place your project within the context of your discipline.
I hope this helps you think about your original contribution to knowledge and to be clearer about what kinds of knowing you are using in your thesis at different moments. Articulating this can also help you to identify what’s going wrong if, for example, your supervisor gives you feedback that you ‘aren’t analytical enough’, or ‘the data section is a bit thin’.
If you’d like the slides for use in your own classroom/teaching, here there are linked: Knowables.
Let me know if you can think of kinds of knowledge I’ve left out, or if this helped you with your thesis (particularly if it doesn’t fit an IMRAD structure or quantitative methods).