… or possibly it will make you feel very much worse. Not sure. But I think you need to know this.
Discussing with research students about the many troubles of PhD life we often come back to a disagreement or misunderstanding about what a PhD is. So I want to fix that now:
A PhD is a series of research or real world problems and hypotheses around a central theme that you want to live with and examine. It starts and ends with the questions: What is this topic/thing, what happens with it, why does it matter, and to what/whom?
These are the only questions ever studied in academia. Every other research question ever asked is a take on one of these. So as long as you have or will end up with some kind of answer to each of those, you will be fine. The rest of your academic career can be elaborating on those and that is a very nice, happy way to live out your life. Academic discussion involves asking the same question in many different ways.
To be accepted as a PhD the thesis and viva need to meet the following challenges as laid out in the University regulations which I’m sure we have all read:
‘Grounds for the Award of Doctoral and MPhil Research Degrees: Demonstration by Thesis and Oral Exam for the Award of PhD
The student must demonstrate by the presentation of a thesis and/or portfolio, and by performance at an oral examination: • capability of pursuing original research making a significant contribution to knowledge or understanding in the field of study; • adequate knowledge of the field of study and relevant literature; • exercise of critical judgement with regard to both the student’s work and that of other scholars in the same general field, relating particular research projects to the general body of knowledge in the field; and • the ability to present the results of the research in a critical and scholarly way. The thesis must: • represent a coherent body of work; and • contain a significant amount of material worthy of publication or public presentation.’ (italics are mine)
As above, these questions are all angles on the same central question: is the PhD an original work of scholarship with an identifiable contribution to make. Reading the above it sounds like a tall order. But look closely at some of the language which I have italicised. When I examine a PhD I look for the capability of pursuing original research and making a significant contribution. I look for whether there is material that is worthy of being published. I do not ask that the PhD has made a significant contribution already, or that you have published already. If you have published or are nearing publication by the time of the viva, that’s awesome – box ticked, I won’t even have to read the thing now. Score. All of these questions are about showing potential in the PhD – the potential for good research, good scholarship, showing where you belong in the academic mind map.
Now follows some top secret info which you must guard with your very life. You do not have to meet all of these criteria immediately on submission of the thesis. Plenty of PhDs that go on to be awarded and that are of a high standard have weaknesses or uncertainties around one or more of these questions. That is why we have a viva, so we can question whether you recognise that and if you are likely to go and fix it. After the viva we give recommendations on work that needs to be done to correct any problems identified, as long as it looks like you recognise the issue and are likely to have a good go at correcting it.
So your research/work plan should be structured around the words I have highlighted above.
- Show the capability of pursuing original research and material worthy of publication. Where do you learn about and show you can use methods during your PhD? What is the research material, the stuff that you gather, which could make it into a published paper – that could be data, it might be theorising about an issue, it could be a review of methods? Out of the many ways you could have researched this topic, what led you to choose these ones?
- Produce adequate knowledge about the field of study. What research and theory are you reviewing, what questions are you asking and what conclusions are you drawing? One question is ‘how do academics talk about and define my thing?’. Like many other ontological questions I don’t even think there is a ‘best’ or ‘final’ definition, because the object being defined is itself contingent, changeable etc. You just have to show you know how they discuss it.
- Where in the PhD are you exercising critical judgement and about what? What baseline assumptions are made by yourself and others that need to be put into play? Where do you talk about the limits of yours and others’ perspectives on the issue?
- In your writing how do you show the ability to present the results and represent a coherent body of work. The best way to do this is to actually present the results and show how those other questions – What is this topic/thing, what happens with it, why does it matter, and to what/whom? – link up in your imagination.
The best way to meet these challenges is to show you have done them by producing a coherent body of work with original research. A PhD is a map of the potential contained in the topic, in you. That is all we want. That potential is boundless. Never be afraid to show it on your own terms. And if you want, to be the world shattering magnum opus it deserves to be.