The magnitude of the original contribution of a PhD

2012-03-31

in Books and literature, Daily updates, Geek stuff, PhD thesis, Writing

I am reading Estelle Phillips and Derek Pugh’s How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors. One interesting section is entitled: “Not understanding the nature of a PhD by overestimating what is required”.

Some quotes:

The words used to describe the outcome of a PhD project – ‘an original contribution to knowledge’ – may sound rather grand, but we must remember that, as we saw in Chapter 3, the work for the degree is essentially a research training process. and the term ‘original contribution’ has perforce to be interpreted quite narrowly. It does not mean an enormous breakthrough that has the subject rocking on its foundations, and research students who think that it does (even if only subconsciously or in a half-formed way) will find the process pretty debilitating.

We find that when we make this point, some social science students who have read Kuhn’s (1970) work on ‘paradigm shifts’ in the history of natural science (science students have normally not heard of him) say rather indignantly: ‘Oh, do you mean a PhD has to be just doing normal science?’ And indeed we do mean that.

You can leave the paradigm shifts for after your PhD, and empirically that is indeed what happens. The theory of relativity (a classic example of a paradigm shift in relation to post-Newtonian physics) was not Einstein’s PhD thesis (that was a sensible contribution to Brownian motion theory). Das Kapital was not Marx’s PhD (that was on the theories of two little-known Greek philosophers).

Overestimating is a powerful way of not getting a PhD.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

. March 31, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Related: M.Phil thesis

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