Des conseils de carrière
The PhD dissertation
Making a significant original
contribution to knowledge
by Heather Cray
hen 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
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
Heather Cray is a doctoral
student in the department
of environment and resource
studies at the University
summarize their significant original contribution
in two sentences. From an examiner’s perspec-
tive, 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 iter-
ative 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.
“ The thesis can address
small gaps within saturated