How not to Get a PhD: By Overestimating What is Required.

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,  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.

 Of course, if you are capable of a major contribution then go ahead and make it.

There are still, for example, a few engineers who are Fellows of the Royal Society but do not have a PhD, but this is a strategy for getting an honorary degree, not for getting a PhD! For those not in that position – that is, most of us – an original contribution can be rather limited in its scope and indeed should be: apply this theory in a different setting, evaluate the effects of raising the temperature, solve this puzzling oddity or review this little-known historical event.

We find that when we make this point, some social science students who have read about ‘paradigm shifts’ in the history of natural science (science students have normally not heard of this) say rather indignantly: ‘Oh, do you mean a PhD has to be just doing normal science?’ And indeed we do mean that. Paradigm shifts are major changes in the explanatory schemes of the science, which happen only rarely when the inadequacies of the previous framework have become more and more limiting. Normal science is the ordinary research that goes on between major theoretical changes. It serves to elaborate the general explanatory paradigm used and to tease out difficulties and puzzles that are not yet sufficiently well explained. It is the basic useful activity of scientists and scholars, and PhD students should be pleased to make a contribution to it.

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).

Of course, while doing their PhDs Einstein and Marx were undoubtedly preparing themselves for the great questionings that led to the big shifts, but they were also demonstrating their fully professional mastery of the established paradigms.

It is this professionalism that the PhD is about. To think it is more than that can be very debilitating. You can wait for a  long time for a new paradigm to strike. Overestimating is a powerful way of not getting a PhD. Here are two classic cases:

  1. Bob insisted that it would not be ‘real’ research if he read up in books and journals what others had done on the problem that he wished to tackle; his thinking would be entirely shaped by what they had done and he would only be able to add something minor. He felt that his only chance of being really innovative was not to read anything further in the field (he had a bachelor’s and a relevant master’s degree in the subject)but to sit down and design an investigation into the problem he was proposing to research (concerned with adult learning of skills), which he knew well from a practical point of view as an industrial trainer. This took quite a long time, as his knowledge of research methods was not that strong.When he did present his proposal to his supervisors, Dr Bishop, his second supervisor, was not impressed. She was on the supervisory team for her methodological expertise, and as this field was not her own particular speciality, she looked up all the current year’s issues of the relevant journals. In one of them she found a paper reporting a study on Bob’s topic that (not surprisingly, since it was completed and published) was considerably better than Bob’s attempt. She used this paper to support her argument that he would have to make a comprehensive search of relevant published material if he were to have a chance of designing an adequate study which would make a contribution. But Bob saw this as a negation of what he wanted to do and withdrew.
  2. While Phil was carrying out the fieldwork stage of his research into the motivation of managers, he became very involved with his subjects. He felt that it would be a betrayal if they were to get no benefit from his research because it was written up in a dull academic book that no one would read. Most research was like that, Phil maintained, and was therefore neglected by everyone except the next lot of researchers. What was needed was a research report that could really communicate. Why couldn’t we have a PhD thesis that would read like a novel so that it would become accessible?He took an extra year to write up the material, letting no one see anything on the way, on the grounds that you don’t show a novel to anyone until it is completed. When he did finally present his complete thesis, his supervisors thought it was inadequate, unrigorous and indulgently subjective. They asked Phil to rewrite it, but he refused and thus did not get a PhD.Phil took this idea very seriously. He wrote to a novelist whose works he admired for some suggestions on how to write his thesis.

We hasten to emphasize that this example is not intended to deprecate writing research results for lay people, a very necessary activity that all researchers should take seriously. It is about overestimating what can be done with a PhD and therefore falling flat on your face. Nor does it mean that in writing for your academic peers you should neglect clear  expression and interesting presentation.



PHILLIPS., E. M. &  PUGH., D. S. (2010). HOW TO GET A PhDA handbook for studentsand their supervisors ( 5th ed) (. Open University Press.

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