I have pondered on this particular question a great deal over the last few years. I don’t think I have an answer, to be honest, because I really don’t know what counts as a ‘contribution to knowledge’ in PhD work. I suspect it means different things in different fields of study. Perhaps for a scientist there is more pressure to say something original? Or is there less? Does your PhD thesis have to say something no one else is saying (or very few are)? Is that what counts, broadly, as a contribution to knowledge? And what body of knowledge are you contributing to? To what end?
I think that some of the answers to these questions begin to form when you decide on a research question and you start narrowing down the theoretical framework for your study that becomes the lens through which you see your (and lots of other peoples’) research. You begin to work out, at any rate, why you want or need to do this research and where it fits within the field in which you are working. What body of knowledge and why. And depending on the questions you want to answer and the theories and methods you choose to use, you could be potentially making a bigger or smaller contribution to that body of knowledge, if by contribution is meant ‘something original or not-oft said that sheds new light on these questions or the use of these theories or methods in research like this’.
That is what I have taken ‘contribution to knowledge’ to mean, and it’s a big ask. There are several things you have to do with a PhD in order to just get the thesis done, never mind impress the hell out of your examiners and prove yourself worthy of the degree. You need to be able to read with a goodly amount of skepticism and have the ability to critique, question, summarise and synthesise ideas and arguments; you need to be able to write not just well, but also persuasively and with flair, I think; you need to be able to create a research design that is guided by the theory (which you have had to understand and connect into a coherent framework that can carry you into the data gathering and analysis coherently), and you need to employ that design to gather data ethically and organise it logically; and then you need to analyse that data in stages, connecting back to your theoretical framework so as to find answers and create a language for your reader to use to interpret this data in the way you intend (and the theory guides you to) (see Bernstein 2000; Maton 2013); and finally you need to reach conclusions that show not just that you understand what you have written about but also, and here’s the kicker, how what you have done impacts on your field of study. So, the going is pretty tough just getting all the pieces in place and connected together before you have to tell your reader the ‘so what?’ and ‘now what?’ of your research.
I must say I really struggled with these two questions connected to this idea of contributing to knowledge: ‘so what?’ and ‘now what?’ So many times, especially towards the end I had to firmly shush the voice in my head saying ‘there is no point to your research. This has been done already. You are not saying anything new here. No one really wants to read this stuff’ (and things like that). I was really worried that the voice was right and that I was not actually saying anything that people would want to read; that my work was not in any way, even small, challenging or advancing knowledge or understanding in my field. I still wonder if the voice is right, sometimes.
I think I wonder because much is made of this contribution at PhD level. PhD work seems to matter so much more than MA work, even though many MAs probably do more exciting research than some PhDs. Perhaps it is the level of the qualification that they will confer on you if you succeed, or what it says about your ability to do the even more important post-doctoral research and work? I am not sure. What I have realised, though, is that originality in the social sciences is tough. I think the most that many PhD students can hope for is to choose an angle on a particular, probably well-known problem that only a few people are really looking at in-depth, and say something that provokes thinking and that shows that they have what it takes to do more interesting and sound research as they grow into their post-doc careers. A friend said to me that the PhD is an exercise, albeit a fairly sophisticated one, of applying theory to a problem using some form of data (empirical etc), and reaching a sound and hopefully interesting conclusion. This oversimplifies the PhD process, but it has helped me to keep things in perspective when the voice (see above) gets really loud. My PhD does not have to be the equivalent of E=mc² to be good enough.
I am making a contribution to knowledge by joining the conversation, claiming a voice and a stance, and being brave enough to argue for it. I am not saying things nobody has ever said or thought, and I am not inventing anything new. But I’m in the field now, and I have shown in my thesis (I hope) that I am capable of doing research at this level and of growing further. And perhaps that is good enough for now.