Knowledge: claims, contributions and confidence

Going through my blog stats recently (one of my many procrastinations last week), I noticed that my post on what a contribution to knowledge is has garnered many hits in the last 2 years especially. That a doctoral study has to make a novel contribution to the researcher-author’s field is one of the main things that sets a PhD apart from other postgraduate qualifications, but it’s not something I have written much about, other than that one post. I have been thinking about different contributions to knowledge in relation to my book-in-progress, and paper writing for journals, and student development, and have a few more thoughts to add to my earlier ones on this topic.

In South Africa, all our qualifications are set out in government policy, and the purpose and main goal of the doctoral degree is there defined thus: “The defining characteristic of this qualification is that the candidate is required to demonstrate high level research capability and to make a significant and original academic contribution at the frontiers of a discipline or field” (HEQSF 2013: 36, emphasis added). This contribution is judged as significant and original by your supervisor(s), examiners, reviewers all chosen because they have expertise in the knowledge of your field, and where your research fits in this field.

This is pretty full-on – significant AND original, at a high level of capacity and ability (seen through the writing, argument, data and so on), and subject to critical evaluation by more senior researchers/scholars/knowers in your field. Yikes.

This idea of ‘contributing to knowledge’ in a novel, interesting, important way freaks out many doctoral scholars and researchers writing papers for journals, and writing books. But let’s break it down, because it’s not as hard, or as scary, as it sounds.

Research, which is behind pretty much all the formal writing we do at postgraduate and career level in academia, is fundamentally about curiosity, and questions. Why? How? When? To what extent? And so on. We read the field, and engage with peers, and see potential gaps, places where our questions could fit, and lead to answers that could fill that gap, and add new understandings, data, knowledge, practice and so on to our field. You could ask: If you are not going to say something the pushes your field forward, why do research in the first place? Research is active, it involves agency, and choices, and drive on the part of the researchers to find those answers that they really want or need.

This curiosity about possible gaps in knowledge starts us off on a research process, and this is why the first step is always readingimmersing yourself, through published literature, in the existing questions and answers in your field. You will have a sense, after spending a significant amount of time in the reading, what kinds of research is being done and what has been done, what kinds of theories have been used and useful, what methodologies have been employed by other researchers, and what questions remain un(der)-answered. This is a vital part of making your own contribution that is both significant and original.

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Another part of this immersion in the current questions and answers, as part of finding a way to your own original research question, is talking to peers and colleagues about your emerging thinking. This should include other PhD students in your field and department, your supervisors, other academic researchers in your field. I have had students reach out to international scholars via email and Twitter, to ask questions about papers they have read and ideas they have, and joining a writing circle within your university, with writers working across different fields, is always a good idea. This all gives you opportunities to try out your own ideas, and hear them out loud, as well as to test the potential contribution with its future audience: is this idea new enough for the field, focused enough for one PhD, interesting/valuable/useful to those working in this field alongside you?

If you are undertaking PhD research because you are training for an academic career, research will be part of your life from here on. Reading, writing, talking to others about your work, getting critical feedback, being told your arguments are not new enough and pointed in the direction of more critical thinking – this will all be part of your life from here on. The PhD starts this off proper: saying something to your field that has not quite been said yet is important, because it enables the research we do to add to knowledge about the world around us, and because it enables you to find and claim a researcher identity and voice. This is a precondition for working as an academic researcher, scholar and future supervisor.

I suppose, what I am thinking now, is that a contribution to knowledge is not one kind of thing – in papers, dissertations and books, it takes different forms and can be a different ‘size’ depending on the length and purpose of the research, and the written (or visual) text. But, regardless of whether you are doing this in a book, or book chapter, or paper, or thesis, the common point, to me, seems to be that you have an argument that has a place of significance in your field, recognisable to those in your field as such. In essence, you have something to say to peers in your field, in relation to the research that has already been done, that takes it a step further – whether through critique of existing work; new data from a new site that adds information to existing studies; new methodology or theory used to cast a different light on an existing problem; or identification of a whole new problem we need to be solving. There are many different forms this contribution can take.

If you are struggling to find, or see, your contribution and hear your voice, consider a few practical steps. Perhaps you need to do some more reading, and writing in your reading and research journals, and talking with peers and your supervisor. Odds are the idea is there, but we can often struggle with mean voices and Imposter Syndrome, and the fear that we have nothing to say. This can all very much get in the way of your progress, and confidence. You have the agency to claim this though. Rather than letting the fears and doubts paralyse you, get writing, and reading, and talking. Confidence grows as you actively out yourself out there, and discover that you do have a voice, and that people want to hear what you have to say. Claim your space, research it well, and the contribution will be there.

What exactly is a ‘contribution to knowledge’?

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.