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.

The value of writing just for yourself

An earlier version of this post appeared on The Writing Centre@UWC here.

I am currently working on the full draft of my PhD thesis (hereafter ‘the Thesis’) and this issue of writing for myself and writing for others, like my supervisor and examiners, is very much a current affair. Lately I have been quite focused on the former kind of writing: writing for myself, and the value of this kind of writing as a way of thinking through often complex ideas and concepts.

My supervisor has long been telling me that it is really important to find time to write just for myself every day. But I am a part-time student and am working and parenting full-time, so writing just for myself often seems overly indulgent. When I can make time to write I need to Produce Writing that can be Read and Commented On and go into the Thesis. I can’t just scribble. That’s a waste of precious writing time, right? Actually, wrong, as I only very recently worked out for myself.

I found my way to a website called 750words.com, and signed up after being given the link by a colleague. It looked like a fun way to get a bit of writing done, and was similar in intent to the research journal I have been keeping sporadically for the most part but quite faithfully as my ‘formal’ writing has picked up in pace. I wanted to write every day for as many days as I could, and also had the added bonus of being rewarded with point and badges on the site – just for writing! Initially it was a chore. I had to write ‘Do your Words’ on my ‘to-do’ list every day for a week to remind myself, and everyday for a week I sat down and started with ‘I’m not sure I even have anything to write about today but…’. But, I would start with something I had been thinking about and before I knew it half an hour or so and 800 words had flown by. And I was not just writing, I was thinking quite productively, making connections between the first little idea and all the other ideas that connected to it and flowed through me and onto these pages. And every day I did it it got easier. I have not kept up with the website, using it now when I need to do some freewriting to unblock my brain, but I have gone back to my pen-and-paper research journal and have started scribbling and drawing in there more frequently. And I have been moving forwards, even if what I was writing about in May and June on the website has not all found its way into the Thesis. I am still moving forwards – and I have indeed learned that the writing is the thinking and this is useful work, and not at all a waste of my precious PhD time.

As so many PhD students who are studying part-time and working (and some of them parenting) full-time find, time is at a premium, and if we are going to make time to work on the PhD we want that time to be as productive and useful as possible. We want to read only books and articles that we will cite, and write only words that can go into chapters. We try to make the process as linear and straightforward as we can so that we can fit it into our lives and manage it along with everything else. But too often writing in academia is made to seem separate from all of the other academic activities that are part of it, like reading, speaking and thinking. We don’t only think before we write; we think while we write and after we write, and we need to try to open our own eyes to the process that is writing, and see beyond just the ‘product’ that we are writing. If we only focus on the destination we miss so much of the richness in the journey. Well, that has been my learning, and I am going to be spending far more time with my scribbles, as well as my draft in progress, because the latter won’t be quite as good without the former.

Revisions suck

Revisions suck. They really do. Seriously. I hate them. I am so tired now. Why can’t this draft just be done? I wish I was like the cobbler in ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ who would wake up in the morning and find that sweet little shoemaker elves had come and helped him to finish all his work because they saw how tired he was and how much he needed to get the work done. But there are no sweet little PhD-writing elves to help me. I wake up every morning and my ‘to-do’ list for the revisions I have to do seems longer rather than shorter. So, yes, right now revisions suck.

But, they are also necessary and have to be done. And, there is a real sense of achievement in finishing a set of revisions, like a chapter or a big section of one. I finished the revisions of chapter 3 yesterday and it felt great. But it is the easiest chapter to revise because it’s the methodology and there weren’t a lot of missing references to chase down or large additions or cuts to be made. So this, I think, might be my first piece of advice for anyone else who hates revisions or at least feels daunted by them: start with the less daunting chapter. Ask yourself what makes you feel the least like banging your head on your desk repeatedly and then do that. For me, this was initially fiddling with the prelims, like making a page for my figures and tables, formatting section breaks and page numbers and  making sure all my headings look the same. Small, fiddly stuff that people can tell you is procrastination, but which is actually also important. It didn’t take too long to do this though, so I had to find the next thing to do that felt do-able, and that was chapter 3. It took longer than I though it would – revisions always seem to take longer than you plan for – but it’s now done (until, of course, I have to do the final revisions).

Now, I have to revise chapter 2. This is the big one, for me. The theory chapter. And now that I have written my ‘data’ chapters where I have analysed the data and told the relevant stories in each of my case studies, I can see what theory and concepts I really need and what are extraneous and need to be cut. So it should be fairly easy, in theory, but I am finding it hard to ‘murder my darlings’ – all my lovely words and turns of phrase that took me the better part of a year to write. And I am tired, and a lot of thinking is required to make this chapter sharp and focused. I would really rather be napping, or reading a novel.  I am actually writing this post. So it’s procrastination, but it’s not completely pointless. It’s a kind of PhD-related task. It’s a sort of trick I am playing on myself to get myself into the kind of headspace I need to be in to press on and get this chapter done so I can move onto the other 3 chapters that still need to be revised, and in the case of the introduction, partly written as well. Oh, and did I also mention that I still have to write the conclusion, from scratch? I think I should probably get to work.

I am realising that, while some days (like today) I really wish the elves were real, I actually would feel a bit cheated if someone did this bit for me, even though it sucks. So much of this PhD-writing is more about the journey and the learning along the way than it is about the destination.