Postgraduate study skills in science, technology or mathematics
Postgraduate study skills in science, technology or mathematics

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1.6 What is a ‘significant’ contribution?

Most students, when they hear the phrase ‘significant contribution’, think in terms of a new theory, crucial experiments, and technological breakthroughs – the stuff of Nobel Prizes. For a PhD, the truth is that ‘significant’ need not mean ‘revolutionary’ or ‘major’, or even ‘large’. The phrase might be more accurately read as ‘significant – albeit modest – contribution’.

Characterising your contribution means answering ‘So what?’, which means articulating:

  • The importance of the question. (Why is it worth asking?)

  • The significance of the findings. (Why should anyone care? Why do they matter?)

  • Their implications for theory.

  • The limitations to generalisation.

Making a ‘significant contribution’ means ‘adding to knowledge’ or ‘contributing to the discourse’, i.e. providing evidence to substantiate a conclusion that is worth making. Research is not something done in isolation; it is a discourse among many researchers, each providing evidence and argument that contributes to knowledge and understanding, each critiquing the available evidence. Research is about the articulation and analysis of phenomena observed and investigated through a variety of techniques. It is about ‘making sense’ of the world: not just describing it, but also analysing and explaining it. As more evidence is presented, the analysis and explanations are re-evaluated. Knowledge claims can be small and still have a role in the discourse.

What sorts of contribution are typically made in dissertations?

  • Re-contextualisation of an existing technique, theory, or model (applying a technique in a new context, testing a theory in a new setting, showing the applicability of a model to a new situation) – showing it works – or that it doesn't – and why.

  • Corroboration and elaboration of an existing model (e.g. evaluating the effects of a change of condition; experimental assessment of one aspect of a model).

  • Falsification or contradiction of an existing model, or part of one.

  • Drawing together two or more existing ideas and showing that the combination reveals something new and useful.

  • Demonstration of a concept: showing that something is feasible and has utility (or showing that something is infeasible and explaining why it fails).

  • Implementation of theoretical principal: showing how it can be applied in practice; making concrete someone else's idea, and hence showing how it works in practice and what its limitations are.

  • Codification of the ‘obvious': providing evidence about what ‘everyone knows’ (possibly providing evidence that received wisdom is incorrect).

  • Empirically based characterisation of a phenomenon of interest (e.g. detailed, critical, analytic account of the evolution of an idea; detailed analytic characterisation of a crucial case study or a novel chemical compound, or a new planet).

  • Providing a taxonomy of observed phenomena.

  • Well-founded critique of existing theory or evidence, e.g. correlating the results of a number of existing studies to show patterns, omissions, or biases, etc.

  • Providing a new solution to a known problem (and demonstrating its efficacy) – even an obscure one; conceiving and justifying a new explanation for a problematic phenomenon.

  • Filling a small technical gap, e.g. showing that a ‘tweak’ to an algorithm or technique is more effective, or developing novel methodology.

The key is that, although the dissertation must stand alone in presenting your research, the research does not exist in isolation. Doing research means contributing to the discourse, i.e. adding knowledge that moves the discourse along. We say that ‘research proceeds by baby steps’ and that ‘researchers stand on each other's shoulders’. A ‘significant contribution’ is a baby step, one that combines with the baby steps of others to produce progress. A decent PhD should yield a sound paper in a peer-reviewed journal.

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