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What is a PhD? What does doing a PhD entail?

I have three PhD students right in their second year, plus I informally mentor other 3. I love mentoring and supervising students, particularly doctoral ones, because this component of being a professor is really the one that allows you to build how other scholars think and you can see them flourish. All doctoral students I mentor are parents, a fact that also brings along specific challenges, as I try to be a supportive supervisor. Two of my current PhD students are undertaking Doctor of Philosophy degrees, and one of them is undertaking a Doctor of Business Administration, which is a slightly different kind of degree. At any rate, because they are all in their second year, they all have come to me with very important questions about where their dissertations should go, how to build their research questions and how to come up with their contribution to the literature and the “gap in scholarship” they are filling. But these contributions need to be VERY CLEARLY STATED in the dissertation, and at the doctoral defense.

As I said on Twitter (you can read the rest of my Twitter thread by clicking anywhere on the tweet shown) there are core elements to the doctor of philosophy degree that have been agreed upon collectively. For me (and for a lot of other doctoral advisors) a PhD dissertation is an original contribution to knowledge (which can be theoretical, empirical or both) which fills a void (or a gap) in the literature on a particular topic. While moving across disciplines could possibly mean that said gap may not actually exist (and therefore, a dissertation could very well be creating a new area of scholarship and understanding), for the most part, particularly in disciplinary settings, a PhD dissertation fills a gap. Something wasn’t known, well understood or read about Phenomenon X in this particularly novel way, and therefore this dissertation fills a gap in the literature. I really like how Tierney Wisniewski put it:

I also agree with Susan Porter and Lisa Young: “The core of the PhD continues to be the development of the ability to do independent, rigorous research, as documented in the dissertation.

Finding a gap in the literature signals originality. PhDs are supposed to make an original contribution. That’s the crux of the degree. Academic, social impact, interestingness, all are added bonuses. Of course I would like my doctoral students to do interesting, scholarly robust and impactful research. And obviously I want my students to undertake topics that are interesting TO THEM (I don’t care if the topic isn’t interesting to me, it’s not MY PhD dissertation!) But the core of the dissertation research is, whether people like it or not, or agree or disagree with it, an original contribution to collective knowledge, which is signaled by showcasing a gap in the literature that the dissertation fills.


My recommendation to my students always is to READ AND MASTER THE LITERATURE VERY WELL. Read broadly, read deeply, engage with the literature. Also, don’t expect that your doctoral dissertation will have all these grand innovations. We all contribute to scientific and human knowledge incrementally.

Failure to do this kind of clear articulation is not the student’s fault. Students are developing their knowledge of the literature, and more importantly, they’re still in the process of learning how to conduct independent research. In my view, this failure to clearly articulate a doctoral dissertation contributions is a supervisory issue.

So, how do I prefer that my own students write their doctoral dissertations? I like them to be able to very clearly articulate the following:

I am grateful for people’s articulations of these thoughts as well, because I think we all collectively develop how we deal with doctoral research in different ways.

Ultimately, my goal is to guide my PhD students to complete their dissertations on time, doing important, interesting and innovative research in a way that is both fulfilling and scholarly rigorous. All these blog posts are inspired by the numerous failures in supervision that I’ve witnessed through the year. I don’t want my own students to go through the hell that I’ve seen others go through. A PhD (and any scholarly degree) should not be painful. It should be challenging but not torture. And on this very topic, PLEASE read Katie Wedemeyer-Strombel‘s excellent post in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in my Resources for Graduate Students page, and on my reading notes of books I’ve read on how to do a doctoral degree.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. The Dissertation Analytical Table (DAT) – an overview device to formulate a 3-papers thesis/doctoral dissertation – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on September 13, 2019

    […] I have already written about, a PhD is an original contribution to the knowledge. It demonstrates you know stuff broadly and deeply. Writing a doctoral dissertation shows that you […]

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