Putting the thesis into proper perspective

I recently read a great article that reminded me about the importance of viewing the thesis in the right perspective. This blog linked to a paper called It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize: how experienced examiners assess research theses, by Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley.

This paper takes a look at the various criteria that thesis committee members use to evaluate the quality of dissertations in the Australian system. I HIGHLY recommend it. Quote:

The final word of advice should go to students from one of our interviewees: ‘A PhD is a stepping stone into a research career. All you need to do is to demonstrate your capacity for independent, critical thinking. That’s all you need to do. A PhD is three years of solid work, not a Nobel Prize’.

I’ve spent the last n years in grad school and can now appreciate this perspective. However, this understanding is NOT obvious when you start. For instance, in the Georgia Tech guidelines for PhD research, we read that PhD-level work should be “original and represent a substantial addition to the fundamental knowledge of the field.”

Unfortunately, that description is ambiguous. Just how original? Just how substantial? Without proper coaching, graduate students can get sidelined in pursuit of some pie-in-the-sky, grand unifying theory of xyz while losing sight of an achievable, realistic alternative.

In my own experience, this is one way my advisor and thesis committee really helped me. When I presented my research proposal, the universal response genuinely surprised me. “Too ambitious,” my committee said. I was worried it wouldn’t be enough to constitute a PhD; to the contrary, they thought I had outlined both my PhD research as well as several additional projects to continue wherever I landed after graduation. This critique helped me beyond measure.

In the end, it’s great if your doctoral research makes a major impact. More likely, however, it will build upon the work of others and yield an incremental impact. Furthermore, it is simply the first research project in (hopefully) a long career of research projects.

The sooner you can reconcile with this idea, the sooner you can get on with it. As a friend of mine says: The best dissertation is a done dissertation.

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