‘The examiners should also seek to satisfy themselves that…the thesis represents a substantial original contribution to knowledge or understanding…’
So state the official University of York Guidelines for the conduct of the viva; guidelines adopted by other universities will certainly say something similar. And this is terrifying because, let’s face it, most of us are not going to write a thesis that results in a global paradigm shift or changes the tenor of contemporary debate.
Sure enough, the first question I was asked in my viva last Thursday (more on that next time) was: ‘What is the original contribution of your thesis’. Or something to that effect, anyway.
Throughout the PhD-creation-process, I found the expectation that I would make a significant contribution to knowledge extremely daunting. How do you first make a topic your own and then – crucially – put a unique stamp on it? Identifying a ‘gap’ in the literature is not enough.
In Authoring a PhD, Dunleavy warns that you may fail to develop your ideas far enough for them to constitute an original contribution; he then goes on to write some 16 pages on the topic of doing original work. To be honest, there was little in those pages to allay my fears. However, what I did find useful was the notion that original research can spring from seizing an idea well established in one discipline ‘and then taking that idea for a walk and putting it down somewhere else’.
As it turns out, that was exactly what I had done in developing my research method. When I arrived at my research location, I quickly discovered that people were uncomfortable talking about politics and democracy openly. The interview and focus group techniques that I had anticipated using were entirely inappropriate for the context in which I found myself. Serendipitously, I had brought a journal article with me written by someone else who had successfully conducted research in the region. In the article, the author briefly summarizes a visual research technique that she had found useful. From this brief summary, I was able to cobble together my own visual research technique using cartoons commissioned specifically for this purpose. Instead of mixing tried and true methods as I had originally intended, I was suddenly relying entirely on a single method that I was largely making up as I went along.
When I returned to the UK, I researched the method in psychology that had inspired the method that had, in turn, inspired me. I read about various visual research techniques used in other disciplines. I met a retired professor in the United States who had used images when conducting cross-cultural research throughout his career. Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable that I could rationalize my method in the context of these other research techniques, I realised that I would also have to develop a process for systematically analysing my data, which was at that time contained in 244 short stories. This would come to entail an eclectic symbiosis of data sorting techniques and analytical concepts from an array of disciplines.
Although I argue in my thesis that my research method is original, I remained acutely aware that it could be my downfall. I worried about whether my examiners would be sympathetic to my endeavour and see it as a worthwhile contribution. In the days leading up to my viva, I thought a lot about originality and how I would talk about the choices I had made.
An English composition course that I took in high school used the anthology Ways of Reading. I often return to this book when I find myself struggling to read or write critically, and I turned to it yet again during viva prep. Hidden away on page 752, the authors reveal that to be a student is also to be a choreographer. Your work has value not because you have proven beyond doubt to the examiners that you have read what you needed to read, but because you have put this reading to work and assimilated it with your unique experience. You have made it your own.
Reading that passage I knew, or at least felt reasonably sure, that I would be ok – that I would, knock on wood, pass my viva. With my method, I had taken a handful of previously independent concepts and sources and made them work together to tell a coherent story. When my examiners asked what my original contribution to knowledge was, I could reply with confidence that it was my research method. They agreed, and that is what we spent much of the next two hours talking about.
The moral of the story is not to be afraid of or daunted by the expectation of originality. Embrace the challenge. Trust your instinct. Take conventional ‘wisdom’ for a walk. And then tell the story of your research in your own voice.