Ruhina Miller answered on 24 Jun 2015:
In order to obtain your PhD you have to make original contributions to the field but this doesn’t have to be huge or ground breaking, because that’s the nature of research. Both new and old fields present challenges because new fields have little information to work off and it can be difficult to find a good direction, whereas old fields can be fairly saturated. Also sometimes experiments or lines of research you are pursuing simply don’t work and you might find this months or even years down the line, e.g. many pharmaceutical drugs that look good and make it to clinical trials actually fail at phase 2. If you consider that a drug takes ~10years (sometimes 15!) to make it to market from the start of the cycle and phase II is the second to last one, that’s a very long way down the line! However along the way you’ve discovered what doesn’t work and this will most likely help other people in the future to build on the work that you’ve done – a failure is simply something to be learnt from.
Also all research is based off other work because you might use techniques or adapt techniques based on someone else’s work, use a piece of equipment invented by someone else, etc, so arguably no work is truly original, it’s always based off previous findings.
Thomas Farrugia answered on 24 Jun 2015:
Hi Saul – as Ruihina has pointed out research is very much a case of “Dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants” – we all build up on work established by previous researchers, which is what all scientists set out to do.
When it comes to a PhD it’s best to see if as a process of training that teaches you how to do research – in the end you will have to provide original work, but you do this in the context of previous work. Part of the PhD process is identifying your field, seeing what your fellow researchers have done, and recognizing a research gap that needs to be filled. This is what the aim of a “literature review” is – it helps put your work in context.
Now it’s up to you to develop your pitch for your research – perhaps you are familiar with techniques that will allow you to solve using a different approach, or noone actually knew that gap was there. And for this bit the most important thing you can have is creativity, which is a skill you foster during your PhD, along with others. By being creative you can use other people’s techniques and ideas they have published to develop your own – it’s kind of like knowing what the rules and “limits” look like not only so that you can operate within them, but try to push them further.
I think one thing new PhD students (including myself) do is think that their research is going to immediately be groundbreaking , although it depends on the field you’re working in. Most often it’s a more incremental step, although newer fields allow for relatively “bigger” discoveries, whereas more established fields might be a bit trickier, although there’s nothing stopping you from trying to chew at the “established” problems. I like to think of this as walking into a room with the lights out (new field) – if you bump into a table you’ve made a discovery, whereas if you walked into the same room with a fair amount of light (well researched field), you might be hard pressed to find something new (although it can be right under our noses sometimes!).
Hope this helps.
Rose Simnett answered on 25 Jun 2015:
I totally agree with Ruhina and Thomas. The work you submit must be new and must contribute towards the field you are researching. It’s actually fairly easy to look at the research that’s already been done and think things that haven’t yet been investigated.
When you start a PhD project you usually already have some aims that your supervisor has thought of. Then you go away, read the current research and think of ways to achieve those aims.
Once you have completed your PhD and written your thesis you then have a thesis defense or viva. This is basically an exam where you sit down with two academics, one from your university and one from a different university both of which work in the same field (roughly). They ask you questions about your work and you have to explain what you did, why and explain why it’s important to research.