Sunday, 18 January 2015

Why am I doing my research? A basic question for every PhD student

Why am I doing my research? 

That must surely be one of the most fundamental questions any PhD student, or potential PhD student, should be able to answer, as this is the activity to which they are committing years of their lives, but is probably rarely articulated or discussed with supervisor(s).

One answer might be because doing a PhD now will help you get what you need in the future, that position in research or that first step on the academic ladder.  However, that can’t be the only reason!

Maybe the answer is related to Richard Feynman’s observation to the effect that the philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds – researchers just do research!  Just like painters paint, and sculptors sculpt, researchers do research.

One of the defining characteristics of a PhD is that the outcome is meant to be an original contribution to knowledge of the field in question.  If we stop and think about that, it sounds like a huge challenge.  To get their PhD, a student must boldly go where nobody has gone before, and generate knowledge that no-one has previously articulated, have ideas that have never been thought of, and do experiments no-one has ever done before.  Wow!  That sounds scary!

However, in truth generating original knowledge, in most fields, is actually really easy.  To explain this point, I often refer to the ‘cheese and wine problem’ (okay, well I am a food scientist).  There are thousands or varieties of both available in the world, and yet most published studies concern only a handful of these, in the case of cheese major varieties like Cheddar, Emmental, and a handful of others.  So, it is easy to select one of the multitude of unstudied types and deconstruct their very flavor and molecular profiles using the vast armoury of increadinly sensitive profiling techniques available today.  Any resulting publication, if the work has been competently done, cannot fail to be regarded as the fabled ‘original contribution to human knowledge’.  Originality, on a plate.

But is that enough?  Is originality for the sake of originality enough?  I would argue that it clearly is not, and has to be combined with some sense of importance, significance or usefulness (and yes I know that some readers may find it hard to believe that any paper on cheese could meet these criteria, but bear with me here).

To see how this works, look beyond the thesis, as the examiners will, to the relevant literature.  Every journal editor, consciously or not, has a question to answer about every paper submitted to their journal; will anyone care?  In other words, will anyone be interested in the outcomes of this work, and critically will anyone specifically care enough to cite it, as when journals publish papers that no-one cites, their impact factor goes down, so people don’t send them their good papers any more, and their impact factor goes down, and the journal enters the downward spiral to ignominity.

Yes, you need to convince the editors, reviewers and examiners of your work why it is interesting or important, and remember they don’t understand the context and the rationale like your supervisor does, and that they certainly won’t pass or publish your work just because it will help you get that job in the future.

So, always aim to be original, and never forget the importance of that, but remember that somehow you have to combine that with a clear argument for broader relevance.  In some fields this may be (apparently) easier to argue than others, but remember that the research would not be worth doing, and worth doing for a PhD, if there was no logic or rationale or interest for doing it in the first place, and you just need to find that and keep it in the forefront of your mind.  Not only will it make depending you thesis and publications much easier, but it should help motivate you through the inevitable slow or disappointing days that come up in every PhD, and remind you why it is worth sticking through these times.

PhD task: identify three arguments why your PhD topic is important, or why someone (other than a journal editor or examiner) would be interested in your outcomes.


  1. Great post. Thank you! I have recently submitted my PhD and every now and then I still come back to theses questions and exercise.

  2. "So, always aim to be original, and never forget the importance of that, but remember that somehow you have to combine that with a clear argument for broader relevance."

    Thanks for a great advice!

    I've just started my PhD research and your blog is super inspiring and motivational!