what’s a #phd ‘contribution’?

You hear the term contribution almost as soon as you enrol in the PhD. It’s something you wrestle with as you write your research proposal – you need to convince your chosen institution that your research will make a contribution. Funders are particularly keen to hear about contribution too, is their scholarship money going to produce one, they wonder. And of course, you continue to worry about contribution. For instance, during your field work.  Contribution – do I have one here? What if I don’t? And then when you finally get to thesis writing, your supervisor tells you have to know your contribution, anticipate it in the introduction and make the big claim for it in the conclusion.

But what is ‘a contribution’?

Expressed in plain language, examiners see a contribution as something interesting, something that brings a new perspective, something that teaches them and offers them something they haven’t considered before.


Who knew birds were so creepy … the Hitchcock contribution

Examiners usually expect the contribution to be spelled out for them. They want to see, written explicitly in the thesis text, that the research…

  • uses a conventional research design and/or method to produce results which add to, challenge or modify the extant literatures – so the writer says my research adds to what is known about x, specifically… it raises questions about the previously held view that… it suggests that the usual formulation of y is problematic because
  • uses a conventional research method and/or design to arrive at a new research agenda, so the writer says  – this study reveals x for the first time, suggests that research into x is urgently needed because
  • replicates a previous study, testing out its hypothesis or method – so the writer says this study sought to test whether… and … 
  • takes an existing research approach into a new field – for example an ethnography somewhere new, or about something different. The writer’s claim is then this the first ethnographic study of… it shows…
  • combines conceptual or theoretical resources in a new or novel way. This is often the claim of interdisciplinary research – the writer says the study brings together (discipline) concepts of x, (discipline) concepts of y and (discipline) concepts of z in order to shed new light on… the approach shows…. 
  • develops a new research tool – perhaps the researcher has modified an existing instrument, or developed a new approach altogether. So the writer claims – this study uses …. which allows… to… . This demonstrates…
  • applies an existing social theory in a new or novel way – the writer says this study brings x’s theory of y to a new area, namely ….. in order to….

Once you’re able to state your particular variation of the above clearly – and it takes quite a bit of practice and chutzpah to do so – you can confidently approach your written conclusion. You can show how your research design and results have led to you making your claim. (Taking part in events like Petcha Kucha and the Three Minute Thesis are great ways to help you to get your claim sorted, turned into to a clear  and succinct statement.)

If you have a sorted-out claim-to-contribution you will be able to answer what is often the first question in a viva… the-tell-us-in-a-few-minutes-about-your-research. Stating your contribution at the beginning of the viva is a great start because those first few minutes often set the tone for the rest of the viva. If you can confidently state what you contribute, how and why it’s important, then the examiners will know that you know what you are talking about.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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5 Responses to what’s a #phd ‘contribution’?

  1. J. says:

    Dear Pat, thanks so much for this. I read almost everything that you email out from your blog. I am writing/revising my introduction now, so this blog was helpful. I like what you said here: “you have to know your contribution, anticipate it in the introduction and make the big claim for it in the conclusion.” In your blog, you did well to highlight how to “make the big claim for it in the conclusion.” But could you elaborate (perhaps in a future post) how to **anticipate** the contribution in the Intro? I remember something you blogged a couple weeks ago about not ‘spilling the beans’, so to speak, in the Intro, lest readers have a deja vu or get bored having already known what you’re going to conclude. Thus, anticipation is key. But how would I anticipate the contribution–would I just state in the Intro what the contribution is (without articulating the actual findings)?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. m says:

    Thank you Patter for making this so clear…and saving me from going nuts over this.


  3. Dr. Eldard Ssebbaale Mukasa says:

    Dear Patter
    This is great to all readers, researchers and intending candidates for the good of every one.
    Thank you


  4. Pingback: writing the thesis – work, moves and structure | patter

  5. Pingback: leave a good last impression – the thesis conclusion | patter

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