- Gerry Mullins & Margaret Kiley, ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: How experienced examiners assess research theses
You might be familiar with the idea of a Minimum Viable Product. This is a version of a product with just enough features to be usable by early customers, who then provide valuable feedback for future development. By focusing on getting their product to market as soon as possible, developers can avoid lengthy and unnecessary work. Apple don’t wait until they’ve perfected the latest iPhone, they release it to eager fans to find out what they don’t like about it.
You can think of your thesis in the same way. It’s impossible to know exactly what your market wants. In this case, the market is your examiners. By creating and submitting a minimal viable version of your thesis, you find out what changes are necessary to bring it up to the required standard. They’ll tell you what features they’re seeking.
The examination process is like peer review. If you submit an article to a journal, you wouldn’t expect the board to email you saying, “this is absolutely perfect, we’re publishing as it is”. That never happens. The main difference with a PhD is that you’re sat across the desk from your peer reviewers — or possibly on a very lengthy Zoom call with them.
90% of doctoral candidates have to make changes to their thesis. Even if they or their supervisors think it’s perfect, the examiners will nearly always have a different idea of perfection. You’ll only know what that is by showing them what you’ve done. You can either spend agonising months trying to anticipate their whims, or you can find out from them.
Returning to the iPhone analogy, you don’t want to waste time on additional features that nobody wants.
My favourite article on writing a thesis is ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’, not least because you need only read the title to get the gist. We often make life difficult for ourselves by setting impossibly high standards, then get frustrated when we can’t meet them. The authors explain that the PhD is an examination with specific requirements. They write:
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.
It might be more than three years of solid work for you, but you get the point. A PhD should be the beginning of your research career, not its culmination. Your magnum opus comes later.
Taking the time to understand exactly what’s required makes the project more manageable. You’re not trying to win a prize, rather to convince a couple of experts — your examiners — that your research meets the required standard. The main criteria on which a doctoral thesis is judged are originality and significance. It’s got to be something new, but also of importance to your field. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering.
It’s not a Nobel Prize and it’s not a book, either. When you’re writing a book, you’re thinking about thousands (maybe millions) of readers and trying to please them. A thesis is an examination, and you’re just looking to please those two or three people on your panel. There’s a good chance nobody else will ever read your thesis. That’s a sobering thought, but also hopefully a liberating one. People will read other outputs based on your research — books, articles, blog posts, and so on — but the thesis itself is serving one very specific purpose.
A thesis doesn’t have to be elegant or exhaustive – it needs to be a clearly structured and well-argued piece of writing that focuses on a particular topic. Don’t create any additional features, just focus on that Minimum Viable Thesis.