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Originality versus conformity

How far should I, as a PhD supervisor*, encourage my students to aim for originality and how far for conformity?

Why aim for highly original work from research students?

It is probably true to say that the regulations of all higher education institutions throughout the world have 'originality', along with 'independence' and 'significance', as requirements for their PhD theses. The terminology may vary from one institution to another, but the meaning is generally clear: a necessary requirement of a research student is original work.

Reasons against aiming for highly original work

Although academia acclaims highly 'original' work, experienced supervisors regularly point out to me that not all MPhil and PhD students are capable of it - and anyway there are sound arguments against aiming for it.

One reason against encouraging students to aim for highly original work is that the pressures from funding bodies are all towards completion within the prescribed three years of full-time study or a proportionately longer time for part-time study. This deadline is generally very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve if the work is to be highly original because originality depends on inspiration, which does not come to command. Even if it does come, there can be no guarantee of the time required to conduct the routine work which is usually necessary to provide the necessary academic integrity.

Another reason against encouraging research students to aim for highly original work is that it is a fact of human nature that really novel ideas and products are seldom readily accepted. The quotes below make this point ludicrously clear because they refer to the initial reception of ideas and inventions which have now come to be fully accepted and entirely common-place.

Also, in academia, it is not always easy to get really novel research papers accepted by journals, and experienced supervisors can invariably supply anecdotes of occurrences where research students have similarly had difficulty getting highly innovative work accepted for their PhDs.

The general conclusion seems to be that an MPhil or PhD research programme is not the place for highly original work unless the supervisors have sufficiently acclaimed international reputations to be able to 'carry' their students with the examiners. Where this is not the case, there are arguments for leaving highly original work until after a more conforming research degree is complete.

To quote one supervisor, also a head of department and professor in a highly prestigious university, "There is no such thing as truly original work in doctoral theses these days".

Original ideas and inventions considered worthless when first proposed

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." Western Union internal memo, 1876y

"Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value." Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, undated

"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?" David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.

"We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out." Decca Recording Company, rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977.

A compromise between original research and routine research

Yet institutions do require originality in a doctoral thesis and examiners are supposed to look for it. So it would seem that a good approach is to encourage students to aim for a thesis which conforms to the norms of the discipline but which includes whatever 'originality' supervisors think students can manage, both in the time available and in terms of being readily acceptable to examiners.

The question remains of how 'original' work has to be to claim 'originality'. One answer is that 'originality' can be equated to 'publishability', ie that work can be deemed to have 'originality' if it would be worthy of publication when appropriately presented, irrespective of whether it does in fact ever reach publication. The following table may stimulate further thinking. It suggests common components of fairly routine work, which, when emphasised and appropriately supported and argued, could claim 'originality'.

The need for a safety net or fallback position with highly original work

If supervisors do decide to encourage students to aim for highly original work, it is a good idea to require them, in addition, to devise a more conforming fallback position, based on the same general work, so that they can still complete to time if the highly original work should fail to materialise satisfactorily.

There is extensive advice on originality and developing a fallback position in the section for students.

edited extract from no 2 in the Guides series

Resolving Common Dilemmas in Supervision
by Pat Cryer

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.