Is my research project still 'original'?
One of the criteria upon which the PhD thesis is evaluated is ‘originality’. The ability to come up with original ideas is often assessed during our annual progress review reports, too. Aside from this, making an original contribution to our research area is something that probably does motivate much of our work and inspires us to keep going.
At the same time, many of us have probably been in a situation that has made us start to seriously doubt whether our work really is continuing to contribute original ideas or findings. The particular situation that this post focuses on is when we meet another researcher who seems to be working on the exact same topic, or when we read an article or another piece of academic writing that appears to cover similar material. The initial reaction is often one of dread that our project is now somehow pointless, or worse, incapable of even passing the requirements of a PhD thesis!
If you’ve felt this way before, chances are you’re not the only one. In fact, it’s been noted that PGR students often experience a low point around two-thirds of the way through their degree. This is exactly when we start becoming more familiar and engaged with our research area, focusing in on relevant readings and attending targeted conferences. We are therefore more likely to come across others who are researching almost identical topics and thinking about similar questions. Whilst the two-third low point can be accredited to increasing pressure as the date for submission looms closer, it may also be partly due to the increasing worry that our project is becoming less ‘original’.
Even though it’s natural to feel that chilling effect at first, it’s important to realise that even though others are working in similar topic areas, this does not create a threat to each other's originality. No matter how similar the topics seem at first, it’s likely that there are differences. This can be in terms of the background context, the particular examples being considered, the approach taken, or how the findings are applied or analysed.
Indeed, the fact that others are considering similar issues should be seen as reaffirmation that our topics are important and worth looking into. The more that we see the potential applicability of our work to other contemporary issues, the more we should rest assured that our research continues to be relevant.
Finding other academics who are working in similar areas can also be a great opportunity for collaboration, and to share knowledge and experience. The PGR journey can be a lonely one. Instead of seeing others who share similar research interests as a potential threat, it can actually be a needed reminder that we are not so alone. For many of us, our research topics tend to be so specialised that it may be difficult to find researchers outside of our immediate team to discuss our work or ideas with. It can be comforting to know that others are also thinking of similar issues and are available to contact with specific questions or ideas relevant to our research. The ability to recognise similarities with other research and incorporate this into our own work will only make our projects stronger and more interesting.
Image credit to Mert Talay on Unsplash
Lastly, it’s important to keep faith in ourselves and our supervisory team. The fact that the University has accepted our research projects serves as indication that we are working on interesting and original research topics and questions. Any serious problems with the originality of our project will very likely be identified by our supervisors. Many different sources of inspiration make their ways into our work, not only from what we have read but also from who we have talked with, events we have attended, and the feedback we have received. All of this together means that it’s extremely likely that our end projects will indeed be ‘original’ and make a unique contribution to existing research.