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What are the Criteria for a PhD?

Every PhD project is different, which means it can be hard to judge the quality of your research when there is nothing to directly compare it to. However, all PhDs are assessed against the same broad core values.

To make sure your research remains focused, it is important to understand what universities are looking for. This page will take you through the key criteria for PhD research to help make sure your work remains on track.

How are PhDs assessed?

There are a couple of different things that are assessed during a PhD. Some universities will require students to track their skill development throughout their degree, highlighting areas of improvement. This will usually mean that the student will be expected to take part in a few training opportunities, outreach events or even short-term internships. The most important thing, however, is the completion of a thesis.

The outcome of your thesis will determine whether or not you pass your PhD viva.

A thesis can be marked as a pass, in need of corrections, resubmission, downgrade or fail. Though you should aim for a pass, most students will be required to make some form of corrections. These can be major or minor. Minor corrections ask the student to tweak grammatical or technical errors. Usually there is no issue with the research, but merely its presentation.

Alternatively, students might receive major corrections. This means that some rewrites and additional research will probably be needed. Usually, an additional six-month period is granted for these changes.

But how do you actually write a good thesis? The first way is to write well. Like any piece of written work, grammar and structure will be assessed. The main criteria for a PhD thesis, however, are originality and whether it makes a significant contribution to knowledge. Both these terms are quite vague and can often be confusing to students.

Want to know more about finishing a PhD?

Make sure to check out our guide to finishing a PhD for more information about potential outcomes.

What is original research?

Original research is the study of primary evidence. Primary evidence will take different forms depending on the subject. In History, for example, it could be a document or diary. In a STEM discipline it might be the results of a study or experiment.

Your research of primary evidence is what will be written up as the PhD thesis.

You should look to define the purpose of your study, outline your methodology, detail the results of your research and discuss the potential implications of these results.

How do you conduct original research?

The most important thing to ensure your research will be original is to articulate your own ideas and conclusions, based in wider literature. You must not just regurgitate what other academics have already said.

That does not mean you are not allowed to express agreement with existing theories and arguments, but you must explain why you agree with them in terms of your own evidence and conclusions.

What is a significant contribution to knowledge?

Providing a significant contribution to knowledge is not as intimidating as it sounds. Often students will interpret ‘significant’ as meaning revolutionary. This is not the case.

Significance means contributing something worthwhile. The very nature of research requires new evidence and arguments to be presented for assessment and critique. The contribution to research, therefore, does not have to change the course of a research field, but merely provide a new insight to expand the current academic discussions.

To understand your project’s significance, it’s worthwhile asking yourself a few questions:

  • What question is my research answering and why is it important?
  • Why do my conclusions matter?
  • How do my conclusions fit in with the wider discussions taking place in my field?
  • What are the limitations of my research?
  • How might further discussion of your research question benefit the field?

How do you make a significant contribution to knowledge?

Now that a ‘significant contribution’ has been defined, how do you do it?

There are two ways that students can demonstrate a significant contribution and most students should aim to do both.

Firstly, students should aim to understand the significance of their research by defining the parameters of their project. Basically, what is your project actually doing?

Good research could be elaborating on an existing theory or model, combining two ideas or even critiquing existing evidence or theory. The key here it to make sure you’re not trying to do too much. A good PhD thesis will provide depth, not breadth.

Once you know what contribution your research aims to have, you will be able to articulate its significance better.

The second thing students should be doing is physically demonstrating a contribution. This could be done through presenting papers at conferences, publishing journal articles or participating in outreach events. Actively presenting your research shows that it is a worthwhile contribution to the field.

This will also give you the opportunity to receive feedback from different people. By openly discussing your research you will be able to identify potential gaps or questions that need addressing.

Last updated - 18/02/2021

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