How Original is the “Original Contribution” My Dissertation Must Make?

You know that your dissertation has to make an original contribution. But what does that really mean? Well, it’s really not as bad as is it sounds…

Think about it this way, original and unique are sort the same thing, right? What does “unique” mean? Simply that it not the same as anything else, right?

Do you knowhow hard it would be to make your dissertation the same as someone else’s? Actually, it’s pretty easy thanks to the copy and paste functionality on you computer. But aside from that, if you actually did your own project, you would have a very hard time making it the same as someone else’s — even if you tried!

So, the short answer is, don’t worry about it. As long as you don’t try to copy someone else, your dissertation should be original.

But what if you do try to copy someone else? Is that OK? Turns out the answer is “yes!”

A Little Tweak

At a high level, there are three components to any research project: where you get your data, what your data looks like, and how you use your data to answer your research question. It turns out that you can copy someone else’s work for the last two parts. You can collect the same type of data, and you can analyze it the same way, right? Sure!

But, can you get your data from the same place? Well, if you are studying people, then you’ll get your data from people. So, can you get your data from the same people as the guy your copying? It turns out that the guy you’re copying probably couldn’t even get data from the same people again. Between, confidentiality and anonymity even the researcher may not know who his subjects were, and he certainly wouldn’t tell you if he did! So, you’re on your own with that one.

That’s Cheating!

No worries, though! Just pick your subjects from a different group, and you’re good to go! In fact, you now have an original dissertation. “But, Dr. Strickland that’s cheating! I just totally copied that guy!” No, you tried to copy that guy, but you missed the mark. You had to tweak something because you couldn’t copy the people part, even if you tried.

That tweak is your original contribution. It’s really that easy, and real scientists do it all the time. In fact, even Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I’ve seen further than most men, it’s because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” You wouldn’t call Sir Isaac Newton a cheater, would you?

Case Study

Juanita was frustrated about making her original contribution. She was basically trying to reinvent fire, the wheel, and sliced bread…for her dissertation! I helped her find a dissertation that investigated the struggles of young African-American males in school. The study used existing survey instruments and a fairly straight-forward analysis. Juanita knew that young Mexican-American males were also at risk, but for different reasons. She used the same instruments and analysis (and I even did the analysis for her!). All she did was write the same dissertation as the first author, but about young Mexican-American males rather than young African-American males. By the time she was done, her chair actually questioned why she cited the original dissertation in her work. That’s how different Juanita’s study seemed to be, when she really just copied someone else.

If you’re struggling to find your original contribution, let’s talk. Click here to schedule a quick chat to see whether I can help you get your dissertation on the fast track to graduation.

If you need extra support and guidance to make it to graduation, I may be able to help. If you'd like to find out whether you qualify for the support we offer throughout the dissertation process, then...

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Dr. Russell W. Strickland

RUSSELL STRICKLAND, Ph.D., has been referred to as a “rocket scientist turned management consultant.” In truth, he applies an eclectic body of work from astronomy and nuclear physics to dynamic inventory management to market research to each of his student engagements.

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