How to be Original: Part I ‘Where to Begin’

To get a PhD in the UK (and most of the world), you need to:

  1. write a thesis/dissertation that contributes to the field of knowledge in your subject
  2. write a thesis that is original, discovers new facts and/or demonstrates a keen exercise of independent critical power

If you are thinking of doing a PhD or have already begun one, these two requirements are daunting. How in the world do you come up with an original argument? If you are working in science or mathematics this path might be clear (although my new tutee, who is a mathematician, tells me this is not always so).

Let us begin by removing your doubt: you can, and you will write an original argument. No one doubts your ability to do so. If you have already been given a place to study, your supervisor, your department, your funders (if you’re lucky enough to have them!) and your university believe that you will finish your PhD.  It’s only you that doubts this fact. As many a famous philosopher has pointed out (name them if you can!), originality begins with doubt. In other words: if you doubt yourself, you’re on the right track.

One can’t spend all one’s time doubting, however. You must begin thinking! Where do you begin? The following are three suggestions to get you going. Do these three things every day. Yes, every day. This includes day 1. If you’re already at day 45, begin now. Right now.

1. Write

This might seem obvious. However, I’ve known quite a lot of people who’ve spent the first year of their PhD reading. Don’t make this mistake. Writing is thinking. Let me say that again. It’s important! Writing is thinking. The sooner you begin to write, the sooner you will begin to think. It’s that simple.

2. Disagree

You should be asking: how do I know what to write, if I haven’t read anything yet? The answer is to do both at the same time. As you’re reading, take notes on the following:

  • Write down what you don’t agree with and try to explain in writing why you don’t agree.
  • Take notes on arguments that don’t really make sense to you and write down exactly what doesn’t make sense.
  • After you have taken notes, write about why an argument might be false. If you can back up your opinion with other references, do so.  Once you can do this, you will be well on your way to writing your thesis.

3. Format the style of your text

It might seem strange to worry about things like spelling, grammar, page formatting, footnotes and a bibliography in your first few months of doing a research degree. However, taking 30 minutes at the end of each writing session to format and proofread your text will not only save you time and aggravation later, it will also make you very, very, (very!) good at checking for errors. After only a few weeks, you will be expert at formatting and pretty good at proofreading. Eventually, this will become second nature to you and you won’t have to panic about formatting when you submit your work to your supervisor.

Thanks for reading! In Part 2 of the ‘How to be Original’ series, I will help you analyze the writing you’ve already completed and give you advice on spotting the kernels of insight that set your work above that of the crowd.



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