A PhD is an original piece of research. Thus, you should be able to demonstrate that the research topic you chose has not been studied before, or that you are taking a new perspective on a previously studied topic. The dissertation should highlight what makes your work an original contribution. Include a list of the contributions that your research makes to the literature in your particular subject area and indicate why they are important. You should also indicate the practical or policy implications of your research by stating how it can fill the gaps in existing research or showing how it can widen the understanding of particular topics/issues. You must be able to demonstrate that your PhD research has depth and it is a sound piece of scholarly research. If you cannot identify scholarly aspects in your research project, then expand your literature review and give it more depth.
In order to demonstrate that your thesis is an original study and that it will provide a significant contribution the academe, your dissertation should be very specific and focused. You must be able to adequately answer the following questions and be able to clearly state how your research came about.
- If your research is being driven by gaps in the existing empirical literature, which of these gaps will you attempt to address?
- If your research is being driven by the application of a particular theoretical (either within a specific industry or in a national context) or current policy debates, which specific points of these debates are you going to focus on?
According to Petre & Rugg (2010), ‘Making a significant contribution means adding to knowledge or contributing to the discourse – that is, providing evidence to substantiate a conclusion that’s worth making.’ As such, characterising your contribution means answering the question ‘so what?’ This requires answering the following:
- The importance of the question à Why is it worth asking?
- The significance of the findings à Why should anyone care? Why do they matter?
- Their implications for theory
- The limitations to generalization
What types of contributions are usually made in PhD dissertations?
- Re-contextualization of an existing technique, theory or model (i.e. applying a technique in a new context; testing a theory in a new setting; showing the applicability of a model to a new situation)
- Confirmation and expansion of an existing model (i.e. evaluating the effects of a change in condition; providing an experimental assessment of a specific aspect of a model)
- Contradicting an existing model or a specific aspect of a model
- Combining two or more ideas and showing that the arrangement reveals something new and useful
- Demonstrating a concept – proving that something is feasible and useful; or that something is infeasible and explaining why it fails
- Implementing a theoretical principle – showing how it can be applied in practice; making ideas tangible; how something works in practice; and what its limitations are
- Providing a new solution to a known problem and demonstrating the solution’s efficacy
 Marian Petre & Gordon Rugg, The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research Open Up Study Skills. (Berkshire: Open University Press, 2010), 14