Thursday, 20 May 2010

So What's a Theory ?

In order to get your PhD you argue that you've made a contribution to theory (see earlier posts on assessment criteria and contribution). This in turn implies that you identify a theory, or body of theories, that you are working with in order that you signal your contribution clearly.  This is an area that many doctoral students struggle with, particularly in management related PhDs.  The simple question "what is theory ?" might be a useful starting point.  Theory is something which holds explanatory power.  In traditional scientific work, theory typically allows one to move from the specific to the general. If you develop a theory that liquids when heated turn into vapour from observing your kettle boil, then you should be able to apply the same theory to other liquids.  Where the theory doesn't apply so well, you need to refine it thus making a contribution.  In social science, there are few problems which are as well defined.  As a result, it is not uncommon to muddle the theory that you are using and the context in which you are studying a particular phenomenon.  Think of the relationship between the phenomenon you are interested in which could be strategic change, decision making or brand loyalty ... and the theoretical device that you employ (say actor network theory, institutional theory or systems theory).  You use the latter to better understand the former.  Which is to say that you might do a PhD on strategy development using institutional theory.  Thus, your contribution to theory rests on your ability to comment on the adequacy of the theoretical explanation you can offer.    Right from the outset you should be thinking about the argument that you'll build about contribution.  Contribution is most often incremental, modest and limited to the context where you conducted the research ... but if you don't identify the contribution explicitly you leave the eventual examiners the difficult job of trying to do this for you.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Favourite Quotes

Here is a collection of some of my favourite quotes from academics and from practising managers and a few other sources ...

"What [research] does is to deepen and make the issue more complicated and draw more people in. There is a really interesting paradox there. You know, they [practitioners] might say ‘oh yes, you might be able to help us solve this’ but in fact once you start getting into it, it starts getting more complex." UK Academic

"like when I’m reading [academic work] for example, the phrase comes to mind 'no s**t Sherlock.' That’s totally obvious, why have you been researching that?" PLC Director

"I don't subscribe to the 'let's just let it happen' school of change. That might happen in a web-design set up in San Francisco but it doesn't work in Stoke-on-Trent on a wet Monday morning" Senior Partner in Blue Chip Consultancy Firm

"I began to make progress as a writer once I began to take my own lack of talent seriously" John Irving, Novelist and Oscar Winning Screen Writer

"A firm's strategy is its theory of how that firm will gain competitive advantage in its marketplace" Jay Barney

"You know you've been working on your PhD for too long when you refer to the fairytale Snow White et al." Former Doctoral Programme Director

Your PhD Contribution

One of your nightmare scenarios as you near the end of your PhD is discovering that someone else has already done pretty much the same thing.  Those preparing for viva will be familiar with waking during the night with the eerie sound of your examiner saying "so, why didn't you look at Blogg's study of 2008 which reported similar findings ... I'm struggling to see what you're adding to here ?"

As well as checking the literature on a regular basis (see the post on literature reviews) ... it is a good idea to check for theses on the the same or similar topics.  There is now a great on-line service to help with this process.  It is run by the British Library and you can access digitised version of doctoral theses for free ... there's even a helpful search engine to narrow your search a little.  It can be found at ...

Even if you are in the early stages of your PhD, looking at the finished article from time to time is a good discipline.  I always found it reassuring to look at things which had passed ... it helps answer obvious questions such as length, format and depth.  However, bear in mind that PhD theses vary in quality.  Don't just read them blindly ... try applying the PhD assessment criteria (see earlier post) to check whether you think that the author has made a clear and unambiguous case in relation to the criteria.

For some other helpful thoughts check out the 2nd Edition of Research Methods.