If you’re like I was, you gulp with nerves when thinking about how your masters research project must make an ‘original’ contribution to knowledge. I undertook a MA in Social Philosophy and Applied Ethics, and was dumbfounded as to how I, a humble student, was supposed to make an original argument incorporating the intellectual giants I had been reading throughout my course. I had imposter syndrome. Bad. I mean, who was I to make an original contribution? If only I had more time, like 30 years to read everything in the area, and then an unlimited word count to make my original contribution! That’d make it more do-able, right?
Well, having successfully completed the MA (and later, for my sins, a PhD), let me begin my advice with some expectation management. Breathe a deep sigh of relief: you’re not expected to reinvent your field of study. Your supervisor is not expecting a new discovery on par with Einstein’s theories of relativity (not during your masters, anyway!). At TPG level, originality means mixing (I’ll come back to this concept of ‘mixing’ later) existing knowledge and embellishing it with your own flavour.
Think of your research project like cooking a known dish, but with your own slight twist:
- the same ingredients (texts, ideas, theories, findings) …
- can be utilised in slightly different recipes (methodologies, methods) …
- to produce similar dishes (arguments, results, findings, discussions).
So, to extend the metaphor further, you’ll be assessed on:
- the quality and freshness of your ingredients – the most appropriate items for your dish, depending on availability, cost, expiration date
- whether you’ve used an appropriate methodology and methods and provided a justification for them – baking, boiling, sautéing etc.
- the taste of your original dish – how it compares to other comparable dishes
The mixing (synthesising – click this link for an excellent resource on what this is, and how to produce it in your writing) of existing knowledge with your own unique insight is what makes your research project original. Rather than simply regurgitating existing knowledge, in taking previous research and synthesising it through your own unique perspective, the outcome will necessarily be something original – sometimes ever so slightly, and sometimes radically so.
So, as you undertake your masters research project, get creative, and don’t be afraid to make some mess in the kitchen of ideas as you cook up your own unique dish – you can always clean up and work on the presentation once the cooking is done (revise, edit, proofread). Most of all, and as crazy as this may sound, try to enjoy the process!
Best of luck!