I went on a trip to Oxford with my school, and I asked a lady whether or not you have to go and discover something in a PhD? She said no, and it's more research. But I read up somewhere that you do have to discover something to get a PhD.

I just want to know precisely how a PhD works.

Will some subjects- like Maths or Computer Science- require you to go out and prove something, and are others- like English- just require the student to do extensive research?

Note: by getting a PhD, I don'y just mean anyone getting it, I do mean someone who's actually studying for one.

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    To clarify, in academia "research" means scholarship that extends the frontiers of knowledge, whereas in everyday life it could be used much more broadly: you could say "this morning I researched cows on the internet" to mean you read the Wikipedia article on cattle, but this would not be considered academic research. (Academic research on cattle would fall under agricultural science.) So getting a Ph.D. just requires research, and it also requires generating new knowledge, but there's no contradiction between these statements. Mar 27, 2014 at 20:41
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    This little gem has always been a nice graphical introduction matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures
    – chipbuster
    Mar 27, 2014 at 22:14
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    Reading lots of what others know isn't sufficient to be research in the academia sense - the product of original research is something nobody knew before you, and that is required also for things like English PhD.
    – Peteris
    Mar 27, 2014 at 23:44
  • A Ph.D. in a humanities field like English also requires an original contribution to scholarship - you have to 1. make an observation no one else has made before that seems substantial enough to require book-length treatment; 2. argue that your observation is correct through references to both the original sources and what your dissertation advisers consider to be the relevant current scholarship, and 3. make an argument that your dissertation advisers consider to be supportable. Mar 28, 2014 at 20:09

2 Answers 2


Getting a PhD almost always requires one to have some original contribution to your field. That result doesn't always have to be an earth shattering proof of something completely original. Your work can build upon existing work, or draw connections between a variety of different topics that no one has noticed yet, or even just suggest that there is a problem that nobody has considered yet. The point is that there has to be something unique, and original that counts as your contribution to the body of knowledge. That isn't easy to do certainly, but it isn't impossible for normal people to accomplish through lots of time and hard work either.

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    I second the original contribution point.
    – OK-
    Mar 28, 2014 at 1:04
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    And sometimes the original contribution is "This seemed reasonable, and we tried it, and convincingly demonstrated that it doesn't work." Which is fruatrating as heck if it wasn't your goal, but still expands human knowledge.
    – keshlam
    Mar 28, 2014 at 3:18

I fully agree with @shane's point: you need to have shown some original contribution. But I think something else is also important, and sometimes plays a major role: you have to show that you have mastered the trade - which means, in practice, that you are able to perform whichever experimental/theoretical things a scientist in your field is supposed to be able to do, and write about the results in an understandable manner. In this way you show that you are worthy of being taken up in the community of scientists, which despite our feeling that science is about facts, is still rather important.

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