Defending your thesis - Purpose of research

Praveen S
Thursday, November 9, 2023

The purpose of the research
This needs to start with why you have undertaken a research journey. Different people will have different motivations for embarking on a research journey. For some, it would be to earn the highest educational qualification possible; for some, it will be due to family pressures, maybe everyone in the family has a PhD; for some, it is the inspiration from a teacher; for some, it is the love of the subject, for some it is the escape from corporate life, for some joblessness pushed you to further studies. Whatever the reason, it is time to re-orient your attention from the purpose that has already been achieved towards the work that has to be done. To re-orient, understanding what you started with is important to understand. One has to say to oneself that I started with the research journey with this purpose, and now I am going to re-orient my purpose towards fitting my research in this theoretical jigsaw. Such purposeful re-orientation helps you to prevent your initial purpose from biasing your view during defense and maligning your abilities. It also provides you with the motivation to do a thorough defense.
Write down your initial purpose. And strike it out so that you don’t care about it now; you have almost achieved it, so you do not have to worry about it anymore. Your purpose is to fit your research into the theoretical jigsaw.
Now write your topic of research on a piece of paper. Your research topic is the maximum two-word summary of the research. For example, my research thesis was about identifying the consequences of co-creation when it fails. My two-word summary is ‘failure of co-creation. My recent PhD student has three essays on consumer expertise; her two-word summary is ‘consumer expertise’.
Next, list all the themes of research related to your topic. Kerlinger says that all research is inherently relational, all research questions should be in the form of a relationship, and all hypotheses should be relational.
If you read an article end to end looking for relationships, you will be ending up with 100s of themes. Read the article in total, and think about what is the key theme in this research that relates to my topic. If you are still identifying multiple themes, group them. For example, I remember reading one paper that studied consumer expertise in relation to satisfaction, loyalty, and referral behaviour. I grouped them as ‘consumerOr ‘consequences of consumer expertise’ or ‘Loyalty of consumer experts’ expertise’.
You may not have read the entire literature at this point. You would have read many of the works in preparation for and while doing your theses. Still, if there are any missing works, re-read them. But remember, it is more important to understand the related literature after your thesis than before the research.
Before the research, you are a novice. You can always pick up a research question based on its interestingness and importance, even overlooking the current work in the domain. Now, in the 3-4 years you have spent on your research (6 months in the case of master thesis), you will be identified as an expert in the topic, and hence it is crucial for you to understand the literature well towards finishing the thesis.
We do not have to worry about classifying variables in this stage, such as independent and dependent variables, moderators, mediators, controls, etc. Just focus on the key themes from prior research related to your topic. For example, while reading the literature on consumer expertise, my PhD student identified themes of information search behaviour, word-of-mouth communication, consumer loyalty, etc.
Now one needs to relate the themes as a conceptual schema. This can be accomplished in multiple ways. You can make your novel combinations of the themes. You can also adopt some frameworks from the prior literature to organize the themes, conceptual articles, and review articles that can help in such endeavours. I would always prefer to organize the themes in a way that is not currently done. This could be identified as a contribution from your thesis. This need not be anything complicated; a simple chronological ordering of the themes would do. This can be ordered as cause and effects, stages, lifecycle, etc. If nothing works, disjointed groups will also work.
I will show how multiple organizations of themes are possible for consumer expertise.

The above organization is one way in which you can organize the theme; in the above example, I have organized it as the different steps of the consumer journey. You can also organize it based on cognition and affect or on the basis of antecedents and consequences of consumer expertise. The most important part of organizing themes is that it should increase your understanding of the present state of the literature on the topic of your interest and should guide you in further research,
Once, the organization of the themes is done, it is time to find the connection of the themes to your thesis. Your thesis will be related to one or multiple themes in the conceptual scheme. Identify and mark these themes to which your work relates. Your research might be concerning the development of some themes or towards the relationship between the themes. Identify and highlight these themes and relationships. The important thing to note is that the chosen framework to organize themes should clearly show the position of your research among the conceptual schema. It should also be able to showcase the importance of your work to others.
Now you have two conceptual schemas with you- one without highlighting your work and the one resulting after highlighting your work in the conceptual schema.

Now you can start contemplating the theoretical jigsaw. According to Kerlinger, we would arrive at a full-blown theory when the entire network of such themes, which are in relationships, has been identified. Both the conceptual schemas, one without including your work and the other including your research, are at the interim stages of reaching the full-blown theory.
Now while presenting your thesis, you will explain the possibilities of the full-blown theory on your conceptual schema and its importance.
The full-blown theory is the completed jigsaw. When you started the research, some prior researchers ordered things for you. You are not reordering it completely.

You would have either reordered one or two pieces or may have added some pieces. Not more than that. Even when you are replicating the current works, you help to confirm some part of the jigsaw that the earlier identified relationship was correct. This would help to understand the contribution of your work. In simple terms, one needs to understand that the contribution of your thesis is in reordering, adding, or confirming some pieces in the theoretical jigsaw.
Now that you have understood your contribution to the theoretical jigsaw, the next step is to defend your thesis through a presentation.
While presenting, the first slide should define your topic, making it clear what the topic is. In social science, many of the topics may have very broad meanings or even different meanings in the dictionary terms or in the common usage of the words in everyday contexts. One should explain such common usage of the words and how the meaning of the words used in your research contexts would differ. For the same example, expertise is a loosely used word in common practice; while it has a clear and narrow meaning in educational research, it has a different meaning in organizational studies.

Defining the core topic and clearing any confusion in the audience’s mind about the topic is the first task in defending your thesis.
One of the most challenging questions to answer while presenting your thesis is tangential questions and unrelated questions.
Unrelated questions arise from audiences’ confusion on the topic. Tangential questions arise from clarity on the understanding of the topic but a lack of knowledge of the research question. Both kinds of questions are difficult to answer, as the researcher always gets confused regarding why this question was asked. She spends considerable mental energy trying to understand why this question was asked and consequently will not be able to answer the question. Moreover, she is also concerned about how the audience will judge her confusing mindset because of trying to answer such questions. Looking at the faces of audiences who are similarly confused will give the impression that they are confused by your answers, even though many of them would be equally confused by unrelated questions. The spiralling effect of unrelated and tangential questions is, therefore, enough to kill the confidence of any researcher.

The only way to escape is to control them by clearly defining the topic. If faced with any unrelated question, one should bring the presentation back to the definition if you have written the definition on the board or on your first slide.

The second step in the presentation is to present the organization of the themes related to the topic. This would help the audience understand the current state of the theoretical jigsaw. At this point, the presenter should be able to explain her thoughts on the complete jigsaw. She should say how beautiful it will be, the complexity of the journey towards it, the importance of solving this puzzle, who are the giants who have contributed so far, why it would be interesting for the audience etc., The attempt here is to bring attention to the importance of your research, simultaneously using prior research to claim this importance. You can safely do this, as it is well understood that all research makes an incremental contribution, and the importance of the completed jigsaw brings attention to each of the pieces contributing to the jigsaw. You can understand this by comparing the importance of the spare parts used in spacecraft vs aero planes vs automobiles. As the importance of the vehicles increases, the importance of the components used for them also increases.
Therefore the researcher must communicate well the beautiful and interesting picture of the jigsaw when it is completed. This is going to attribute importance and interestingness to the pieces that you are going to fix through your thesis.

In the next step, we need to communicate what you are doing. Highlight the parts of the themes or the relationships that you address in your thesis. Explain clearly what exactly you do in each of the highlighted portions. You might be reordering the pieces in some places; explain why you are reordering, how you are reordering. You might be adding some pieces at some places; explain clearly why this piece needs to be added, why this fits this position, etc. In some places, you confirm that the piece is in the correct place, and we can have more confidence in the current place and position of knowledge. Taken together, after you explain the highlighted themes and relationships, the audience will get clarity on what you are doing and what your contribution is in relation to the prior literature. Your research questions are mostly clear at this stage. You can concisely write or display the research questions again for future reference.

This stage also helps us in addressing the tangential questions. As explained earlier, tangential questions use the same topics and themes but relate to different research questions and hypotheses. It has all the same problems as unrelated questions and can kill the researcher’s confidence. By using the second stage of highlighting the themes and writing the research questions, you can effectively control the tangential questions. Still, if tangential questions arise, you can bring attention to highlighted pieces or the research questions and explain why the question is tangential.

In summary, the theoretical jigsaw extends from the planning phase of preparation for your defense to the communicating phase while presenting your work before an audience. You start the work by identifying your actual purpose of engaging in the research journey and then clearly asserting that you will re-orient. Once you have re-oriented, the original purpose is no longer valid. The only purpose and motivation is the theoretical jigsaw. Once you prepare it through the steps explained and communicate it through the initial two stages of the presentation, most of the groundwork has been done. You are ready to proceed; however, some additional directions in the later chapters are useful while doing so.