Good enough

Students ask:  How do you know something (i.e., your research, your paper, your dissertation) is good enough?

This is one of those ‘how long is a piece of string?’ questions.  The answer varies with the material and the context. In the context of a PhD, what constitutes ‘good enough’ is something we learn experientially.  There is no standard recipe (and certainly not one that’s guaranteed), but there are key ingredients and indicators – viewed through the lens of acquired judgment.

Within a PhD programme (i.e., within the inevitable constraints on time, funding, and other resources), ‘good enough’ is typically a balance between academic standards and pragmatics.  That’s not to say that academic standards are compromised, but rather to understand that work may be practically constrained in the pursuit of academic excellence.

Flaws are inevitable in doctoral research.  The goal is to be vigilant enough to eliminate fatal flaws and minimise less significant ones.  But if you read ‘passed’ dissertations, you’ll see that flaws happen, even in the best research.  And you’ll see that the research can have value – can be good enough– nevertheless.

One student, who was struggling to write up her (excellent) research, asked me:  ‘What happens if I get something wrong?’  So I asked her:  ‘Who will die?’  She was shocked, but the question altered her perspective, from an anxious focus on the unseen (and potentially non-existent) flaw, to a constructive focus on the evident thesis.  Few students are conducting research that has direct, immediate impact on life and limb – and those who do are typically working within a thorough structure of oversight.  All the rest are just trying to make sense of the world, to address problems or improve things.  What minimises the impact of minor flaws (and redeems the researcher) is due diligence and critical thinking – which does not require (but is often impeded by) neurosis, anxiety, or obsession. Remember that ‘error is opportunity’; a good researcher learns from slips and flaws, which often provide crucial insight.

Note that ‘good enough’ rarely means achieving the ‘final answer’ but is satisfied by a contribution en route to a more definitive answer (i.e., the goal is progress, even if the dream is perfection).  

To understand the bottom line, understand the 1-2-3 of research design (question – evidence – method)[1]:  

1.  What do you want to know?  What question are you trying to answer – what is it that you’re trying to discover/learn/understand?

2.  What does knowing look like?  What evidence is sufficient to contribute to a compelling answer, to influence (if not convince) a sceptical colleague?  What evidence would be ‘fit for purpose’?

3.  How can you acquire such evidence effectively?

The 1-2-3 brings ‘good enough’ into focus, with its emphasis on the research question and the evidence needed to address it, rather than on rituals or formulae. 

‘Good enough’ applies to the thesis overall, and also to each aspect of the dissertation:

  • coverage of the literature, and situation of your research in that context
  • research design:  framing of the question, choice of focus, choice of research methods
  • research conduct – coverage and execution
  • analysis – methods and execution
  • argument and writing

If you read your university’s regulations, you will most likely find a statement of the criteria you must satisfy to earn a PhD (e.g., original research, a critical review of existing relevant knowledge, a significant contribution to knowledge, a coherent argument, writing of publishable standard, evidence of capacity to conduct independent research).  Note that the word is ‘satisfy’, indicating adequacy or competence, rather than exceptionality.  So, stop aiming for a Nobel Prize, and start thinking about useful, evidence-based insights.  Remember that ‘research proceeds by baby steps’, and people climb mountains one step at a time.  

Here are some practical suggestions for gaining relevant exposure to induce an understanding of ‘good enough’, through engagement with the discourse:  reading, listening, and discussing:

• Ask your supervisors for some relevant examples (both good enough and not good enough), and to reflect on how they assess your work.  Don’t just ask ‘Is this good enough’, but follow up on the response.  If they say yes, ask ‘Is this just enough, or more than is needed?’.  If they say no, ask what’s missing and why it would make a difference.  Ask which elements are essential, and why.  

• Attend conferences, workshops, and seminars – meet authors and discuss their work. Listen to what’s asked, and what criticisms are raised.
• Submit papers for review – and read the reviewers’ comments with an open mind.

• Read others’ work and think critically about it. Is it good enough? What’s the basis or your opinion?  If it’s not good enough, then what would you change to improve it?

• In particular, read other dissertations in your area and think critically about them:  Can you identify the contribution to knowledge?  What evidence supported it?  Was everything in the dissertation necessary to support the thesis (if not, what was the effect of the extraneous material)?  Was anything missing (if so, what difference did its absence make)?

• Ask independent readers (especially ‘critical friends’ who will be frank with you) about what makes your work good enough – or not.

• If there are surprises, discuss them with your supervisors.

Flaws are identified and addressed through discourse:  in discussion, in correspondence, in the review process, in the viva, and by subsequent research.  So, engage with the discourse.  What happens if you get something wrong? Someone will likely challenge you, and then you’ll discuss it, and either you’ll convince them that what you’ve done is good enough, or they’ll give you insight into what you need to improve.  Research that has withstood such scrutiny is much more likely to be ‘good enough’ – and the researcher is much more likely to be able to discuss and defend it.

This text is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 license –
Images are ©Marian Petre; if you want to re-use

[1] Introduced in Fincher, S., and Petre, M. (eds) (2004) Computer Science Education Research.  London:  RoutledgeFalmer, pp. 19-29 – and again in The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research, 3rd ed., Open University Press – McGraw-Hill, pp. 100-102.

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