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Does PhD work have to be ground breaking in order to be convincing/interesting?

Many people contribute to an increasing trend of enrolled and graduating PhD students. While a few decades ago the figures told a story of a less accessible endeavor, nowadays it seems that people start taking higher education for granted and embark themselves on "yet another degree". The end result is that many professors will happily have them on board to work for them on a project that brings financial gain, while the students earn some reputation and, eventually, a diploma to hang on their wall of academic trophies. This is just one side of the coin. In my experience, I also found that many people, including myself, find that the problem we're tackling has been, in a way or another, solved before and it is yet even harder to convince the adequate persons of our authentic and substantial contribution to that specific field. Finding out that during the last year or the more recent months another guy got out a paper containing part of your idea  can be very discouraging. You are further demotivated when some journal reviewers reject your papers for not being innovative enough or pertaining to the "state of the art" category. This is ethically and logically the utmost important aspect of work done on such a level, but. what do you make out of the ratio between the actual number of PhD students and the weight/impact of their final results? (I find it even for myself to be very hard indeed to produce something of top quality with so many other ideas already been "used" by someone else before you)
Quora UserQuora User, Anthropologist, Nerd, Adventur... (more)
5 upvotes by Christopher VanLang, Edwin Khoo, Quora User, (more)
There are two issues here, does research have to be groundbreaking in order to get you a PhD, and does it have to be groundbreaking to get you a career in the academy?

I can only answer as someone in the social sciences in the US, I'm sure there are differences between fields, and countries.

A PhD dissertation doesn't have to be groundbreaking to be accepted. It needs to be original research that shows a familiarity of the existing scholarship in a field and contributes to it in a meaningful way. In doing so, it doesn't need to be revolutionary in any incredibly way, it just needs to be significant.

Of course, what makes something "state of the art" or revolutionary is often a judgment call. But, it is worth noting that the vast majority of research in any field is not revolutionary, it fills in the blanks and moves things forward a little. Academic research is like trench warfare, a war of inches with occasional breakthroughs.

You increasingly do need to have ground breaking work in order to get a career. There were 30 job openings in cultural anthropology last year, and while its hard to say how many people were applying, it could easily be 500-1,000.. Back when there were 200 positions a year, the people who did the most innovative and ground breaking work would get the top jobs. But now there is a climate of scarcity in the job market, and less prestigious colleges have a lot of candidates doing impressive work to choose from. Its a buyers market.
Joseph WangJoseph Wang, Ph.D. Computational Astrophysi... (more)
5 upvotes by Quora User, Quora User, Kabir Chandrasekher, (more)
Yes, in astrophysics has to be ground breaking.  However, there are so many unsolved problems and so many questions, that it's not hard to write somethinig that is ground breaking.  If someone has done observations of star X with filter Y, and you do observations with filter Z, that's breaking new ground.

One thing that is nice about astrophysics is that you don't have journal editors being gatekeepers.
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