As a graduate student you’re expected to make a ‘scientific contribution’ to existing knowledge. Matt Might illustrates this process in an illuminating graphic.
The first challenge for a new PhD student is to find out if they truly have mastered all human knowledge on their subject of interest. Does one ever get to that point? And how does it look like? I guess knowledge of all-human-knowledge is evident when one can demonstrate his/her synthesis of all seminal and new journal articles in a given field. Let’s narrow it down to a given sub-field. Or sub-sub-field. So if your field is textile-making, and specifically weaving, you need to demonstrate that you have perused all journal articles in textiles, and read all weaving articles in depth. The level of depth here in my case means printing the articles, reading word for word highlighting or underlining everything that sounds interesting (which in many cases is everything). Once you’ve grasped all the nuances of theory and evidence, you can now contemplate making an contribution to basket weaving, your sub-sub-field. This is most of what PhD students do. Does it really change when you get out of grad school?
Now, you shouldn’t entertain the idea of having an original contribution unless you have carried out this process in full. But how do you know that you have, in fact, reached the edge of human knowledge? Such confidence is elusive. And its elusive nature makes it difficult to present ideas as original. Making contributions is about examining an important problem, extending existing work, or challenging existing beliefs. For a grad student to do any of the above, they must emphatically state that extant literature has some gaps or shortcomings… it only covers points A to F, inadequately addresses G, or fails to mention H. Or it misunderstands or misrepresents point D. Or point K has been applied incorrectly. Or no one has ever discussed point S, and if they have, they only looked at S as applied in M, but not in N. Of course these shortcomings are discussed politely.
Due to my respect for existing literature in both economics and sociology, I have found it extremely difficult to write in such an emphatic manner. I have been unable to say that since method A has certain shortcomings, we should consider using method B which handles the issue under investigation better. I’m afraid that by stating this in a paper, I am effectively dismissing how method A has been used previously. Who I’m I to dismiss anything? A lowly grad student? Have I fully synthesised method A before making such a claim? How do I know that I have fully synthesised it?
My kind supervisor gave me some important advice in this regard. You must take risks as an academic. Say what you think—not naively, of course. Put it in a paper. Put the paper out there. Let other people challenge your position. If they agree with you, well and good. If they don’t, no harm done. Go back to the drawing board. This is how academic discourse takes place. Ideas are fielded, examined, challenged, debated, refined, accepted, and challenged again. It’s all about getting your voice into the debate. If your idea is impractical or senseless (which it rarely is if you do your job well), you will know about it soon enough. No idea is full gospel, and no idea is full hogwash.
They say that many academics do their best work in their early- to mid-career. It takes having some academic hubris to make a contribution. Otherwise your ideas remain in the recesses of your brain, out of reach.