Thursday, 14 May 2009
Finding a Gap in the Literature
If you're going to pass your PhD you need to contribute some new knowledge about something. That means you need to be able to establish what is usually referred to as "a gap in the literature" i.e. something that has not yet been researched. Mapping out the literature is a major job in itself. You need to be able to articulate what previous studies have shown and use this as the means of pointing toward things that are not yet known. Helpfully, academic papers often conclude with a call for further research on something or other. This might be a useful starting point. However, you shouldn't rely on others to solve your problem. Whenever you read anything, an article, a book, a chapter, a thesis ... write out your own summary of what they've told you and what you still don't know. Use mind maps, tables, pictures, post-it notes, or whatever works for you but keep tracking the relationship between known, unknown and your contribution. One former colleague suggested thinking about it like the free application "minesweeper" that is often bundled with Microsoft operating systems. Try to find an empty square and be clear about the contents of adjacent squares. Miles and miles of clear white space around your own interest might mean that you have found something really interesting that no-one has ever thought to research. However, the downside to such splendid isolation is that it can be hard to find related studies to cite in your literature review.