How to find a gap in the literature

By James Hayton,
January 3, 2017
I'm James, I'm a former physicist (PhD, Nottingham, 2007) and author of "PhD: An Uncommon Guide to Research, Writing & PhD Life".
Since 2010, I've been helping PhD students all over the world overcome barriers in their research and writing
My strategies have helped thousands of PhD students just like you to build confidence, write better and finish on time

People often talk about "finding a gap in the literature", but it's not always clear what exactly that means or entails.

Part of the problem, I think, is that it's one of those clichéd metaphors so commonly used that it's easy to repeat without thinking about whether it makes any sense or whether it's useful.

I wouldn't ever tell anyone to try to find a gap in the literature as a starting point, because;

  • it's not enough to just do something nobody's done before; it needs to be of potential interest to the field
  • research ideas are developed, not found
  • how do you find something that isn't there?

Instead of searching for a gap in the literature, look for an edge

Instead of searching for a gap in the literature, think of it as finding an edge to work on; taking existing research and developing it further; improving upon it, answering open questions or taking it in new directions.

How to find an edge to work on

Start by just reading; when you find an interesting paper, think of how you could build upon it. A lot of the ideas you think of won't be practical, but that's OK! It's better to come up with a lot of ideas and then refine them than to search for "the one".

Not every article you read will trigger great ideas; if it doesn't make sense to you or you don't find it interesting then it's probably not a good basis for your own research.

When you do find a potential edge to work on, you then need to go though a process of testing and refinement to examine the viability of your idea.Check out the blog posts below for more on this, and feel free to ask any questions below (but please don't ask me to give you a thesis topic)

See Also:

How to choose a thesis topic

Research proposals: a good idea is not enough

How to write a PhD literature review[

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