Identify a doctoral research problem: finding a gap

Identifying a Doctoral Research Problem: Finding a Gap 

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FEMALE SPEAKER: Welcome to this short video on identifying a doctoral research problem, also known as finding a gap. We will briefly cover how to start exploring the literature to find a workable research problem for your capstone project. Walden has a litmus test to help you along the way, which we'll talk about. And we'll also give some search tips and get a little philosophical about how to approach your exploration of the literature. 

Turning a social problem into a research problem for the doctoral capstone poses a challenge for many students. Often, students approach this task inductively, which makes it harder and sometimes even impossible. You want to start by exploring the literature and reading the research surrounding your general area of interest to find out what's happening in the field. This is the best way to formulate your research problem. If you're doing a PhD dissertation, you need to demonstrate a gap in the literature. If there is no gap, then the research problem is not viable. 

Professional doctorates will vary from this a bit depending upon the program, but you, too, will have to find existing empirical research surrounding your research problem in order to give your study context. We know that many of you have a passion about a particular issue in your field or in your workplace, but those passions do not always lend themselves to a doctoral study. Remember that you want a gap to demonstrate your niche, to show what your contribution is to the scholarly conversation. You don't want to end up in the Grand Canyon all by yourself. You want to find a place for yourself based on what's already been done. This will allow you to complete your study and get your degree. 

A good study is grounded in the literature, not just from personal experience. Walden's litmus test has four criteria to determine if you have identified a doctoral level research problem. First of all, is it justified? Is there evidence of a problem that's significant to the profession? Second, is it grounded in the literature? Will you be able to build upon or counter previously published findings? Get to know your intellectual heritage. 
Number three, is it original? Does the research problem reflect a meaningful gap in the research literature? Or does it describe a meaningful gap in practice? And number four, is it amenable to scientific study? Can a scholarly, systematic method of inquiry be applied? How do you do this? Well, you need to know what's been researched and published in your field. By staying current in the literature, you establish your expertise and you also have a better view of the existing research in your field. Explore the literature to find out what's out there. That is how you will find your research problem based on existing empirical research. 

So research is strategic exploration. What does that mean? You have to think big, you have to search broadly in your general area or topic of interest. Sometimes, you'll find information on theories and frameworks and seminal works in your course readings. You can start collecting those right away. You want to read as much as you can, basically read and read and read and then read some more. Let the literature lead the way to your research study. It may not take you where you thought you would go or where you wanted to go, but it will show you where you might go based on what research has already been done. 

Evaluate what's there and what's not there in order to build on existing research. Opportunities will begin to present themselves, giving you ideas on how to formulate your research problem. The literature review is the backbone of your study, so if you formulate your study based on the current literature, you will have a stronger study. And remember that inflexibility in your research problem may cause graduation delays. 
So look at your topic broadly. You can find out where there's overlap in other disciplines when searching on your general area of interest. Then focus on searching specific subject databases. You'll want to alternate searching broadly and searching specifically in order to get a full understanding of the landscape. Be open to variant vocabulary. Synonyms are your friends. Review results to identify trends and subtopics and note the themes. 

Look for others' literature reviews, meta-analyses, and systematic reviews, and also examine the limitations, conclusions, and suggestions for future research sections in existing studies. So remember your research is strategic exploration. This may lead to some dead ends, but it will also be the only way that you can find treasures. Broaden your topic and then look for subtopics. Go into it with an open mind and flexibility, keeping in mind that you may not end up where you expect it to be. Read all that you can to discover what the current conversation is about. What will your study contribute to that conversation? Let the existing literature guide the direction of your research study. Listen to what the literature is telling you, and that is how you will see how it leads you to your passion. 

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If you have questions, you can always make an appointment or email us. This is a hard thing to do at home virtually, but you're not alone. We're here to help you. We can brainstorm together and you can bounce ideas around with us. Don't be shy. You've never done this before, and it's OK to ask questions. The library can help you develop strategies for finding existing literature in your area of interest. Reading others' research enables you to know the existing landscape to find your place in it. Once you've been out exploring, you can make an informed decision about your doctoral studies research problem. 

Created July 2020  by Walden University Library