Once you have found a topic that interests you and which you think can sustain your interest, that is specific, and which you can reasonably complete during the time frame for your PhD, you will need to locate your position within the existing research. This is what I call “Finding the Gap” and is critical to orientating your research and finding an avenue of research that will drive your PhD thesis.
Start with an overview of what has been done on your topic because it is important to locate your research within the field. Finding the Gap is a process of whittling down a large body of material until you find your niche within the field.
You start with getting an overview of what has been done on your topic and familiarizing yourself with the main debates and avenues of research. You do this by conducting bibliographic searches, reading review articles and literature reviews in the main books or PhD theses on the subject. You don’t try to read everything but to identity the major studies that are the most relevant for your thesis. Doing bibliographic searches through electronic resources or your university library catalogue, asking your supervisor, and through following up references to frequently cited works in the literature will pretty quickly pin point the major studies you will use.
Next create a working bibliography confined to the most relevant and important works. Organize these by author and publication date. Start with the oldest publication and read them critically up to the latest publications in order to identify key stances and debates. Write a short literature review where you discuss the different avenues of research and major debates where you can summarize the position of the leading scholars in your field. Take a critical stance to the literature and develop an argument that runs through your literature review. Doing this literature review will enable you to locate your position within the field and to find gaps which you can further investigate and develop in your thesis.
The benefits of this exercise is that it trains you to think more critically about published work and not to automatically assume that just because a study has been published that it is correct. It teaches you to adopt a more critical stance and to gradually build more confidence in asserting your own arguments which is how the debate moves forward – and which is critical to your development as a scholar.
Let me give you an example from my own PhD research. Even though I chose a very specific and well-defined topic – one author from the Early Middle Ages – there had been substantial work carried out on this topic already. But I found that most of the research focused on just one of his works – his most important text. He had also written two other works that I studied in addition to his major work so this differentiated me from previous scholarship on this subject. Working in depth on his most important text during the first year when I translated it enabled me to make a number of important distinctions which led me to argue for a new interpretation of the work and which was the driving argument of my thesis. Previously scholarship had argued that the work had been written largely for a small, monastic audience, that it was written in parts for different communities, and that it had been written in order to construct a new identity for an important monastic network. Because I knew the text so well I was able to identify some new distinctions which called these interpretations into question and which presented an alternative reading of the source. I argued that the text had in fact been widely disseminated and was also intended for a royal audience (not just monastic), that it was conceived of as a whole and transmitted in its entirety, and that it was not meant to construct a new identity but in part to critique changes and rebellions which had taken place within this monastic network. Making these small distinctions enabled me to present a new interpretation and to drive the debate further – which is what you are looking to do in your PhD. I give you this example to show that you don’t need to do big things in order to find your gap – just making small distinctions is sufficient to differentiate yourself and to drive the debate that bit further. That’s all examiners are looking for and it is sufficient to get you a PhD.