Students entering the writing phase of their master's or doctoral programs are faced with a difficult challenge: to find that one particular aspect of a much larger topic that is recommended for further research by those in the field of study.
The “Gap” in the Research
Students often think of a “gap” in the research as something about which nothing has been written. That is only partially true as there may be some aspects of a topic considered insignificant to those in the field and thus, not in need of further research.
Try this analogy: Think of a topic as a puzzle with many pieces. Each piece fits together with the others to form a complete, clear picture of the topic. Many people (scholars) are constantly attempting to solve the puzzle. When pieces are out of place or missing, these scholars will notice and mention these missing pieces/areas i.e., gaps. The missing areas/pieces make it difficult to clearly understand the topic. What do those in the field recognize/identify as missing pieces? What additional research are they recommending to others in the field? This is how you identify a specific problem for your research. While it is a “gap” in the research, it is a gap that is recognized as significant by other researchers and one needing further research. Your research should add new understandings of those weak or missing areas.
Take a Small Bite of the Sandwich!
As the research and writing process begins, there is often the belief or the aspiration to find the ultimate answer to the larger topic problem rather than focus on the specific, small "bite" of the topic that will help to put the problem in perspective.
A problem for research is like a single piece in a 10,000 word puzzle. While it may not seem significant, it helps move those "puzzle solvers" in the field closer to understanding the mechanisms related to the problem. The researcher does not solve the problem but instead, provides new stepping stones into the unknown part of the topic.
The Nature of the Research Process
For every question that is answered, hundreds will emerge. That is the nature of the research process and researchers understand this phenomenon. A main stumbling block or bottleneck for the new researcher is a failure to identify that single tiny piece of understanding a topic, the piece that is missing from that particular part of the puzzle. This can delay progress and cause much frustration but can be eliminated by a thorough understanding of the literature and an accompanying understanding of the nature of a specific problem. Taking the time to dig into the current studies related to your topic will help you find the specific problem that is worthy of your research efforts.
Your entire proposal rests on the Literature Review that examines current studies to find the specific weakness or unclear/misunderstood/under researched part of the topic area. This section is more than just information about the topic; it includes an analysis and critique of the studies, how the author(s) support the rationale for this study or what the author(s) missed in their study. These studies clearly relate to and support the proposed research. The Literature Review provides the rationale and justification for the proposed study. While not the first part of the proposal, this part must first be mastered to be able to develop the following parts. The key studies are discussed in the Annotated Bibliography but there will be many other supporting sources. The Literature Review is not an accumulation of sources but rather a dynamic document that reflects the current status of the particular field of study regarding the specific problem identified in the dissertation proposal.