4 Steps to Identifying the Gap in Dissertation Research Projects

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4 Steps to Identifying the Gap in Dissertation Research Projects

vincent giordanoStudents must often justify the purpose of their research when developing a research project. While this task might sound easy, I find that students often struggle with articulating clearly the need for their research project. The justified need for one’s research is often expressed through the expression of the gap statement. According to the Middlebury Network (n.d.) a gap is something that remains to be done or learned in an area of research; it is a gap in the knowledge of the scientists in the field of research of your study. A research need is defined as a gap that limits the ability to make decisions (National Collaboration Centre for Methods and Tools, n.d.)

In order to develop a gap statement there are four main steps that you must follow:

  1. Focus the research
  2. Research the topic
  3. Map out the literature
  4. Choose the most important reason for the gap’s existence.

Focus the Research

When focusing the research, you must decide what topic they wish to research. You should decide if the research is practical and broad enough to examine. All too often, I meet students who are very excited to research a topic, but the study population might be rather small, or the research on the topic might be very limited, thereby creating issues with the development of the literature review. It is important to note that these issues might prevent a topic from being a good choice for a dissertation, though it is possible to explore these issues in a later research project.

Research the Topic and Map out the Literature

After researching the topic, it is important to narrow down the focus of the research that you have gathered that is no more than five years old. Use that timeframe because much older research is often out of date and may have been researched by previous individuals. After you have narrowed down the topic, you should map out your literature review. Mapping involves many different strategies, though essentially it involves identifying the common themes, ideas, concepts and gaps within the research studies you have collected. Often I recommend writing out an annotated bibliography that summarizes the themes and gaps. From there you can create a map that connects the themes.

Choose the Top Reason and Write Your Gap Statement

Finally, you should choose the most important reason to research the topic. For example, there might be a population suffering or not getting appropriate services, or maybe there are inconsistences in the information on the topic. Once you fully identify the reason for your research topic, you will need to write your gap statement.

The gap statement should include your variables, the characteristic phrase that identifies the design, and the phrase that directly identifies the gap. The characteristic phrases that identify the designs can be relationship for correlational, differences for causal comparative, and describe for survey designs. The phrases that directly identify the gap can include, “has not yet been clarified,” “it is important to address,” or “has/have not been studied.” These statements clarify your intent and direction when developing a gap statement. Pulling all of these steps together can help you clearly identify your research gap statement.

Gap Statement Example

Let’s say a student wants to do a causal comparative study on the differences that exist for the support for drug treatment vs incarceration among voter political affiliation (Democrat, Republican & No Party Affiliation). A gap statement that clarifies the researcher’s gap could be:

“The differences that may exist among political affiliation, i.e. Democrat, Republican, and No Party Affiliation, and support for drug treatment or incarceration has not yet been clarified, so it is not clear which party affiliation is more or less supportive of drug treatment options in lieu of incarceration.”

Through this gap statement the variables are political affiliation and support for drug treatment or incarceration are clearly identified. Furthermore, through using the term “differences,” the gap statement is aligned clearly with the research design. By following this blueprint, you can clearly identify the gap, thereby creating a clear direction for the research project.

Understanding how to identify the gap in dissertation research projects is a key factor in making sure your research holds up to scrutiny. Once you have a process in place to determine the gap, writing the gap statement will give you a solid basis on which to document your research.


Written by Vincent Giordano, Ph.D., Adjunct Faculty


National Collaboration Centre for Methods and Tools (n.d.). Framework for identifying research gaps. Retrieved from http://www.nccmt.ca/resources/search/118

The Middlebury Network (n.d.) A guide to scientific communication. Retrieved from http://sites.middlebury.edu/middsciwriting/overview/organization/gap-statements/

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