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One question we get a lot when we coach PhD students is what to do if there isn’t much literature on your topic. In this guide, we want to unpick this question, and explain what to do when you’re studying something new or something that hasn’t got much pedigree in the academic literature.
It’s unlikely that you will have no literature in your discipline, but it may be the case that the amount of work that talks specifically to your niche is limited.
That was the case with my PhD, which was exploring a relatively new policy that hadn’t been subjected to much discussion in the academic literature. I remember it caused me a lot of headaches, as I wondered how on earth I was going to be able to write a literature review when there wasn’t much literature out there.
But you’ll still be able to populate your review. That’s because your literature review isn’t just focusing on your specific topic and niche. If you find that you haven’t got anything to review, you’re restricting yourself too much, and you need to cast the net further out.
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We’ve already seen that your job in the literature review is to make the case for your research. You do that by highlighting any gaps in our existing understanding. That requires you to start relatively broad, and zero in on your particular niche and topic. That’s because you’re going to have to contextualise and situate your study in the wider literature.
Think of a funnel. You start with the broader topic, and then as you go through the review you zero in in more and more detail until you are focusing solely on the particular topic of interest.
What that means is that, if you’re struggling to find literature, you’re not far enough up the funnel.
Let’s think of a silly hypothetical example to illustrate this. Imagine that you’re studying how the consumption of strawberry bubble gum affects the performance of English PhD students. That’s super niche and super-specific. Unsurprisingly, there is no literature on the topic. However, you can cast the net a little wider by looking at how the consumption of any form of gum affects the performance of PhD students from anywhere in the world. You’re still not likely to throw up that many results, so you’ll need to move further up the funnel by casting your net wider. So, you might also look for literature that discusses the consumption of gum by students at every level. Or, you could look for literature that discusses the consumption of other substances, such as coffee or tobacco. You might also look at how other stress aids affect the performance of students. You get the idea.
As you broaden the net, you also draw in a wider and wider range of literature. Over time, you have a sufficient amount that you are able to fully contextualise your particular study in a wider academic debate. You’ll need to tell the reader that you’re casting your net in this wide way. That’s fine; be upfront about the novelty of your topic.
If you need a crash course in structuring your literature review and the other chapters in your thesis you should check out our 5-star rated ‘How To Write A PhD’ course. Get twelve expert walk-throughs and dozens of templates and worksheets to help you plan, structure and write your thesis, all delivered by email. Click here to find out more and sign up now. Or, if you need one-on-one support, get in touch today to book a PhD coaching session.
Master your lit review & theory framework.
Learn what goes where (and why), and how it all fit together with this free, interactive guide to the PhD literature review and theory framework.