4 Tips for Starting Your Doctoral Research

By Stacey Elsasser, EdD
Faculty, College of Doctoral Studies

Attractive blonde woman holds stack of books in library

When you are starting doctoral research literature for your dissertation or one of your doctoral degree courses, you may feel overwhelmed or like you do not know where to begin. You may also wonder about the kind of literature for which you should be looking.

Here are a few factors to consider when researching and evaluating literature:

Begin with a Broad Search

When you are beginning your research, don’t limit your search to just the past five years. You can find older work and then search for new material by the same author, or use a tool that allows you to see who has cited this work. You can finagle the currency of your literature as you prepare for the milestones, but for general research, don’t limit it.

You should also take note of more than just the results of the articles. Think about the population, the purposes, the methods, etc. so that you can compare other articles to your own study.

For example, if I were looking at African-American female leadership at a community college in the South as my topic/context, would another study about the same topic have different results if done in the North?

Relate Your Topic to Larger, Ongoing Dialogue

When you look at other studies, you need to consider the author’s theoretical lens and take note of it; you also need to decide what theoretical lens you want to use to make sense of your findings. You want your research and work to ultimately be a part of the larger, ongoing dialogue surrounding your topic.

Fill in Gaps and Extend Prior Studies

You won’t know what’s not there until you fully know what is there. After all, you only recognize light in the context of darkness!

As you continue your doctoral research, you also may consider extending prior research, which is different than replicating another’s study. While you do not want replication, extension is another matter. You can take the same study and change the context (population, location, field setting, instrument or even the methodology) to extend the research done by another.

Consider the Importance of Your Study

Make sure that you develop why other authors/scholars/practitioners would be interested in your work. If you had the author(s) of a benchmark study in front of you, what would you be able to articulate about the importance of your work?

You should also consider how you will know when your study is successful and how you will know when you’ve done enough research. Since there is no Magic 8 Ball for the review of the literature, it’s mainly about feeling like you’re hearing the same thing again and are seeing more ah-ha moments.

A few others tips:

  • Physically go to the library.
  • Don’t be afraid to look at popular culture magazines for ideas and inspiration.
  • Be sure to look at the academic associations related to your field. Their conference proceedings might provide a wealth of topical literature about your topic.
  • Find other dissertations online and read other people’s research, but remember that this is someone’s “first draft” of what might be a lifelong area of study.

Most importantly, choose a topic that you enjoy researching and feel passionately about—it will make researching your literature that much more enjoyable.

Grand Canyon University’s College of Doctoral Studies allows learners to grow and expand their knowledge in their field. To learn more about GCU’s doctoral programs, visit our website or request more information by using the button at the top of the page.

More about Dr. Elsasser:

Dr. Elsasser a full-time faculty member in the leadership program of the College of Doctoral Studies. She is a native of Omaha, NE and graduated with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Oklahoma State University. She has taught teacher education and research in higher education for over 15 years.

Dr. Elsasser is also a classically trained pianist and plays regularly for church and community venues. Among the many experiences in her life, one of the most rewarding was spending two years in the People’s Republic of China as a missionary and English teacher. Dr. Elsasser believes that being called by God to a mission field was great preparation for academic life.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.