Looking around in my PhD, many of my peers seem to have an obsession with one key thing: identifying the right research gap. The promise is that, by finding your gap in the existing literature, you can then conduct the thus far missing research and make important contributions with your PhD.
As a result of that thinking, many students spend a significant amount of their time studying the existing research landscape meticulously. The wish to get a grasp of the state-of-the-art is understandable. After all, there’s a certain bar to pass for academic work and it’s difficult to know that bar right at the start of your PhD.
I do strongly think that the approach of searching for research gaps and trying to fill them is a relatively safe and tested approach to succeed in a PhD. This is because many academic venues — journals and conferences — adopt a similar thinking when assessing the contribution of your research: if your own research complements and sufficiently exceeds the status quo, then your work is more likely to get published.
However, the focus on ‘research gaps’ evokes feelings in me like when I see my dentist. He, too, makes a meticulous effort to find gaps and fill them, within the cosmos of my dental hygiene. This work is utterly important. It will, however, not change the world and lead to great leaps in society. Neither is an overly focus on filling research gaps going to lead to great academic leaps. Rather, this creates iterative work instead of groundbreaking innovations.
The issue of a loss of innovation in science was recently covered in a widely discussed Nature paper. This paper seems to confirm my own observations around a mismatch of incentives between the academic publication process and the creation of groundbreaking scientific breakthroughs.
Hence my advice for young PhD students: If you want to create the most good for society, then better forget about the research gap, study widely and outside your immediate bubble, and aim for research leaps instead!