Reading Sources and Finding Your Academic Niche when Writing a Thesis
Although most researchers are delighted to discover sources that present information associated with their own research interests, areas of expertise and preferred topics, ‘delight’ is not usually the first word that comes to mind when a doctoral candidate encounters a previously published study that covers the same ground he or she intends to explore in a dissertation and does so using methods and achieving results much like those anticipated for that dissertation. If this happens when you are consulting sources, it is essential not to panic, not to despair and not to ignore the potential problem. Overlap is a normal and necessary aspect of academic and scientific research and writing, and replication can be important and productive as well as necessary. However, it is highly unusual for individual scholars in different settings to produce the exact same results and arrive at identical conclusions, so it is vital to determine precisely how your own research and writing will differ from a strikingly similar study, and to explain and define that difference (as well as acknowledging the similarities) at some point in your dissertation, ideally before and/or when you cite or quote the source concerned.
It is therefore imperative to read any studies that significantly overlap your research and the dissertation you envision with extreme care and a sharply focussed critical eye. In many cases, an already completed book, article, thesis, dissertation, presentation or report will seem a good deal more like what you are planning for your dissertation when you read only its title and abstract, but once you have digested the text as a whole, the differences will be manifest. A single reading of the source may not be enough, especially if the text is long or complex, so do take the time for a second reading as well as some thoughtful reflection: your time will be well spent. Careful explanation within your dissertation of the similarities and differences may be enough, but in some cases adjustments to your own methods and approaches will be necessary, and it is best to know about the need for such adjustments sooner rather than later. Your supervisor will no doubt have encountered scholarly overlaps of this kind and thus have helpful suggestions, so do discuss any sources that concern you, particularly if you cannot decide how best to find your own focus and niche in relation to those sources.
Work that so decidedly overlaps your own may not be what you had hoped to find as you consulted sources, but it can nonetheless help you define your research with greater precision and refine your dissertation in a variety of ways, so it can be a blessing in disguise rather than a hindrance to your success. Keep in mind that your comprehension and careful use of such sources in your own study may be exactly what is needed to produce truly innovative results and disprove long-established theories.
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