Fairly recently, I have come across many chairs who are now asking their students to establish the theoretical significance of their studies in the introduction chapter. Previously, most significance requests dealt with positive social change (which will be covered in a later blog) or with practical and academic significance (which we covered in a previous blog post). As such, many students are left wondering what theoretical significance actually means and how to present it to their chairs. I think I have come up with the answer.
Your theoretical significance deals with how your theory will gain new understanding when applied to your study. This is accomplished by looking at earlier studies similar to yours; technically, this is something you should do anyway to establish the gap in the literature you are attempting to fill. Once you see how they expanded the understanding of the theory, you find the next logical step in how you will further this expansion. It is relatively simple.
Think about what is already known and what is missing. Does your study provide an answer to what is missing? If so, you already know how to expand it. If your study does not fit what is missing, you may want to consider how niche you want to go with defining your theoretical significance. What this means is that you are going to eventually have to narrow down the significance. While many common theories are easily applicable to a potential study (leadership theories, in particular), there is a downside to choosing one of these theories. Often, these theories have already been expanded upon to the point where finding the theoretical significance resorts to the most niche view possible.
We work with graduate students every day and know what it takes to get your research approved.