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Literature Review Phd Dissertation

In Planning a literature reviewCharlotte Mathieson explained the purpose and scope of a literature review. Now, all you need to do is write one! As this is easier said than done, here Charlotte guides you through writing your review of literature, from first draft through to later revisions.

Writing the literature review: first steps

Compiling and writing the literature review can seem like a daunting task as you begin to navigate through a seemingly endless reading list. With some planning and organisation you will find it a crucial part of the research process.

Your supervisor should advise you when to start working on the literature review. Typically this will be in the first year of your research project, as the process of writing the literature review helps you to learn more about your field and better understand the purpose and value of your project.

What information do you need and how should you organise it?

In order to fulfill the objectives of the literature review your reading needs to remain focused on your project. It’s easy to get distracted and follow the many sub-paths that reading opens up, but you do not have space in the literature review to incorporate too much extra material. Keep coming back to the key questions: what information do I need and why?

You can also focus your reading around the following points:

  • Define what you’re reading for: give yourself key terms relating to theories, methodologies, background context, and other central aspects of your research project.
  • Limitations: you will need to define the scope of your literature review, e.g. by date of publication.
  • Relevance: keep coming back to your research project and think about how and why each material is useful (or not) for your project. If it’s just “very interesting” rather than “highly relevant” ask yourself if this really needs to be incorporated in your literature review.

Note taking

An effective note taking strategy is important for ensuring that you collect all the material that you need to write your literature review. Everyone develops their own style and system of writing and organising notes, but for the purposes of the literature review you need to pay particular attention to the following points:

  • What is in the material you’re reading: writing down what the key arguments are, the reasoning given, and any key examples or quotes that you might want to refer to later
  • Your critical evaluation of the material: identifying strengths and weaknesses in the approaches and arguments, linking this to other reading you have done, and formulating opinions of your own in response to the reading
  • The relevance to your project, and any ideas that it sparks for your own research development (for example, directions you could take)

(Re)writing the Literature Review

The most important step in writing the literature review is re-writing. In the early stages of research you will still be familiarizing yourself with your research topic and getting to grips with large amounts of new material. The first draft(s) are a useful step in enabling you to assimilate and process new information; but writing at this stage can often lack command over the material, and your own voice can become lost under a wealth of critical opinions.

As you progress throughout your research you will become more adept at being able to critically synthesize information, you will have a clearer sense of your arguments and where your research fits into other debates. For this reason you will need to re-write the literature review, with particular attention to:

  • The framing arguments and questions of your research project in general, and the purpose of the literature review in relation to this.
  • Charting the progression and development of your critical thinking: your literature review needs to be written from your perspective at the end of your research project, but should show some development in how your project came about and progressed.
  • Incorporating new material that you’ve read: this can be a large task at the end of your project, but good notes and an annotated bibliography will make this task easier.

Whilst you’ll need to do this at the end of your PhD, you might also want to periodically re-visit your literature review throughout your research to consider how your critical perspective is developing.

University of Toronto writing pages

The Royal Literary Fund gives a suggested structure for the literature review

Image: Andrew Dunn, Wikicommons| Nomadic Lass/Creative Commons

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Writing a Literature Review: Six Steps to Get You from Start to Finish

Writing a literature review is often the most daunting part of writing an article, book, thesis, or dissertation. "The literature" seems (and often is) massive. I have found it helpful to be as systematic as possible in doing this gargantuan task. This post describes one system for writing a literature review.

In their book, Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation, Sonja Foss and William Walters describe a highly efficient way of writing a literature review. I think it provides an excellent guide for getting through the massive amounts of literature for any purpose: in a doctorate program, for writing an M.A. thesis, or an article in any field of study.




Step One: Decide on your areas of research

Before you begin to search for articles or books, decide beforehand what areas you are going to research. Make sure that you only get articles and books in those areas, even if you come across fascinating books in other areas.

Step Two: Search for the literature:

Conduct a comprehensive bibliographic search of books and articles in your area. Read the abstracts online and download and/or print those articles that pertain to your area of research. Find books in the library that are relevant and check them out. Set a specific time frame for how long you will search. It should not take more than two or three dedicated time sessions.

Step Three: Find relevant excerpts in your books and articles:

Skim the contents of each book and article and look specifically for these five things:

  1. Claims, conclusions, and findings about the constructs you are investigating
  2. Definitions of terms
  3. Calls for follow-up studies relevant to your project
  4. Gaps you notice in the literature
  5. Disagreement about the constructs you are investigating


When you find any of these five things, type the relevant excerpt directly into a Word document. Don’t summarize, as summarizing takes longer than simply typing the excerpt. Make sure to note the name of the author and the page number following each excerpt. Do this for each article and book that you have in your stack of literature. When you are done, print out your excerpts.

Step Four: Code the literature

Get out a pair of scissors and cut each excerpt out. Now, sort the pieces of paper into similar topics. Figure out what the main themes. Place each excerpt into a themed pile. Make sure each note goes into a pile. If there are excerpts that you can’t figure out where they belong, separate those and go over them again at the end to see if you need new categories. When you finish, place each stack of notes into an envelope labeled with the name of the theme.

Step Five: Create Your Conceptual Schema

Type, in large font, the name of each of your coded themes. Print this out, and cut the titles into individual slips of paper. Take the slips of paper to a table or large workspace and figure out the best way to organize them. Are there ideas that go together or that are in dialogue with each other? Are there ideas that contradict each other? Move around the slips of paper until you come up with a way of organizing the codes that makes sense. Write the conceptual schema down before you forget or someone cleans up your slips of paper!

Step Six: Begin to Write Your Literature Review

Choose any section of your conceptual schema to begin with. You can begin anywhere, because you already know the order. Find the envelope with the excerpts in them and lay them on the table in front of you. Figure out a mini-conceptual schema based on that theme by grouping together those excerpts that say the same thing. Use that mini-conceptual schema to write up your literature review based on the excerpts that you have in front of you. Don’t forget to include the citations as you write, so as not to lose track of who said what. Repeat this for each section of your literature review.

Once you complete these six steps, you will have a complete draft of your literature review. The great thing about this process is that it breaks down into manageable steps something that seems enormous: writing a literature review.

I think that Foss and Walter’s system for writing the literature review really can work for a dissertation, because a Ph.D. candidate has already read widely in his or her field through graduate seminars and comprehensive exams.

It may be more challenging for M.A. students, unless you are already familiar with the literature. It is always hard to figure out how much you need to read for deep meaning, and how much you just need to know what others have said. That balance will depend on how much you already know.

For faculty writing literature reviews for articles or books, this system also could work, especially when you are writing in a field with which you are already familiar. The mere fact of having a system can make the literature review seem much less daunting, so I recommend this system for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a literature review.

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