What Is A Literature Review (In A PhD Or Graduate School)? A How to Guide

Literature Review

By the time you get to graduate school you are usually familiar with writing several different kinds of papers, but the graduate thesis or dissertation is a type of writing you have likely not done before. In addition to simply being a much longer more complex piece of writing it also contains some components that you did not encounter during your undergraduate. One of these components is the literature review. A literature review is part of every graduate dissertation, but it is a mysterious to many grad students.

Likely you have actually already read several literature reviews during the course of your higher education, even if you were not aware of it. Even if you can identify a good literature review, writing one yourself can seem a bit daunting. There is so much academic literature related to your topic and you may not know where to begin or how to approach your literature review. In this post, I will discuss what a literature review is and some guiding do’s and don’ts to help through the initial process of writing your literature review. This will not be a comprehensive guide, as literature review specifics vary from discipline to discipline, but these guiding tidbits can get you started and clear up some of the initial confusion about literature reviews and what does and does not belong in one.

This blog post was written by a recent anonymous doctoral candidate on behalf of Dave Maslach (so, they feel more comfortable with a frank discussion), but it is based on the following video:

What is a Literature Review?

Literature reviews are pieces of writing included in all graduate dissertations and most journal articles and scholarly books. They are overviews of previous scholarship related to the topic of your research. Literature reviews are a synthesis of previous scholarship meant to showcase how your own research fits into your field and compares to recent similar research on your topic. Your literature review should focus specifically on your topic and research questions (ex. Research into specific historical event, specific treatment of a disease). They are not meant to address the research of your wider field, but rather your specific topic.

Literature reviews vary in length depending on your field, but they are always placed at the beginning of the work (first chapter or in the introduction) in order to orient the reader in your topic. A good literature review should showcase the strengths and weaknesses of previous scholarship on your topic, as well as show how your own research will make use of previous scholarship on the topic. Furthermore, a literature review should identify gaps and tensions in existing research and detail how your research will fill those gaps. It is also meant to highlight problems in past literature that do not quite make sense, based on logic or empirical research.

What Should Be Included in a Literature Review?

Literature reviews should contain an overview of all, or as close to all as possible, of the main relevant works on your topic. Part of the point of a PhD is to contribute something new to your field. You are carving a niche for yourself and your literature review should help you do that. It should show where your research fits in the wider picture and what it contributes. Include topics in your literature review that really highlight where and what you are contributing to your field.

Since part of the purpose of the literature review is to provide contextualization for your research you want to discuss previous approaches to your topic. What that exactly means will likely vary by field, but some examples include previous failed or successful studies on closely related experiments, and different theories and methodologies used to approach your subject. Make sure to include all of the seminal studies in your area of expertise. A literature review, however, is not simply a list of previous scholarship. See the list below for more in depth inclusions and exclusions.

General Content Related Do’s and Don’ts Of A Literature Review

Don’t Simply Provide a List of Articles and Books

The purpose of the literature review is to tell the story of your topic and synthesize the work that was done previously. Simply listing the previous work is not enough. Previous scholarship needs to be analyzed for what it contributed to your field and where it fell short. Literature reviews need to strike a balance between summary and analysis. Of course, you are going to have to provide brief summaries of the most important findings of previous scholarship, but the literature review should not be several pages of one summary after another with little or no contextualization or analysis.

Do Put Previous Scholarship in Conversation

A literature review should be a conversation or a story about the previous scholarship. Good literature reviews discuss the strengths and weaknesses of previous scholarship and show how the topic has changed and evolved. Every field starts somewhere, and people continually build and improve upon previous scholarship and this should be highlighted. Literature reviews should emphasize both the highs and lows and show how the previous scholarship you are drawing from is related to each other and also to your own work.

Part of this conversation is achieved through the organization or structure of past studies by putting like studies in groups together and discussing how they relate to one another or improved up each other (for more on organization see the list below). Other parts of the conversation come from your own analysis of previous scholarship. What were the strengths, what were the weaknesses, what were they missing? No research project ever covers every aspect of the topic, there is almost always more to do. Put all of the previous studies together and see what bigger picture emerges from the collection.  

Do Poke Holes in Previous Research (In A Nice And Gentle Way)

Part of showcasing your contribution to your field through your PhD research is poking holes in previous scholarship. One of your goals during your PhD is to find a place for yourself in your field. You need to find a research niche and build you research profile on it. In order to do that you need to find an existing gap in research. This is something that you need to demonstrate in your literature review. You need to show what work there still is to be done, and how you are going to do it.

PhD students are often hesitant about this bit of a literature review. They don’t feel confident enough or think themselves enough of an expert to point out the holes in another usually more senior academic’s research. This is of course due to a lot of reasons, impostor syndrome, simply not feeling like you have the authority to do that, or just not yet having that type of confidence (see this post for more info on impostor syndrome). This is part of being an academic. No one’s research is flawless or so complete that it covers all aspects of a topic. Your research isn’t, your advisor’s isn’t, and the most senior and well-known person in field’s research isn’t. That is just a fact of research, there is always more to discover. Don’t be afraid to point out where someone missed something or where they may have even been wrong. That’s part of the pursuit of knowledge, there’s always something more and new to discover.  

Don’t Be Nasty about Previous Research

On the flip side of pointing out gaps in existing research, there is a way to do it in a professional manner. This should go without saying and usually isn’t a problem, but sometimes people need reminding. This used to be much more common. I have read some petty back and forth between scholars of older historical works who attacked each other’s scholarship as well as occasionally resorted to name calling.   

There are professional ways to point out where a study has fallen short or did not consider some variable or another without attacking the work as a whole. Often if a study falls short in some area, it is because of the confines of time, space, and scope in publications. For example, in my own field it makes sense that an economic evaluation of the Wars of the Roses in England does not take into consideration the social impact of war on the countryside. That was not the point and the social impact was outside the scope of the study. However, it may be that the source material used in that study on the economic impact could also yield rich material about the social impact. So, I could praise the contribution the author made to understanding the economic impact while simultaneously pointing out that the author’s same source material has a rich untapped potential for studying the social impact as well.

It is also important to remember that theories and conclusions can change. Make sure you have investigated the author’s subsequent work to see if their initial theory has been modified in any way. Often the work and theories of scholars evolve over their career and a conclusion they reached 10 years ago in a study may have been refuted by their own work or modified in another study from 5 years ago. Do find the gaps in research, but make sure you have the whole picture and don’t be rude about it when someone is wrong.  

Do Relate Previous Scholarship to Your Topic

A literature review is a discussion of previous work, but your own work should not be absent from it. This should of course be visible in areas where you have found gaps and plan to fill them with your own studies, but it should also be evident in conversations about how you plan to use previous research. For instance, if you are using a particular methodology or theory, it was developed by someone at some point. Explore all of that information, but also make sure you include why it is that this theory or methodology is important to your own work. Also include if you plan to improve upon it, implement it in a new way, or apply it in a way not previously explored by other scholars.

Always remember that the literature review is partially there to compliment your research and showcase your own findings. You are proving through it that you are aware of previous scholarship, how it was used, what its strengths are, but you are also aware of the weaknesses of previous scholarship. You want to show how your work contributes to the already existing body of work, how it utilizes previous work, but also how it is crucially different or an improvement on existing scholarship.

Organization Of A Literature Review

Just like literature reviews vary wildly in length, the ways they are organized also vary widely. Your field may have a specific convention you need to follow, and if so, follow that. If you do have some flexibility in your options, you may have to play around with the organization a bit to best showcase your topic’s story or evolution. Below is a short list of a some of the most common ways to organize literature reviews. They can be used individually, but they can also be combined. My own literature review combined both the chronological and theory-based organizations.

Chronological Organization Of Literature Reviews

Chronological organization is probably the most straightforward organization of a literature review (although it is more common in some fields than others). Chronological organization simply means that you are putting your literature in conversation from the oldest to the most recent. Again, how far back in time you go depends on your field. My own literature review covered nearly 600 years’ worth of material as my PhD is in Medieval History. Most other fields don’t require you to go quite as far back. The conventions of your field may only require the last 25-50 years to gain a strong picture of the current state of research in your field.

Chronological organization does usually show the evolution of a topic fairly easily, as many topics change gradually over time. Chronological organization makes it easy to highlight trends and triumphant moments in the history of your topic. Chronological organization can get messy if you have a topic that had a surge in popularity during a particular time frame. It can sometimes be difficult to discuss so many different studies at one. If that is the case with your topic you may benefit by using another organizational method or combining chronological organization with another method.

Strengths and Weaknesses

If you are working on a topic that has a lot of scholarship already done on it, you may benefit from a discussion framed more around the strengths vs. the weaknesses of the various approaches. This type of organization will make it easy for you to showcase how your own research will approach the topic from the foundation of other strong studies, and also justify why you used one approach verses another. Using the strengths and weaknesses, organization would be particularly helpful if you have a relatively new topic that has experienced a sudden explosion of studies in recent years.

Theory-Based Organization Of Literature Reviews

Theory-based organization is particularly helpful for dissertations done in the Social Sciences, or trying to make a contribution to the sciences. This type of organization is easily combined with both chronological and strength and weaknesses. Essentially, this organizational structure groups studies using the same theories or methodological framework together and puts them and their findings in conversation. Normally, you would focus on one or two theories at the most. It allows you to discuss the different types of theories you are using in your research and show their uses and previous successful results. In this sense, the literature review helps to justify or explain some of your methodology and strengthens your overall approach.

There is no single right way to do a literature review. The aspects of it may be dictated by your field and the writing a literature review for every work you do will be different. However, your literature review will be improved by following the tips above. The most important thing to remember about the literature review for your PhD dissertation is that it is there to show how your work contributes to your over all field. The literature review is there to strengthen your work and your research, not to detract from it.  

Want to learn more about doing research? Check out these excellent posts:

  1. What do PhD students do all day and how do they do it?
  2. How does one assess the success of graduate students?
  3. Do not ask these questions to people who are doing research!

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