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Writing Your Dissertation Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Writing Your Dissertation Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide

Essay and Thesis Writing Series

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Grant Andrews

Academic Coaching

www.writeyourthesis.com

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Copyright © 2017 by Grant Andrews

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher at the address below.

 

 

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Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: What is a Literature Review?

Chapter 3: Structure of a Literature Review

Chapter 4: Logic, Flow and Critical Engagement

Chapter 5: When Have You Done Enough Reading?

Things to Remember

Academic Coaching

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Chapter 1: Introduction

The literature review of your dissertation is often one of the most challenging sections of your written work. If you’re in the social sciences or humanities, your literature review will often be the longest chapter or chapters of your master’s or doctoral thesis. If your research is in another field like the natural sciences or medicine, you might not be used to the process of reviewing a large amount of literature or incorporating theories into your research. Many students are left questioning what a literature review should look like, and how much they are expected to cover.

In this guide, we’ll explain exactly what a literature review in your dissertation should look like and how much reading you should aim for. We’ll look at the objectives of a literature review, the structure you should work towards, and also what type of literature you should cover. Demystifying the literature review process can make working on your dissertation a lot easier, and you can move on to use the background from your review in conducting effective analyses or studies.

It’s important to get the structure right early on in your writing process, so that you won’t have to go back and redo work later on. Read through this guide first to get a good idea of what’s expected of you. If you haven’t written your proposal yet, you can get a guide on how to structure your entire proposal, with a sample template included, at the Academic Coaching website, www.writeyourthesis.com. The literature review for your proposal and for your final dissertation should be different, and we’ll explain those differences in this guide. You can also find many more short guides on academic writing by visiting the resources page of the Academic Coaching website: www.writeyourthesis.com/p/resources.html.

Before we begin with this guide, take note that you can test your academic and thesis readiness levels, and get detailed advice and strategies on your unique challenges, in a free, personalized report written by the Academic Coaches. Take the quiz at the following link to get your report: http://www.writeyourthesis.com/p/quiz.html.

For now, let’s look at what your thesis needs to do, and go through the basic structure you need to follow.

Chapter 2: What is a Literature Review?

You master’s or doctoral thesis literature review will usually be the second chapter of your thesis, after your introduction. All students who are venturing into graduate studies have to do a literature review at some point. This is an important rite of passage, as it indicates that you’ve read a great deal in your field and that you are able to integrate information in a focused way. You are showing your supervisor, examiners and anyone else who reads your research that you are a capable researcher and that you have a lot of experience and knowledge in your field.

You can’t embark on a new study if you don’t already know what other scholars have done before you; a large part of the academic project is building on the knowledge and understanding of our academic peers, so you firstly need to show that you know what others have done and the contributions they have made before you can do an effective study of your own.

Your literature review needs to give citations and paraphrase as much of the knowledge in your field that relates to your study as possible. You need to make sure that you are covering the literature relating to your theoretical background, your main themes and any previous studies that are similar to what you are undertaking, or that provide information that you are relying on to inform your study. You might also consider including literature related to ethical concerns which could arise in your study.

Your supervisor/ promoter and examiners will be looking out for certain things when they assess the strength of your literature review. Firstly, they will consider whether it is comprehensive; do you cover all of the most important readings that relate to your study? Are there any major ideas or scholars that you don’t touch on? Secondly, they will assess you on how organized your ideas are. Do you present your ideas in a way that is easily readable and that doesn’t confuse the reader? Are there clear subheadings which help to show trends in the reading? Thirdly, they will consider whether the literature review is logically linked to your study. Have you shown clear gaps in knowledge that your study is responding to? Does the chapter have a logical flow between ideas, all leading up to a conclusion which incorporates the motivation for your research? And finally, your supervisor and examiners will be considering whether you show a clear understanding of all of the literature presented. Are you just parroting ideas, or do you really grasp all of the challenging concepts that you need to know in order to be considered a competent, knowledgeable scholar in your field? You need to master all of these aspects in order to do well in your literature review.

Your literature review needs to accomplish the following:

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p<>{color:#000;}. Look at the various literature relating to your theoretical background

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p<>{color:#000;}. Show a deep and clear understanding of the concepts involved in your study

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p<>{color:#000;}. Demonstrate a broad range of knowledge relating to your field

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p<>{color:#000;}. Review as many of the studies that were done before and were similar to yours, and show gaps in knowledge

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p<>{color:#000;}. Show understanding and critical engagement with the literature you review

All of these aspects are important in a literature review, yet the requirements for how you present the review in different types of research documents can be very different.

In your research proposal, you will only be required to give a preliminary literature review, and your critical reflection on the literature will not have to be very intensive. Your proposal’s literature review will usually be around 3-5 pages in length. It should cover some basic ideas linked to your topic, and touch on the keywords you’ve provided on your cover page of your proposal. You need to demonstrate the breadth of your research here; show your reader that you’re a serious academic who knows something about your field. This will probably take the most time to complete in your research proposal, but it shouldn’t take longer than a few weeks if you work in a focused way. You can find out more about writing a proposal in the guide at the resources page of the Academic Coaching website.

For a master’s thesis, your literature review is usually between 10-25 pages, and for a doctoral dissertation, it can be up to 40 pages for social sciences or humanities studies, but is usually much shorter for other fields. You shouldn’t aim for the higher end of these ranges unless you have a very broad topic with a lot to cover. For most studies, around 15 pages should be more than enough, and many studies in Engineering or natural sciences can comfortably cover everything they need to in 10 pages. You should judge the projected length of your literature review by how many theories, themes, topics or similar studies you have to cover. We’ll look at those aspects in the chapter on structure later in this guide.

Finally, it’s important to remember that a literature review has to be planned thoroughly before you start writing. You should plan the themes, theories, and the concepts you want to cover before you start working on your literature review. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do some exploratory reading just to find out more about your field, but sometimes researchers get so stuck on doing as much reading as possible that they never get to writing their thesis. If you know what your intention is with your literature review, and if you have a clear plan, then you will know very quickly if a reading is relevant or not, and you can move on to something that will be more helpful if you find the article or book won’t be useful for your study.

Many degree programs advise their students to take the first year of study (or even two years) to do reading and to write the proposal and literature review. While this is very good practice to help you expand your thinking and understanding, it’s not necessary to spend too much time reading if you have a good plan beforehand. For a master’s thesis, a literature review doesn’t need to take more than three or four months of fairly regular work, if you can manage to get through an article or two every few days. The key is not to read everything, but to read the most important articles and books and then pepper in some broader reading.

Review Your Learning:

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p<{color:#000;}. Your literature review shows that you are knowledgeable in your field and a capable researcher

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p<{color:#000;}. For a master’s study, your literature review should be around 10-25 pages long

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p<{color:#000;}. You need to cover the most important theories, themes and similar studies, showing that you understand them and how they connect to your own study

Chapter 3: Structure of a Literature Review

Different literature reviews can be structured in many different ways, however, there are certain aspects that you need to get right in your literature review which will usually help you to structure it well.

Your literature review has to have logical flow and coherence, and be structured similar to an essay, with an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Each part of your literature review needs to flow into the next in a logical way, and there should be no parts included in your review that are irrelevant to your overall study or thesis topic. For this reason, even if you find something very interesting but it doesn’t relate to your field or fit in with any of your themes, you should probably leave it out.

For most literature reviews, the structure will usually follow the following basic outline:

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p<>{color:#000;}. Introduction paragraphs, explaining the intention of your literature review

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p<>{color:#000;}. Theoretical background

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p<>{color:#000;}. Theme/ concept/ case study 1

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p<>{color:#000;}. Theme/ concept/ case study 2

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p<>{color:#000;}. Theme/ concept/ case study 3, 4, 5…. (as many as you need listed below here with their own subheading each)

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p<>{color:#000;}. Similar studies and their findings

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p<>{color:#000;}. Conclusion

Each of these sections could have a subheading. For example, the theme or concept you explore in section 3 of your literature review will form the subheading of that section. If you have this plan before you start reading, you will have a very clear idea of the types of readings you will need to do.

Let’s look at an example. If your study is on tackling childhood obesity in Ohio by reducing the carbohydrate content in school lunches, you have a clear set of ideas you’ll need to explore. Your theoretical background will have to look at different nutritional theories, explain the food pyramid, and look at why low carbohydrate diets are argued to be effective in weight management.

Some of the themes or concepts you will have to explore in your study are:

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p<>{color:#000;}. The prevalence of childhood obesity

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p<>{color:#000;}. Why Ohio has higher levels of obesity

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p<>{color:#000;}. The school lunch policies and how these have changed

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p<>{color:#000;}. The lifestyle and eating patterns of youth in Ohio

Many more could be added to this. Each of these could form one of the themes in your literature review, and each could be given their own subheading. As you work through your many readings, you can add information under each of your subheadings listed above.

After listing all of the themes, you can then have a section for similar studies to yours. Have people tested low-fat diets for youth? Have they tested low-carb diets in other settings besides Ohio? What were the results?

And finally, you have the conclusion to the Literature Review section, where you can give some preliminary thoughts on your literature and say how it might lead into certain hypotheses which you could elaborate on in your methodology or research design sections.

Having this kind of clear outline now allows you to read with intention. Every time you come across a new article, you’ll know what you’re looking out for. When you find a citation or study that seems relevant, you can put the reference to it under the relevant subheading on your word processor.

What I advise my students to do, especially for their research proposals, is to get as many articles as possible that relate in some way to their topic, and then read the abstract and the first paragraph of each of those articles. This should take no longer than five minutes per article. Usually, you’ll get a good enough sense of what the article is about to include a short reference to it in your literature review, and to make a note for yourself in your research notes where you can summarize the main idea of the article and decide whether it’s worth coming back to. Then, for those articles, books or dissertations that seem especially relevant and worth returning to, read the entire piece and add a more nuanced paragraph or two in your literature review where you summarize the contents and explain the relevance to your topic of study.

In addition to the subheadings we’ve outlined above, you might want to include a subheading that looks at gaps in knowledge, where you can explain the shortcomings of some of the studies, and even hint at how your own study will try to address some of these shortcomings. Your literature review helps to provide some context for your study, and it also adds some motivation for why your study is important by showing that you will add to all of the knowledge which you’ve presented in a substantial way.

You don’t necessarily need a separate subheading for being critical of your readings; instead, you could include a sentence or two at the end of each subsection where you offer some critiques of the information which you have just presented, showing the gaps in knowledge or areas for development.

Try and keep a clear structure in your review and it will be much easier for your readers to follow your ideas and to see how your study adds to the field of knowledge.

Review Your Learning:

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p<{color:#000;}. Your literature review has to be organized and present the concepts, theories and background thoroughly, clearly and logically

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p<{color:#000;}. A good structure and plan helps you to read with intention and not to waste time with irrelevant readings

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p<{color:#000;}. Try to be critically engaged with your readings. Don’t just parrot ideas, but show that you understand them and even that you can criticize them where appropriate

Chapter 4: Logic, Flow and Critical Engagement

Now that you have a basic structure and you know what’s expected of you when writing a literature review, it should all be fairly easy to put one together, right? There’s one final aspect that often challenges researchers, and that is making sure that their literature review is logical and coherent in its layout. Each of the ideas you present needs to logically lead to the next idea in some way. This is often challenging for early researchers as they try to navigate the large amount of information required for their literature review, and don’t see the patterns between readings that would help to organize their reviews more clearly.

The most effective way of presenting your ideas logically is to start with very general and broad ideas and become much more specific throughout the process of your piece. Start with the large-scale ideas that relate to your field, like the overarching theories, the broad meta-analyses, and other points that might even be more familiar to your readers. For example, if you are doing a study of the effectiveness of behaviorist theory in treating alcohol addiction in women, you could first start out by talking about what behaviorism is very broadly, and then speak about the specific problems women face, and then try to bring them together in a more specific way by showing how alcoholism is one of the problems women struggle to deal with in particular settings, and how behaviorism could help to battle this addiction. Then, your later subsections could become much more specific, looking at particular studies which were undertaken that tried to combine behaviorism and addictive tendencies. The ideas flow logically from very broad to very specific, and the reader will be able to follow your points without any problems.

Another issue which often arises in terms of logic is that ideas are at times not logically linked to the topic being discussed. In your study of women and alcoholism, you might have included a subsection on how these women deal with childrearing and how their children see their alcoholism. But does this have anything to do with your study on behaviorism as impacting female alcoholism? The point doesn’t seem relevant, and thus it compromises the coherence of your dissertation. The reader will be left confused if you include ideas that don’t logically link to the discussion at hand. You should stick to the point you are trying to make, and don’t try to say everything, even if a certain point seems interesting to you.

Finally, try and make sure that you are always critically engaged with the material you are reviewing in your study. You shouldn’t just repeat ideas from articles as though they’re gospel, and you shouldn’t try to link points that aren’t logically linked. For example, if one of the studies found that alcoholism was reduced in a particular population, but this was actually because of greater social support and not due to behaviorist psychology, then you can’t use it as support for your hypothesis. Make sure that you understand your readings well enough to use them effectively, and don’t assume that you understand something if it feels even slightly unclear to you. You can’t be expanding on knowledge and understanding if you don’t fully understand the field.

Finally, you need to make sure that each subsection is logically linked to your main point and to the next subsection. At the end of each subsection, before you move on to your next subheading, include a small section where you show the reader the links between the information you’ve just presented and the focus of the study that you are doing. Tell them how these readings are useful in giving context for your thesis. Then, add a sentence that links your current subsection to the next one. Why are you moving from your current point of focus to the next one? Your reader needs to know or they might feel lost in the information you are presenting to them. This helps with the logical flow of your literature review, in the same way that it does in any piece of writing.

Review Your Learning:

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p<{color:#000;}. Your literature review should logically flow from one idea to the next

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p<{color:#000;}. A good logical framework for any piece of writing is to move from the general to the specific, or from broader ideas to more specific ideas

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p<{color:#000;}. Make sure that you fully understand your readings, and critically engage with the content so that you don’t end up making the same mistakes that another researcher made in their article or study

[]Chapter 5: When Have You Done Enough Reading?

Many students and researchers will ask their supervisors and professors: “How long should my literature review be? How many citations should I have? And when do I know that I’ve read enough?”

Almost invariably, the supervisor will respond by saying that there is no way to tell; there is just a sense of completion that comes when the researcher has done enough work. “You’ll know when you know.” For many of us, this feedback is too vague, and the sense of completion never seems to come as we are always discovering more and more information that makes us feel like we don’t know enough to do our study or to get our degree.

It’s important not to become overwhelmed by the vast amount of information that’s out there. If you really try to read every single study in your field of study, for most fields you would need quite a few lifetimes before you’ve read them all.

A good way to know when you’ve read enough is when you can comfortably go through a few studies that are similar to yours and recognize the majority of references in their reference lists. If you’ve already read most of the work that has helped others to do studies similar to yours, then you’re on the right track.

Another way to ensure that you’re being thorough is to make sure that you read as much of the relevant literature over the past four or five years. When you do a library search of the studies that match your keywords or that fit your themes, are there any that expand on the established knowledge in a substantial way? Read all of the abstracts for these studies, and then only choose the most relevant ones to read the full text of and to incorporate in your literature review. Be selective with your reading, especially after you’ve already spent months working on a literature review.

Another way to gauge your level of completion is to send regular drafts of your literature review to your supervisor or to other knowledgeable colleagues. They have a lot more experience than you have, and if they point out any readings that you should include, focus on those instead of the hundreds of other readings that might be tangentially relevant.

In some fields, like natural sciences or engineering, studies usually range from 20 to 150 references, although around 70 – 95 should be sufficient for a master’s study. For the social and health sciences, the range is much higher with anywhere from 20 – 220 references in many studies. Most studies in these fields end up with around 100 references at master’s level. If you are doing literary or cultural analysis, or looking at case studies, for example in the humanities fields like History or English literature, you will require a lot more references since you won’t need to do experimentation. However, many of these references will form part of your body chapters and not all of them are included in your literature review. The average for master’s studies in the humanities is around 170 references in total.

For a doctoral study, you can safely double these figures.

This should only be a general guideline, and your particular study might require much more or much less reading than the figures listed here.

Review Your Learning:

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p<{color:#000;}. Your literature review should logically flow from one idea to the next

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p<{color:#000;}. A good logical framework for any piece of writing is to move from the general to the specific, or from broader ideas to more specific ideas

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p<{color:#000;}. Make sure that you fully understand your readings, and critically engage with the content so that you don’t end up making the same mistakes that another researcher made in their article

Things to Remember

You now have a good idea of all of the components of a good literature review. Use this outline to guide you as you start your reading, and remember to ask for help whenever you need it. Writing a dissertation can be challenging, but there are many resources that can help you along the way. The Academic Coaching team offers editing and guidance for your thesis, and we’re able to help you at any point from the initial idea stage to the final edit. We’ll help you come up with a plan and to refine your ideas, and we’ll give you expert feedback on your rough work so that you can write your thesis with confidence. Go to www.writeyourthesis.com to find out more.

This book is part of a series for researchers and students writing essays and theses. We offer many more books and resources at our website, www.writeyourthesis.com/p/resources.html.

Take the Thesis Readiness Quiz for a FREE Report

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All the best with your studies!

Grant and Malan

(P.S.: If you’d like to receive links to all of our academic writing tools as soon as they’re released, sign up for our mailing list today. Go to: www.writeyourthesis.com and sign up in the sidebar. As soon as you sign up, we’ll send you a welcome gift of four free academic writing books.)


Writing Your Dissertation Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide

A quick and easy guide to writing a literature review for your master's or doctoral dissertation This short guide will give you the tools you need write a literature review, no matter what your field of study is. If you're doing your master's or doctoral thesis, you need to present a good, detailed literature review in your final dissertation. Often, this can be confusing, and it's hard to find simple, clear instructions on what should go into your literature review. In this short guide, you'll learn how to structure your literature review, how to choose good subheadings, what the logical flow should look like and how much reading you should be doing for your study. Whether you're writing a research paper, proposal, or a master's or doctoral thesis, this guide will be useful for making sure that you start your journey of academic writing on the right foot. You'll be able to master this skill in just over 30 minutes. The guide is written by Dr. Grant Andrews, who has been teaching academic writing for years, and who knows the common pitfalls that students experience in academic writing. This book is part of the Essay and Thesis Writing Series. You can find out more about the series at www.writeyourthesis.com.

  • ISBN: 9781370667246
  • Author: Grant Andrews
  • Published: 2017-07-18 19:50:10
  • Words: 4390
Writing Your Dissertation Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide Writing Your Dissertation Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide