Literature reviews made easy

January 30, 2015 – 10:35 am

Literature searchAlarm, terror, worry, despair, panic. Do those words describe how you feel about writing your dissertation? If so, you're not alone. The dreaded doctoral dissertation can inspire fear in even the most courageous students.

After you've selected a topic, one of the first major tasks is writing the literature review — the section some experts say is the most difficult and time-consuming. Unlike the methods and results sections, which follow a highly regimented format, the literature review gives students more latitude to develop their own ideas, says Sharon Foster, PhD, a psychologist at Alliant International University and co-author of "Dissertations And Theses from Start to Finish: Psychology and Related Fields" (1993). "You're not just summarizing what's known, " Foster says. "You're also trying to figure out what needs to be known to advance the science."

That means critically evaluating the literature and looking for holes, unanswered questions and methodological weaknesses.

Here are five strategies to keep you focused and productive as you tackle the first section of your dissertation:

Get Organized

To conduct a thorough review of the literature, you'll need to read dozens of papers. Unless you possess supernatural powers of memorization, you'll want to create a system for keeping track of the important information. What kind of system is up to you. "There is no template, " says Joan Bolker, EdD, author of "Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis" (1998). "You have to look at who you are. You have to figure out what's going to fit for you."

For example, if you're the type of student who makes detailed outlines, keeps immaculate files and thinks organizational software is fun, approach your dissertation with the same organizational gusto that you approach the rest of your life. If you're technologically savvy, use the latest smartphone app to keep track of your notes. But if organization doesn't come naturally, keep your system simple. A complex method of index cards and color-coded tabs may make you feel overwhelmed. Even keeping separate, albeit messy, piles can help tame the chaos. You don't have to be an organizational guru to write a dissertation, Bolker says. "I've had several [students who were] slobs who wrote fantastic dissertations."

Whatever system you choose, keep track of your citations. You don't want to be one of the students "scurrying around the library to look up the references" right before the deadline, Bolker notes.

Stay Focused

Students often cast too wide a net when they start their literature reviews, Foster says. "They think they have to write about everything they've read." The result is a huge literature review with too much background and not enough information about your specific research topic. If your dissertation is on relational aggression among elementary school kids, focus in quickly on the type of aggression you're interested in and the age group rather than writing 20 pages of background on aggression, Foster says.

To help narrow your focus, Foster recommends writing the end of the literature review — the part directly relevant to your research question — first. "Then go back and write your introductory materials, " she says.

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