How to make sure you get your Literature Review right!

One of the first things you’ll need to do when you start your PhD is to conduct a thorough analysis of the existing literature in your area.  But what is a literature review, why do you need to do one, and how can you make sure you get it right?

Why should I bother?

The first thing to realise is that this is a really important stage of your research.  Although it’s tempting to rush off into the lab, start setting up mathematical models, or start coming up with new designs, a comprehensive literature review can save you a lot of time and heartache later on.

A big reason for conducting your literature review is to identify the gaps in the existing research in your area.  A key aspect of a PhD is that it must provide a *novel* contribution to the knowledge base, so you need to be able to demonstrate that the work you’ve done is new.  If you haven’t properly examined the existing literature you’ll find it difficult to justify that your work is sufficiently different from the work of others, or may even find it’s already been done!

Understanding what other researchers have done, the techniques and approaches they’ve used, and what results they obtained, will almost certainly help you avoid making mistakes in your own work, and may even provide interesting avenues of exploration that you hadn’t thought of previously.

When it comes to your final viva, you also need to demonstrate your own understanding of the context in which your work sits, rather than just your own bit of work; a well-written literature review will help with this, as well as providing a helpful revision tool leading up to your viva.

Of course writing your literature review when you start also means you’ve written a good section of your thesis early on; this will change as you add new literature to it or explore new areas, but you’ll already be partway to a thesis!

How do I get started?

If you’re new to literature searching, it can be a bit daunting.  Take a look at some of the online resources on the University library website, as they’ll give you some useful pointers to get you started.

Start your search broadly before you focus down.  What is the overall context within which you’re working?  At this point you might prefer to read without trying to summarise, so you start to understand the area in general.  When you feel ready to go into more detail, break down your search into key areas and themes; identify which broad topics are likely to be relevant to your PhD work, and the key things you need to know from within these topic areas. 

Remember that your overall thesis should tell a clear story, beginning with the broad problem you’re trying to solve, and working through to the conclusions of what you’ve done.  Your literature review forms the first part of this story, so keep this in mind as you write.

Don’t assume that you’ve finished once you’ve written one or more literature chapters.  Keep an eye out for new literature that’s relevant to your topic as you go through your PhD.  This will help you stay up to date with any new developments in your field, and by this stage you’ll hopefully be (at least partially) reading it for interest’s sake as well as because you have to!

And finally… some top tips!

  • Start as you mean to go on – choose one of the reference databases to manage your references and complete it as you go.  This will make a *huge* difference as you go through your PhD, and will help you to organise and collate your documents.
  • Have a plan before you start!  Structure your literature review with headings and sub-headings.  As you read, move things into these areas.  This will help you to keep things in the right place, but will also prevent you from running off at a tangent to your work.
  • When you find an article that looks interesting, it’s a good idea to read the abstract and conclusions first.  This will give you an idea of whether the content will actually be useful – if it still looks good then you can go back and read through the detail, and if it doesn’t you won’t waste your time reading the rest!
  • Don’t be afraid to question what you read.  Not everything that’s been published is correct and/or well-planned and well-analysed.  Use your own knowledge and experience to help you decide what’s good and what’s not, and discuss with your supervisor(s) if you’re not sure.
  • Keep a record of which search terms you’ve used and in which databases – this will prevent you from duplicating your searches later on.  Don’t forget to try different spellings and alternative words (e.g. colour/color) or make use of * as a wildcard. 
  • Make sure you write your literature review as you read.  This might mean simply summarising each paper in rough form, but if you don’t keep good notes at this stage it will be much harder to write later on.
  • And very importantly… As academics we don’t always get as much time as we’d like to read the most up to date literature.  If you find something interesting during your search, make sure you let your supervisor know – they’ll almost certainly be pleased that you did!

Dr Candice Majewski – Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering and Deputy Head of the Engineering Graduate School

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