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The Secret to Writing Your Dissertation Literature Review

Nov 02, 2020

I remember thinking about writing my first literature review and feeling overwhelmed. I kept asking myself:

How am I going to read all the papers?

How will I know when I have read enough papers?

I learned that this thought process leads to a crappy literature review.

So, in this post, I want to discuss three things I have learned that actually will help you write an excellent literature review for your dissertation.

Narrow Your Topic Down

The biggest mistake we make in a literature review is having too broad of a topic.

Too broad of a topic will lead you to read hundreds of articles, writing a disjointed literature review, and wasting your time and energy.

But how do I know when my topic is narrow?

The best literature reviews have a literature story of about 6-12 papers. This is not the total references, but the main story.

Many times you can narrow your topic 2-4 times to get to 6-12 papers. 

In my lit review, I started with ion mobility analysis, which is too large of a field to write a good dissertation lit review on. Therefore, I narrowed my topic to ion mobility analysis of steroids. While this topic might be narrow enough, there are a couple of different things that you can analyze including separations of classes, separations of isomers, and collision cross-section calibration. Therefore, I narrowed one more time to examining ion mobility analysis of steroid isomer separation, which resulted in 6 published papers.

Tell a Story

Your literature review should be a story, not a reference guide.

Telling a story is essential to creating an excellent literature review. In your literature review, have a clear point A to point B with the review covering the story of how the research moved from point A to point B.

In my case, my literature review story went from ion mobility not being used in steroid analysis to ion mobility being added with liquid chromatography, then finally to ion mobility being used alone to measure steroids.

Overall, if there is no story in your literature review, it will be difficult to know when you have sufficient articles in your literature review. It can also be difficult for your reader to follow along.

Background knowledge is important, but it is not a literature review.

We often approach literature reviews like we are writing a book chapter. 

We fill it up with all the background information we know and find, and include the articles that discover this information.

While you need background knowledge in your literature review so people understand your review, your entire literature review should not only be you accounting what you know.

Therefore, think about the structure of any story. You have the character background, the problem, solving the problem, and then a glimpse into the future of the character.

Your literature review should follow this structure, where you give your “character's background” so that the readers can understand what you are talking about when the problem arises.

Then you introduce the problem, which is the gap in the literature. You fill that gap by illustrating how the characters solve the problem, which is your literature story. Then, you hint at where the characters could go next, which is your future directions.

Figure out which part you are struggling with whether it is narrowing your topic, telling a story, or too much background knowledge. Then take action this week to readjust that aspect of your literature review.

If you want to dive deeper with me on your dissertation, I invite you to join my workshop on completing your scientific dissertation to register click here.

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