Getting a PhD, PhD Milestones, Study Abroad

Secrets for writing a successful literature review

After a few weeks focusing on traveling in Europe, it’s back to being a PhD student this week!

One of the first and probably last milestones you’ll work on in your PhD is the literature review. I say first milestone because within the first six months of starting a PhD, supervisors most likely will ask new students to submit a literature review for their  research topics, which will help them gain an overview of the types of related research that has been conducted and what research is missing or needs to be done.

I also say last milestone because before submitting a thesis, the literature review should be updated to include any new research that has been conducted. After all, you want your References section to have lots of recent publications to show that you know the current state of your research topic!

Based on my own experience and my colleagues’, the literature review is probably the most overlooked section once the main study and analysis has been conducted. Therefore, I offer you some advice when writing your literature review, either as a new PhD student or a PhD student getting ready to submit your thesis.

Here are some things I learned from my experience writing my literature review:

Print out copies of all your literature!

I made the mistake of keeping all my literature organized only digitally because I wanted to save the environment and all the trees I knew would be “wasted” if I printed out all my references. While locating my references was a breeze, actually making connections between papers and writing logical literature sections was extremely difficult.

I knew that I’m someone who works best when I can physically organize and move information around, and seeing my information digitally wasn’t cutting it. I tried using mind-mapping software to make sense of my references, but since each paper had so much information I wanted to remember and keep track of, the mind-map soon became too messy to be useful.

I also started keeping notes on each paper in its own separate word document. However, since all it entailed was copy and pasting from each document, I wasn’t retaining the information, and it was basically a waste of time because I ended up going back to the original paper to reread information to get information in context.

It was only when I was writing-up my thesis that I had run out of ideas and finally decided that my last resort was to print out all my resources – basically what I should have done in the first place! So that’s what I did, all 200+ references that I hadn’t already printed out. Luckily my university has free printing!

PhD research Literature Review Process
All my references printed out!

Organize your literature hard copies based on main topics

Once you’ve printed out all your literature, organize them based on what you think are the main topics. I focused on older and younger adults’ engagement with digital museum artifacts, so I first divided my literature into 1) Target groups (older and younger adults); 2) Engagement (emotion, enjoyment); 3) Museums; 4) Digital museum artifacts; 5) Museum visitor experiences.

I then subdivided these categories into more specific categories when I could. I also had various piles for resources that provided background for my analysis, including  specific methods of measuring the data, papers related to my preliminary study, papers on which I based my main research methodology, and the papers I considered my main resources.

I added colorful tabs to each paper to make it easier to identify the main topics of each publication. As you can see in the photo below, many papers discussed more than one topic, so adding the tabs made it easier to locate papers when I wanted to write about a specific section.

You can make the color of the tabs as specific or as general as you like, of course. I started to make each topic its own color, but as I went along, I had more topics than tab colors, so the colors ended up not being of any significance.

Paris in Boston Literature Review Process
Colorful tabs can provide a clear visual as to what topics each paper discussed

Make notes on all your literature hard copies

After your resources are nicely organized by main topic, it’s time to make notes and highlight important themes. What worked for me was to highlight information within the paper, and also make notes on the first page and include the page number for easier referencing.

I initially didn’t write notes on the front page or the page numbers, which made it difficult to remember where exactly a quote or piece of information was located when I was updating my literature review. Then I later panicked thinking that perhaps I included incorrect information, and if the examiners randomly checked if I referenced papers correctly and I didn’t, I would be in trouble. I went back and double checked that all my references could be traced to the correct reference, down to the page number and location on the page, just in case I needed to justify my resources. Although this was tedious work, it was one less thing to worry about for the defense/viva!

Write your literature review in sections

Finally, let’s get to writing the literature review! Actually, now that all your references are printed out, organized, and well-read, writing should be easy! And it really was for me. The organization and notes provided the clarity that was missing when I only organized everything digitally.

When writing, I just started in one section by going through all the related papers and reading through the notes I made on the first page. I was able to make connections between papers and also see when subsections should be highlighted based on the main topics I listed on the tabs I attached to each paper.

Of course, what’s tricky is the flow of your writing and transitioning from one paragraph to another, but if you’re a PhD student, you’ve probably had a lot of experience writing for conferences and journals. I took advantage of writing skills workshops at my university, plus they also provided writing workshops where someone actually would read students’ papers and give them feedback on their quality. I think once you write your information down, it’s much easier to edit it and improve upon it. Your supervisors also can be a lot of help when it comes to editing your literature review!

Review and edit your literature review

It can’t be stressed enough, but your first draft will not look at all like the literature review that you submit in your thesis, and that’s expected! Your research topic changes, you realize there’s a better way of organizing your literature review, or you think your writing is terrible in your first attempt at your literature review – all these reasons can contribute to the vastly different final copy. It’s important that you leave plenty of time to re-read and edit your literature review, especially to double-check your references.

Trust your writing skills!

However – there’s no right way to write your literature review! Keep this in mind as you edit for the tenth or fifteenth time (as I did….). It’s great to improve a paragraph, but at some point what you’ve written is fine as it relays the information elegantly. Rewriting it only delays your thesis submission. Trust that you’ve done all that you can for your literature review, and if you think of anything after your submission, prepare a response just in case you’re asked about it in your viva.

I hope this guide helps! Do you have to submit your literature review soon? What types of issues have you run into? Please leave your advice in the comments and thanks for reading!!