Literature Review

I started, a while ago now, going through the chapters of the thesis. This is the first post in that series, all about how to structure the thesis and what chapters to include. This post, here, is the next step.

If you’ve done what everyone recommends, you have a word processor document open on your computer that says ‘Chapter 1: Introduction’ and nothing else. That’s great. Now tab down to a new page and type ‘Chapter 2: Literature Review’, because this is where you should actually start.

We’ve had the conversation already (again, a while ago) that the introduction should always be written last. The introduction is an intro to your entire thesis, and until you know what the thesis is, you can’t write an intro to it. But that’s all right, because the literature review is actually the easiest chapter to write, and therefore a good place to start.

You can start your literature review chapter(s) whenever you’d like. Some people write them as they go, others write them as they are writing up their theses. Otherwise write smaller versions to start and then combine/expand to create a full chapter.

Your Lit Review should not be your longest chapter, but it might end up being that way. About 10-15% of your thesis is a good game plan, unless you’re in the hard sciences, and then it may very well be less. Your advisor can give you a good idea of what an acceptable length in your department/field is.

There’s a lot to get into a Lit Review. You spent three years (or more) of researching, and you want to try to get all of it into one (or two) chapters.

You can’t. God, you can’t, so don’t try.

A Lit Review is an overview of the research in the field in which you are doing your study. It’s supposed to be general, without being too general (you’re not out to review the entire field of geography, for example, but to review the recent research into¬†volcanology that is relevant to your study*).

You want the Lit Review to demonstrate to your examiners that you have read your way through and around the field, but since at least one of your examiners will likely be in your field, they also don’t want to read an 8000 word rehash of something they have researched themselves. Probably in more depth than you have.

It’s a fine line. Figure out what research is more useful for your study and put that in the Review chapter. The Lit Review is about you showing the recent research, critiquing it, and explaining why that research is important and/or has informed the research you are doing. Either you are building upon what others have done, or you are correcting what another has done, or someone’s work has inspired you to take an entirely new direction that no one else has ever thought of. Whatever it is, your work sits within a larger field, and this is what the Lit Review demonstrates.

Be clear. Don’t waffle. You don’t have the words to waffle. A few paragraphs about each publication/author/research study is enough. It can be good to start slightly wider in the research and then bring the chapter to a more specific focus, finally ending it on why this is all important to what you are doing.

Prove that the research is useful/important/interesting to what you are doing, or don’t bother putting it into the chapter. Your advisor/editor/examiner will just ask you to cut it out. It needs to help you make the case for why your research is important/innovative/unique, otherwise it doesn’t need to be there.

The Lit Review can be a pain to write. But it can also be that easy chapter that gets you started. Because it should not take you a long time. It should not fill your days and nights for months on end. This is a chapter you should really be able to write in a couple of weeks. And then move on. It’s important to your thesis, but it is not your most important chapter. Write it, put it aside, move on. You can come back to it in a few months and add to it (latest research!) or delete words if you find it’s too long.

Don’t stress about this chapter. It’s not the one that examiners are going to call you out on (well, probably not), and it’s not the central focus. Your Lit Review is other people’s work, and you are only putting it in there to show where your work sits within and next to theirs. To prove that your work works within your field.

*This was not my best example ever.