September 01, 2015

My current literature review journey

The literature review is an extensive early thesis chapter to write: it’s not simply a list of books and research papers that you have read and it’s most certainly not an annotated bibliography but an extensive, detailed analysis and synthesis of existing literature. The objectives of the literature review are: contextualise your research, provide appropriate theoretical and logical grounding for the research, analyse literature, synthesis and connect literature findings, identify and present gaps in the literature, and give the opportunity to present a developed argumentation for the need of the research: its research questions, the general themes to explore, the methods, and overall methodology along with the assumptions that you are making. The chapter structure and contents will obviously differ from research to research and it has to be up to you in agreement with your supervisor to confirm a structure that is most relevant.

Having already started the Literature Review, it has been found that the process for collecting, analysing, evaluating and storing literature to be used in the thesis is more advanced that what is expected for a typical Master’s Thesis. For a start, at Master’s Degree level you are not expected to document to a significant detail your search methods or the way that you have evaluated literature for relevance to research, but at Ph.D. level you are expected to document this process to a fairly detailed level. Knowing and documenting the whole process of literature search, identification, selection and evaluation is also important for the Upgrade assessment where you need to prove the worth of your research through a several thousand words report and presentation so those of you who are just starting your Ph.D. might be worth keeping that in mind when you begin your literature searching.

The best advice that I can give at this time is start writing notes about what you read very early in the process (if you have not started your Ph.D. but are in the process of applying you should have already started your reading anyway, so keep written notes) and this includes what search terms you use, what sources you have used to gather your literature, your mechanism of evaluating literature for relevance, and your storage procedures. All this takes time to document properly, so make sure you have an effective systematic process in place early so that you’re not spending lots of time later trying to find out and remember everything! Detailing all your search methods, evaluation criteria, and so on, shall inform your Ph.D. supervisor and the assessment committee of where you obtained your literature, and that your ideas and research have not been built on an ad hoc, informal basis. Again this is important for the Upgrade process.

The journey towards a competed literature review is therefore different for each Ph.D. candidate and therefore it depends on the context of the research and the research methodology, as from what I have been reading so far each research methodology influences the design of the literature review so it is quite important to be able to as best as possible decide on your research methodology early so that the literature review can be appropriate for the methodology.

Not only that but there are also various types of literature reviews that can be written, from the less structured narrative synthesis up to the advanced and structured critical interpretive synthesis and all points in between. I’ve been considering critical interpretive synthesis for quite some time but because I’ve decided upon a particular research methodology I don’t believe that a critical interpretive synthesis shall work properly but is something that I shall be needing to investigate further in the next few weeks. However, regardless of the type of literature review I shall be writing I do like the rigorous structure of literature searching and evaluating that is used by critical interpretive synthesis so I have adopted that for my own research.

So, what advice can I give so far during this relatively early journey in the literature review construction process? It must not be considered as a slap dash list of unconnected narration of existing literature: this is a serious piece of writing that shall take months to construct (actually, it should be an ongoing and ever developing document throughout your time on your Ph.D. as a role of a researcher is to keep constantly up to date therefore it should be your role as a Ph.D. candidate to ensure that your literature review is as up to date as possible upon thesis submission) and is the chapter that proves the need and worth of your research. Remember, there is no other person who knows your ideas and research better than yourself, but you need to communicate these ideas and the need for these ideas effectively, and the literature review provides you with this opportunity to do so. If you get the literature review wrong then it’s not going to tally up with the rest of the thesis and it won’t be easy to refer back to it and explain the way that it acts as an input to the rest of the thesis. Get to know the types of literature reviews that you can write early and try to align the type of literature review with the research methodology. Get this right and start thinking about this from the very beginning if not before you actually start your Ph.D.

This is an ongoing process with my own journey and is something that will be seriously considered during the next few weeks, months (er, years) now that the first year introductory research modules have now been completed.

Happy reading and writing!

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