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The Literature Review: A Guide for Postgraduate Students

The Literature Review: A Guide for Postgraduate Students

This guide provides postgraduate students with an overview of the literature review required for most research degrees. It will advise you on the common types of literature reviews across disciplines and will outline how the purpose and structure of each may differ slightly. Various approaches to effective content organisation and writing style are offered, along with some common strategies for effective writing and avoiding some common mistakes. This guide focuses mainly on the required elements of a standalone literature review, but the suggestions and advice apply to literature reviews incorporated into other chapters.

Please see the companion article ‘The Literature Review: A Guide for Undergraduate Students’ for an introduction to the basic elements of a literature review. This article focuses on aspects that are particular to postgraduate literature reviews, containing detailed advice and effective strategies for writing a successful literature review. It will address the following topics:

  • The purpose of a literature review
  • The structure of your literature review
  • Strategies for writing an effective literature review
  • Mistakes to avoid

The Purpose of a Literature Review

After developing your research proposal and writing a research statement, your literature review is one of the most important early tasks you will undertake for your postgraduate research degree. Many faculties and departments require postgraduate research students to write an initial literature review as part of their research proposal, which forms part of the candidature confirmation process that occurs six months into the research degree for full-time students (12 months for part-time students).

For example, a postgraduate student in history would normally write a 10,000-word research proposal—including a literature review—in the first six months of their PhD. This would be assessed in order to confirm the ongoing candidature of the student.

The literature review is your opportunity you show your supervisor (and ultimately, your examiners) that you understand the most important debates in your field, can identify the texts and authors most relevant to your particular topic, and can examine and evaluate these debates and texts both critically and in depth. You will be expected to provide a comprehensive, detailed and relevant range of scholarly works in your literature review.

In general, a literature review has a specific and directed purpose: to focus the reader’s attention on the significance and necessity of your research. By identifying a ‘gap’ in the current scholarship, you convince your readers that your own research is vital.

As the author, you will achieve these objectives by displaying your in-depth knowledge and understanding of the relevant scholarship in your field, situating your own research within this wider body of work, while critically analysing the scholarship and highlighting your own arguments in relation to that scholarship.

A well-focused, well-developed and well-researched literature review operates as a linchpin for your thesis, provides the background to your research and demonstrates your proficiency in some requisite academic skills.

The Structure of Your Literature Review

Postgraduate degrees can be made up of a long thesis (Master’s and PhD by research) or a shorter thesis and coursework (Master’s by coursework; although some Australian universities now require PhD students to undertake coursework in the first year of their degree). Some disciplines involve creative work (such as a novel or artwork) and an exegesis (such as a creative writing research or fine arts degree). Others can comprise a series of published works in the form of a ‘thesis by publication’ (most common in the science and medical fields).

The structure of a literature review will thus vary according to the discipline and the type of thesis. Some of the most common discipline-based variations are outlined in the following paragraphs.

Humanities and Social Science Degrees

Many humanities and social science theses will include a standalone literature review chapter after the introduction and before any methodology (or theoretical approaches) chapters. In these theses, the literature review might make up around 15 to 30 per cent of the total thesis length, reflecting its purpose as a supporting chapter.

Here, the literature review chapter will have an introduction, an appropriate number of discussion paragraphs and a conclusion. As with a research essay, the introduction operates as a ‘road map’ to the chapter. The introduction should outline and clarify the argument you are making in your thesis (Australian National University 2017), as readers will then have a context for the discussion and critical analysis paragraphs that follow.

The main discussion section can be divided further with subheadings, and the material organised in several possible ways: chronologically, thematically or from the better- to the lesser-known issues and arguments. The conclusion should provide a summary of the chapter overall, and should re-state your thesis statement, linking this to the gap you have identified in the literature that confirms the necessity of your research.

For some humanities’ disciplines, such as literature or history (Premaratne 2013, 236–54), where primary sources are central, the literature review may be conducted chapter-by-chapter, with each chapter focusing on one theme and set of scholarly secondary sources relevant to the primary source material.

Science and Mathematics Degrees

For some science or mathematics research degrees, the literature review may be part of the introduction. The relevant literature here may be limited in number and scope, and if the research project is experiment-based, rather than theoretically based, a lengthy critical analysis of past research may be unnecessary (beyond establishing its weaknesses or failings and thus the necessity for the current research). The literature review section will normally appear after the paragraphs that outline the study’s research question, main findings and theoretical framework. Other science-based degrees may follow the standalone literature review chapter more common in the social sciences.

Strategies for Writing an Effective Literature Review

A research thesis—whether for a Master’s degree or Doctor of Philosophy—is a long project, and the literature review, usually written early on, will most likely be reviewed and refined over the life of the thesis. This section will detail some useful strategies to ensure you write a successful literature review that meets the expectations of your supervisor and examiners.

Using a Mind Map

Before planning or writing, it can be beneficial to undertake a brainstorm exercise to initiate ideas, especially in relation to the organisation of your literature review. A mind map is a very effective technique that can get your ideas flowing prior to a more formal planning process.

A mind map is best created in landscape orientation. Begin by writing a very brief version of your research topic in the middle of the page and then expanding this with themes and sub-themes, identified by keywords or phrases and linked by associations or oppositions. The University of Adelaide provides an excellent introduction to mind mapping.

Planning

Planning is as essential at the chapter level as it is for your thesis overall. If you have begun work on your literature review with a mind map or similar process, you can use the themes or organisational categories that emerged to begin organising your content. Plan your literature review as if it were a research essay with an introduction, main body and conclusion.

Create a detailed outline for each main paragraph or section and list the works you will discuss and analyse, along with keywords to identify important themes, arguments and relevant data. By creating a ‘planning document’ in this way, you can keep track of your ideas and refine the plan as you go.

Maintaining a Current Reference List or Annotated Bibliography

It is vital that you maintain detailed and up-to-date records of all scholarly works that you read in relation to your thesis. You will need to ensure that you remain aware of current and developing research, theoretical debates and data as your degree progresses; and review and update the literature review as you work through your own research and writing.

To do this most effectively and efficiently, you will need to record precisely the bibliographic details of each source you use. Decide on the referencing style you will be using at an early stage (this is often dictated by your department or discipline, or suggested by your supervisor). If you begin to construct your reference list as you write your thesis, ensure that you follow any formatting and stylistic requirements for your chosen referencing style from the start (nothing is more onerous than undertaking this task as you are finishing your research degree).

Insert references (also known as ‘citations’) into the text or footnote section as you write your literature review, and be aware of all instances where you need to use a reference. The literature review chapter or section may appear to be overwhelmed with references, but this is just a reflection of the source-based content and purpose.

The Drawbacks of Referencing Software

We don’t recommend the use of referencing software to help you with your references because using this software almost always leads to errors and inconsistencies. They simply can’t be trusted to produce references that will be complete and accurate, properly following your particular referencing style to the letter.

Further, relying on software to create your references for you usually means that you won’t learn how to reference correctly yourself, which is an absolutely vital skill, especially if you are hoping to continue in academia.

Writing Style

Similar to structural matters, your writing style will depend to some extent on your discipline and the expectations and advice of your supervisors. Humanities- and creative arts–based disciplines may be more open to a wider variety of authorial voices. Even if this is so, it remains preferable to establish an academic voice that is credible, engaging and clear.

Simple stylistic strategies such as using the active—instead of the passive—voice, providing variety in sentence structure and length and preferring (where appropriate) simple language over convoluted or overly obscure words can help to ensure your academic writing is both formal and highly readable.

Reviewing, Rewriting and Editing

Although an initial draft is essential (and in some departments it is a formal requirement) to establish the ground for your own research and its place within the wider body of scholarship, the literature review will evolve, develop and be modified as you continue to research, write, review and rewrite your thesis. It is likely that your literature review will not be completed until you have almost finished the thesis itself, and a final assessment and edit of this section is essential to ensure you have included the most important scholarship that is relevant and necessary to your research.

It has happened to many students that a crucial piece of literature is published just as they are about to finalise their thesis, and they must revise their literature review in light of it. Unfortunately, this cannot be avoided, lest your examiners think that you are not aware of this key piece of scholarship. You need to ensure your final literature review reflects how your research now fits into the new landscape in your field after any recent developments.

Mistakes to Avoid

Some common mistakes can result in an ineffective literature review that could then flow on to the rest of your thesis. These mistakes include:

  • Trying to read and include everything you find on your topic. The literature review should be selective as well as comprehensive, examining only those sources relevant to your research topic.
  • Listing the scholarship as if you are writing an annotated bibliography or a series of summaries. Your discussion of the literature should be synthesised and holistic, and should have a logical progression that is appropriate to the organisation of your content.
  • Failing to integrate your examination of the literature with your own thesis topic. You need to develop your discussion of each piece of scholarship in relation to other pieces of research, contextualising your analyses and conclusions in relation to your thesis statement or research topic and focusing on how your own research relates to, complements and extends the existing scholarship.

Writing the literature review is often the first task of your research degree. It is a focused reading and research activity that situates your own research in the wider scholarship, establishing yourself as an active member of the academic community through dialogue and debate. By reading, analysing and synthesising the existing scholarship on your topic, you gain a comprehensive and in-depth understanding, ensuring a solid basis for your own arguments and contributions. If you need advice on referencing, academic writing, time management or other aspects of your degree, you may find Capstone Editing’s other resources and blog articles useful.

References

Australian National University. 2017. ‘Literature Reviews’. Last accessed 28 March. http://www.anu.edu.au/students/learning-development/research-writing/literature-reviews.

Premaratne, Dhilara Darshana. 2013. ‘Discipline Based Variations in the Literature Review in the PhD Thesis: A Perspective from the Discipline of History’. Education and Research Perspectives 40: 236–54.