The PhD files: The Literature Review

This week, I’m going to give you a bit of an insight into the literature review which you’re likely to have to complete some time near the start of your PhD research (again, I must add here, mine was an English PhD, so if you’re planning on starting, or are in the process of, anything outside of the humanities, the rules might be different – please don’t blame me if they are). In basic terms, the literature review is exactly what it says on the tin: a review of the critical stuff in your field of research. By the time it’s done, it should give you an idea of whether or not your research idea has legs, or whether you might need (or want) to shift things about now you’ve seen what’s what. I definitely did a LOT of shifting over the course of my research. Remember, don’t worry. It’ll all come together in the end.

I know things can seem a bit overwhelming when you’re faced with the prospect of searching through years and years of publications, but fear not! Take a deep breath, and type your key research terms into your university library’s catalogue. These could be key authors, book titles (if you have them), or even key words which are pertinent to your idea. You don’t have to have everything pinned down, and it’s fine if you’re still a bit vague at this point. Hit enter, and you will be faced with a plethora of books, chapters, and journal articles, all of which could be useful to your initial research. This is where the digging begins! What you’re looking for is texts that are focussed on something similar to your research. Remember, your eventual thesis will be a beautiful, shining, original piece of work; one that has engaged with all of these other scholars, but offers something new to add to the discussion. That’s why you want to root out the good stuff, and see what’s already been said.

It should come as no surprise at this point that the next thing you have to do is read, read, read all of these texts (If this does come as a surprise, you may want to reconsider you choices). Don’t get me wrong, they may not all thrill you, but read them you must. Of course, this early reading will not be all you ever have to do (again, if that shocks you, perhaps you’re in the wrong field), but it is crucial. It helps you to get your footing, bed in your ideas, and even change your perspective. As you read, remember to take plenty of notes, label the important stuff with tons of sticky notes, or even consider starting a ‘Magnificent Planning Chart’ (more on this next time). You want to understand the main points of each text so that you can actually write your review.

Once you have read all that you have researched in this preliminary hunt, made notes, and got the ideas clear in your mind, it’s time to write and review. It may seem laborious, but it is useful. It should help you to see where you might locate yourself in the broad scope of scholarship, and it might even give you an idea of your next step. If you have a helpful supervisor (hopefully, you will), they will suggest useful, exciting texts along the way, and will work with you to form, grow, and shape your ideas.

Remember, your reading will never end as long as you are researching. You may not totally engage with everything in your literature review. You will almost certainly engage with tons more! Your ideas will shift, alter, and change as you read, but it’s all fine. That’s the whole point. If you’re lucky, your reading will excite you, and reinforce the whole reason behind you taking this big research step: because you love it.

If you are working on your literature review, or if you have completed one in the past, I would love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment below. Next week, we will talk about how to order your research ideas (yes, that’s right, it’s the ‘Magnificent Planning Chart’). See you then.

P.S. Should reading this post remind you that you require a willing party to do some proofreading, editing, or transcribing for your writing, you know where I am.

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