Dissertation Literature Review


You really want to get to the exciting part of your dissertation – your own research study. Unfortunately, there is that dissertation literature review staring you in the face. And you are dreading it because it is just like writing another research paper. Only this time, it is a bit tougher. You are going to have to read a lot of abstracts, review a lot of studies, and many of them will end up being “dead ends.”

There is no getting around this. The literature review will take a lot of your time, and you may become resentful. Chin up! You’ll get through it, and no one is telling you that you cannot start your research project at the same time.

Finding a Topic That Best Represents You
  • 1

    Make Sure Your Search is Comprehensive. Fortunately, you have access, through your institution, to a comprehensive database of research studies, both in the form of other dissertations or journal articles. Your job is to craft the right keywords/phrases that will bring up the most relevant works for you to review.

  • 2

    Read the Abstracts. You can narrow your search by reading the abstracts of the studies your search turned up. Identify those that seem to most relate to your research question. Those are the studies that you will pull to review in full.

  • 3

    Print them Out. You will want a hard copy of the works you intend to use in your literature review. This will allow you to highlight parts, to put notes in the margins, etc. as you study them.

  • 4

    Organize Your Literature into “Themes” or Sub-Sections. Your research question has smaller sub-sections. If, for example, you are studying the effectiveness of a differentiated program for at-risk students, you may have some literature that addresses the criteria for identification of this population; you may have literature that speaks to other successful programs. Get your literature organized into these, so that you can present your summary, theme-by-theme.

  • 5

    Write Your Chapter Theme-by-Theme. Each sub-section of this chapter should be composed as a mini-research paper. You will have a thesis statement that relates to the data to be presented in each section. Be very careful about your citations.

  • 6

    Take a Breath and Review. Once you finish each section of that literature review, take a day or so and re-read it for purposes of editing. And once you complete the entire chapter, be certain to take it to your advisor and perhaps another trusted peer.

Points to Think About
  • 1

    Writing a dissertation literature review is tedious, but it has to be done right. If you miss an important, relevant study, your own work will be diminished.

  • 2

    Organization is the key to a good literature review. Even the sequence in which you present your themes/sub-sections may be important.

  • 3

    Citation is critically important – follow your department guidelines for format style.

Do and Don`t
  • Choose your keywords carefully. They will pull up the research studies that will be most relevant
  • Do review the abstracts carefully. You want to pull studies that really relate to your research question.
  • Do be certain that you divide the literature by themes or sub-sections
  • Do develop a thesis statement for each sub-section that is supported by the data you will be presenting
  • Do write the review one section at a time and review one section at a time
  • Don’t go overboard on resources, just because you want to impress. Quality trumps quantity. If two studies are duplicates, choose the more recent one.
  • Don’t forget to have a thesis statement for the entire review in your introduction
  • Don’t ignore conflicting evidence from two studies. Show how you will address it
  • Don’t procrastinate on this chapter. Yes, it is un-exciting. But the faster you get it done, the happier you will be.
  • Don’t submit this chapter to your advisor in imperfect condition. Make sure it is polished
Mistakes to Avoid
  • Students may go into this chapter without really know how to write a dissertation literature review. It is like a research paper, yes, but more like several mini-research papers. Studying literature reviews of other dissertations will provide models for structure of this chapter.
  • Some students do not dig deeply enough into the research and may miss important studies that should be included in the review. Err on the side of searching by a larger number of keywords and phrases and review each abstract carefully.
  • Ignoring studies with conflicting results does not make those results go away. You need to address those and state how your research may contribute to a resolution.
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