For many people, the literature review is the hardest part of a doctoral-level dissertation report. In fields such as the social sciences and statistics, individuals who are talented in their fields of study may not have quite such an easy time with the skills required to create a really solid literature review. Of course, an effective graduate program will have trained its doctoral candidates in the necessary activities, including research, academic writing, and organization of ideas. Nevertheless, many otherwise solid dissertations end up lacking in overall quality due to a mediocre literature review.
Why Are Literature Reviews Important?
The literature review situates your work in the relevant academic, scientific, and professional contexts. This is important because, in order to have any impact, the research you do needs to be part of a cultural conversation that takes place among everyone working in your area and related areas. If you don't locate your own work within this conversation, you risk being ignored, no matter how important your work is otherwise. As an analogy, consider a conversation among a group of people at a coffee shop.
According to acceptable rules of social interaction, each individual speaks when he or she can find an opportune moment and when what he or she has to say fits into the overall structure and flow of the conversation. If someone says something out of nowhere, or if the other people at the table don't understand how it's related, they will probably pass over the comment altogether. In rare instances, if the comment is interesting enough, they might try to find out how it is relevant, but unless it's something truly new, this isn't likely to happen.
How to Structure the Literature Review
Luckily, writing a really good literature review is not as daunting as it might seem, and by following a few guidelines and approaching the review in manageable chunks, you can create an excellent product that bolsters the quality and credibility of your report as a whole. In a basic sense, the literature review is just a research paper. In your undergraduate and graduate studies, you have probably written a large number of research papers, so you should be familiar with them.
Usually, you are presented with a topic and you must research that paper and write a report presenting and synthesizing your research. The trouble with applying this to literature reviews is that the topic is very broad and no one will provide you with a specific topic. Of course, the general topic of the review is the same as the topic of your doctoral research. What doctoral candidates often don't understand is how to structure the more specific points within this broad topic.
What to Include in the Literature Review
In deciding what to cover in your literature review, start by making a list of your variables. If you are doing empirical research, this should be easy, as your variables should be determined by your research proposal. In other types of research, this may be more difficult, but should be no trouble if you stick to listing the most important topics and subtopics. This list can serve as a very rough initial outline of your literature review. You will need to synthesize all the existing literature related to each of the variables or topics you have listed. In addition, you may be required by your institution to include research related to methodology.
How to Make the Literature Review Flow
Of course, it isn't enough to have a series of short essays on the literature related to each subtopic you select for your outline. It is crucial for your literature review to be a single, cohesive whole, rather than a series of disjointed sections. This is probably the most difficult aspect for those who aren't accomplished writers. In order to make sure that your literature review flows, consider at every step of the writing process how what you are writing relates to your study.
It's important to frequently remind the reader of exactly how and why each item of literature that you review is relevant to your own project. Additionally, in the introduction, summary, and transitions, think about the broad picture that you'd like the literature review to create in the reader's mind. This will help you build a cohesive paper that updates the reader on the state of the field you are working in, shows a clear need for your study, and explains why your study is an important contribution.
Consider Investing in a Professional Editor
Taking this advice into consideration will greatly improve the quality of your literature review and your dissertation as a whole. Of course, because this document is so important to your education and to your career, it is worthwhile to invest in a professional editor or consultant to help you polish the final version. Many universities have writing centers for this purpose, but an outside opinion can often be useful as well. Above all, don't assume, as many erroneously do, that the literature review is a required but unimportant element of the dissertation. In many ways, the literature review is the most important part of all.