Strategies for Planning a Dissertation Literature Review

Develop a Strategy

Unless you are struggling to find a research topic and have decided to cast a wide net to see what you can find that might interest you, your literature search should have a purpose.

If you fall into the former category, you should talk to your supervisor and schedule a research consultation with a librarian to prevent yourself from wasting hundreds of hours of fruitless ‘database diving.’

If you fall into the latter category, you probably already have a topic selected, and your strategy should be to build a dissertation literature review that is comprehensive enough to establish your expertise in the topic. It should also justify the need for the area of focus that you are pursuing, whether that is an identified gap in the research, or the potential for an extrapolation of an existing study.

To Replicate or Not to Replicate

If you think you have identified a gap in the research, your primary concern will be to make sure that no one else identified that gap and conducted the same study that you are proposing to do. If you are looking to replicate a study that was done ten years ago or because the results from that study were counterintuitive, replication becomes less of an issue (unless someone decides to replicate the study as well).

In either event, the last thing you want to be facing in your oral defense of your dissertation is for the examiner to ask you what you thought of Smith and Jones’ 2015 study on the same topic that you didn’t include in your dissertation literature review.

A good review of the relevant literature for your proposed study has to have depth and breadth to establish your expertise and to validate the gap that you think you have identified, but it must also be as current as is physically possible. In other words, you should be checking databases right up to the day you complete your draft submission.

Use the Power of Automation

If you’re immersed in a particularly broad topic, the problem of staying current with the literature can be solved by the use of automation tools that your academic librarian can help you to set up:

  • Keywords – a search algorithm can only be as focused as the words you are searching for. If your search is too vague or generic, the algorithm will return results that are of equal quality.
  • RSS Feeds & Google Alerts – will provide notifications and links to new content that you request by keyword phrase. The information will be sent to you on a schedule that you specify.
  • Journal & Database Alerts – will typically include the Table Of Contents (TOC) for any journal match for the search terms you specify and in some cases include a link to the full text article.

Know Your Limit

The ease with which such alerts can be set-up can be a mixed blessing. If you’re not focused in your search terms and keywords, you will continue to be bombarded with new links on a daily or even hourly basis. That can be very distracting when you’re trying to write your data analysis or conclusions and recommendations for future research. It is important to stay current in the literature, but not at the cost of poor analysis of your data.

Remember, the literature review is about demonstrating your mastery of the material to the extent that you are the logical expert to pursue the research you are proposing. That is done based on quality of material and the analysis of that material. It’s not about reading every piece of research you can lay your hand on.

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